Domestication: How Will It Work?

Apparently there was a thread about this on the old fora, but I couldn’t find itvin my admittedly brief search, and no one else has started it here yet. So I thought, “Why not me?”

So, how do we all think animal and plant domestication should/will work, when it becomes relevent? I’ve got my own ideas on the subject, which I’ve been discussing on and off on the Discord for the past few days, but I’d like to hear a bit from the rest of the community, and especially the devs first.

I already commented on discord about my ideas but I’ll briefly go over them here as well. Basically you could edit things that you are domesticating with the editor but you could only make small changes as you would be given only a few mutation points.


Domestication is an interesting topic. Jared Diamond wrote a book called “Guns, Germs and Steel” to try to answer the question “why was Europe more technologically advanced than the Americas when they came into contact?” A large part of his answer was around agriculture.

Diamond identifies six criteria including the animal being sufficiently docile, gregarious, willing to breed in captivity and having a social dominance hierarchy.

Smaller domesticable animals such as dogs, cats, chickens, and guinea pigs may be valuable in various ways to an agricultural society, but will not be adequate in themselves to sustain large-scale agrarian society. An important example is the use of larger animals such as cattle and horses in plowing land, allowing for much greater crop productivity and the ability to farm a much wider variety of land and soil types than would be possible solely by human muscle power. Large domestic animals also have an important role in the transportation of goods and people over long distances, giving the societies that possess them considerable military and economic advantages.

I think it would be possible to try to write a classifier which could look at any species and tell you how good it was for domestication. Then we could take that info and offer advantages to any civilization that has these animals.

I like what you’re saying @hhyyrylainen about being able to make some changes to them over time.

Okay, let me stop you right there. I’ll admit to being biased on the subject, I take a lot of my cues on this from the Alternate History dot com forum, where, among those doing timelines starting in the stone age and involving alternate cradles of civilization, Diamond is considered somewhere in the realms of Sigmund Freud: he has some good points, and he’s not a bad place to start, but he makes a lot of errors and assumptions which don’t all hold out.

Most notable, are his criteria for large domesticates. The best things to really look at, are proximity; diet; temperament fits in there somewhere, but overall isn’t really that important, as it varies across individuals; breeding and maturation rates; and potential usefulness, in both directions. If we’re looking at the large ones, we notice a few trends: horses, deer, caribou/reindeer, cows/bulls, water buffalo, llamas, alpacas, camels, they’re all herbivores, specifically grass eaters, you can throw in goats and sheep to that lot too. Human agriculture is very grain centered, and grains are really all just grass seeds. Only one, possibly two domesticates predate agriculture, it’s notable that both of them are carnivores, but are overall less picky eaters than us, dogs and cats can and will eat just about any part of the animal, including parts that we won’t touch. The big thing is, that our diets don’t compete with our animals, for the most part, we can feed them things we can’t eat, or don’t want, and we propagate foods they like to eat. This is important.

Further, breeding and maturation rates are vary fast for all domesticated animals, in human terms. Cows reach sexual maturity in two years, and have relatively short gestations, as well as not infrequent multiple births. Compare to elephants, which take fifteen to twenty years, and a two year gestation, almost never have multiple births, and live for seventy years. Goats, sheep, llamas, horses, the maturation and gestation rates are all pretty close. The upper end for gestation is probably not too much longer than our own, and maturation… three years is probably pushing it unless the animal has nany, very obvious uses. In addition, we’re hunters, even after agriculture, we like eating meat, so when surpluses lead to population densities significantly higher than hunter-gatherers, we’re still hunting. Slower reproducing animals can’t handle the increased stresses on the population, and get locally extincted near centers of agricultural production. Most domestications, animal or plant, occur at edgelands rather than heartlands, the edges of where plants can survive, where we might actively try to encourage them, the edges of civilization, where the animals are continually replenished from areas beyond our easy reach. This is part of why there are so many domestic birds, they’re hard to kill off locally since they can fly in from anywhere. Also explaining the dompestication of guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils and other rodents, they breed too quickly to kill off, these birds and vermin eat our scraps, leftovers, things that attract predatory scavengers, things too small to care about, and in doing so provide free meat, as well as pushing out other, for whatever reason less desireable vermin.

Now onto the sticky issue of temperament. It plays a role, I can’t deny that. But, I have to bring up that behavior, even in animals is only partially genetic and inborn. There is no ethereal, wild, untameable soul inherent to the species of zebra, or cheetahs. People, including Diamond I believe, have often asked, “If horses were domesticated, why not Zebras?” Diamond’s theory explains this rather neatly, zebras are too skittish, solitary, and aggressive, compared to the wild ancestors of horses, they also lack a hierarchical herd or family structure. The problem with this explanation, is that it is false. While we don’t have any true wild populations of horses to compare to, wild horses are universally descended from escaped domestics, we can make fairly accuturate estimations. Wild horses and zebras were probably very much alike, zebras do in fact lack a heirarchy, but many other domestic animals do as well, at least among half of their populations. Most large domesticate hierarchies only really apply to the males, with their dominance displays, which are usually only really relevant during mating season. Horses are rather the exception, with all members of the herd following a lead mare, selected in a manner admittedly unknown to myself.

