How Animal Domestication Works

The Birds and the Bees: Uses of Other Animals
Workers harvesting silkworm cocoons in China
Workers harvesting silkworm cocoons in China
Keren Su/Stone Collection/Getty Images

People have been able to domesticate a variety of other animals that provide numerous other functions for us. These include:

  • Chickens & Roosters: Perhaps first domesticated for the entertainment value in cockfighting, roosters and hens didn't produce eggs very frequently until people further domesticated them for this purpose [source: Encyclopedia Britannica].
  • Turkeys: American Indians in what is now Mexico probably first domesticated the turkey, and Europe was unfamiliar with the animal until the 16th Century. As one of the few domesticated animals indigenous to America, it makes sense that Americans celebrate Thanksgiving by eating this bird.
  • Bees: Before the 19th century, people relied on honey as the main source of sweetness. They got this honey from beehives, and, needless to say, they had to risk multiple stings to attain it. Eventually, people were able to domesticate bees by drawing them in to make their home in rudimentary, man-made beehives. In the 19th century, Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth significantly advanced the structure of the beehive to allow for more efficient honey production methods.
  • Silkworms: Silkworms produce cocoons for the eggs that humans can use to make silk. Historians think the production of silk started in China around 3000 B.C., revealing that people must have begun domesticating the silkworm around this time.
  • Rabbits: By the first century B.C., people were using ferrets to flush rabbits out of their homes in the ground. Medieval French monks later domesticated rabbits and raised them for food.
  • Hamsters: The origin of domesticated hamsters dates back only to 1930, when a mother and a batch of baby hamsters were caught in Syria. At first, people recognized the value of hamsters in scientific experiments and later as pets. If you know much about the rapid reproduction rate of hamsters, you probably won't be surprised to learn that the whole population of domesticated hamsters derives from this one single family [source: History World].

Some of the animals included in the previous list arguably aren't "domesticated" at all. Authorities in the subject, such as Jared Diamond, use a strict definition of domestication, which only includes animals whose genetic makeup has changed from their ancestors so to allow humans to manipulate their breeding and diet. We can still tame individual animals to do what we need them to do without altering their inheritable nature. For instance, even though Hannibal famously crossed the Alps on elephants, Diamond argues that elephants can only be called tamed because they never formed a whole new species through the domestication process.

Nevertheless, many sources, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, use a broad definition of domestication to include animals like the ones we've discussed on this page.

For much more information on animals, explore the links on the next page.

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