I should perhaps now point out the differences between domestication and taming. Certainly any animal can be tamed, but taming is a distinctly individual process, something done on a case at a time, perhaps thousands or millions of times, but still individually. Asian and african elephants both have been tamed, in India for many centuries, perhaps milennia, but they are not domesticated… yet, there’s some room for debate on them. On the other hand, no one has or should claim.that lions are domesticated, and we have records of tame ones going back two and a half thousand years.

Ya know, I walked away from this to make lunch, and now have no idea what else I was going to add. I guess the rant is now over.

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If temperament isn’t sufficient how would you explain that Zebras are not domesticated?

There are a few things involved there.

  1. There was no large scale or intensive agricultural civilization in the ranges of zebras until near-modern times. The Bantu were in their range, but their agriculture was based mostly (I think, I’m having a hard time digging up the information on the internet…) of a root vegetable (possibly true yams, but I could be mixing that up), millet, potentially a type of sorghum, and later, bananas. Now of these, millet, and sorghum are grains, therefore grasses, which zebras would love. But the Bantu did not initially intersect their range, not really expanding into it until three to two thousand years ago, limiting their opportunities.

  2. Zebras are at the higher edge for breeding and maturation. Females reach sexual maturity at sround three, males at about six. Females are generally more important in this regard, but the two ages combine to reduce the likelihood. Females also have a low or nonexistant rate of multiple births, and a relatively long gestation, around 8-10 months, resulting in raising around one foal a year at the fastest.

  3. Lack of need. Connected to point one, not too long into the Bantu migrations, they adopted cattle from Cushitic and Nilotic peoples in their path. This gave them a strong draft animal, meat, and milk, which they rapidly developed and spread the tolerance for. In modern times, with history to back us up riding animals seems an obvious step or reason for domesticating. All our dreams of domestic bears and rhinos and lions revolve around images of men in armor riding them around a medieval battlefield. The problem is, it’s not that obvious a step, or in some cases even practical. Animals are not designed to be ridden, not by nature, not by us, until relatively late in domestication. We’d been eating, dinking the milk of, and using the draft labor of horses for a couple thousand years before anyone thought of riding them (at least as adults, they probably shoved kids up there all the time to keep them from whining about long walks…). Moving on from the Bantu, why didn’t the Europeans try? Well… they did, haphazardly and halfheartedly, but a few rich crazies with too much time and money did tame zebras and attempt to domesticate them. This obviously failed, seemingly putting a large dent in my idea, but let’s look closely. Europeans at this point have access to and knowledge of a truly enormous pool of large domestic animals. So anything new is in direct competition with any and all alternatives. Zebras would pretty neatly slot into the space of horses, and is there a reason to replace horses in Africa? Lo and behold, tsetse flies and the sleeping sickness they carry is lethal to horses. Even better zebras are immune! But, from the perspective of the Europeans, this is the only advantage they have. Once they discovered that horses and zebras could produce viable hybrid offspring, they bid adieu to any serioys attempts at domestication. The effort is too great, the reward too little, zevras are not a viable replacement for the work and efgorts of millennia of horse breeding that came before.

There does seem to be an odd pattern with domestic animals, regionally, after either the acquisition of a domestic, or the creation of one, there seems to be a pretty consistent gap of 500-1000 years before a new one can be created, for larger ones at least, though you can always import. If the Bantu had moved earlier, or the Europeans came later, by a thousand years either way, perhaps the zebra would have been domesticated.

God, I just realized that I get increasingly snarky the closer I get to the end of my posts, the longer ones at least… apologies.


It seems quite a few people have tried to domesticate Zebras and failed, citing temperament as the main problem. I agree that these attempts are not on the same scale as that for domesticating horses.

It’s not something I know so much about, your criteria are interesting.

I think these days, the main problems are that we really don’t need anymore domestic animals, we just think it would be cool, and we’re too used to already domestic animals. With industrialization, the only things we really still use animals for are food, clothing, and sports, so the need is just not there. In addition, anything we might try to domesticate is going to be competing with our other domesticates, not just the reality, but our conceptions and expectations of them, and they will continue to fall short. There have been successful domestications in the past few centuries, but they’ve almost universally been for their use as pets rather than anything else, Russian silver foxes, the domestic hedghog, goldfish, the former two have been in the last 75 years. There’s a reason that civilizations stopped domesticating, it wasn’t the possibilities that were lacking, but the need stopped outweighing the potential benefits.
Elephants are described as demi-domesticated, because they are taken from the wild and tamed so often, but their lifespan inhibits any concerted efforts. Give it a few centuries, and we could have a distinct breed until really modern times no one would have the will snd ability to put that much effort.
Of course, the modern environmental conservation movement may result in a number of accidental domestications as they attempt to prevent extinctions, I’m looking at pandas with a heavy eye.

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