People for decades believed in the myth of the rabbit domestication.

Original author: Ed Yong
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Scientists do not know when rabbits became home - and are not even sure that such a question can be answered

In popular articles and scientific papers it is often mentioned that French monks first domesticated rabbits in 600 AD. In those days, Pope Gregory I the Great allegedly issued a decree that newborn rabbits are not considered meat, as a result of which Christians could eat them during Lent. They became a popular delicacy, and the hungry monks began to breed them. Their work has turned wild, lively European rabbits into domesticated animals capable of carrying people.

This is the story that Greger Larson of Oxford University heard when they first began studying domestic rabbits. Almost a whim, he asked his student Evan Irwin-Pisa to find a reference to this fact in the Vatican so that it could be quoted. “I said: I’m sure there is an edict, or something like that,” Larson tells me. “Evan returned a couple of weeks later, and said: A little problem, it doesn't exist.”

Irwin-Pease traced all the links to the story with Pope Gregory and all the links to these links. He found a whole network of confusion, inaccuracies and embellishments. For example, Charles Darwin himself suggested that rabbits were domesticated during the time of Confucius, because this sage considered them, according to Darwin, “to belong to animals, worthy to be sacrificed to the gods.” But Confucius never wrote about rabbits.

Two other authors, F. E. Zoner and H. Nachsteim [FE Zeuner and H. Nachtsteim], were even more guilty. This duet distorted the story told by St. Gregory of Tours in the sixth century. This is a story about a man who fell ill at the moment when he threatened to plunder the city of Tours.. Allegedly, this man ate young rabbits during Great Lent — as a result, according to Gregory, he died because of the divine retribution. Zoner and Nahstaym misunderstood much of the story, and their misinterpretation led to the emergence of the modern myth of Pope Gregory. It was not the papal verdict, but simply the story of one person. And this story clearly did not approve of eating rabbits during Lent. It did not say anything about the popularity of such food. Also sv. Gregory of Tours and Pope Gregory the Great are two different people.

And yet, due to the incorrect interpretation of Zoner and Nahsteym, and the people who mechanically follow them, the legend of the pope accidentally domesticated rabbits has become a generally accepted fact. Such was the source of the species due to natural selection. “This is a wonderful myth, successfully supported by the constant non-critical distribution in the initial paragraphs of many works on the domestication of rabbits,” says Larson.

So what is the real story of rabbit domestication? “We don't have that,” says Larson.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Spain and France have eaten rabbits since the time of the epipaleolit, between 20,000 and 10,500 years ago. In the Middle Ages, they turned into high-status food, and people began to transport them across Europe. But it's hard to tell when this happened, because, as Irwin-Pease and Larson put it, “invading rabbits is archaeological stratigraphy.” Simply put: it is difficult to know whether the found rabbit bone originated from an ancient rabbit, or from a recently existed there.

Genetic studies do little to help. Theoretically, it should be possible to compare the genomes of wild and domestic rabbits living today, measure how different they are, and work out the question of how much time they would take to develop these differences. Using this approach, Larson estimated that the common ancestor of domestic rabbits separated from wild ones between 12,200 and 17,700 years ago. These dates seem too distant, and there are two problems with them.

First, for such calculations it is necessary to know how quickly the rabbit's DNA changes over time - and the scientists made four excellent estimates of this velocity, which differ greatly from each other. Secondly, it is possible that Larson and the team chose the wrong population of wild rabbits, which did not actually occur from the same group from which the domestic ones originated. Larson thinks that's probably the point.

This should not be such a difficult problem. Rabbits were domesticated relatively recently, and yet neither history, nor archeology, nor genetics can accurately indicate this point. “There is clear genetic evidence that domestic rabbits are closely related to wild rabbits in France, from which they mostly originated,” says Miguel Carnerio of CIBIO, who recently spent hisgenetic research of rabbits. “But the moment, the motivation and the underlying process are still not clearly understood.”

Larson believes that this is because people misunderstand domestication in the form of a single event. “At first, everything goes unchanged, and then something suddenly changes like a bolt from the blue, and after that everything becomes different,” says Larson. - On this built many of our stories. But if you are looking for a certain moment of domestication, you will not find it. He will slip out of your fingers. ”

The domestication is a process, not a moment. People hunted rabbits tens of thousands of years ago. They moved wild animals around the Mediterranean. The Romans kept them in livestock pens called leporaria. Medieval Britons kept them in “pillow mounds” - heaps of soil that served as earthen cells. Then they used real cells. As a result, we began to breed them as pets. These actions do not represent a moment in which the rabbits jumped over the domestication threshold. But in general, they show how wild rabbits became domesticated.

Therefore, Larson says that "when" is the wrong question in relation to domestication. He also does not like the question "why." Many stories about domestication represent people as protagonists with clear intentions, kidnapping animals from the wild and breeding them for some purpose. The myth of Pope Gregory ideally superimposes on this platform, which is why, in particular, it has existed for so long.

The problem is that there is no clear evidence that people intentionally domesticated anyone (except, perhaps, with the option of domestic foxes who were bred for scientific purposes). There is no unambiguous case when people caught a wild animal with a clear goal to domesticate it. Instead, for example, wild wolves, most likely, in search of food were attracted by the hunt of people or heaps of food debris, eventually developing a more tolerant attitude that led to their transformation into dogs. Likewise, mice attracted our granaries, and cats attracted mice. “In the domestication there is no question why,” says Larson. “This refers to a certain direction which, apparently, does not exist.”

“This is a co-evolutionary process that is very difficult to break apart,” says Melinda Zeder., an archaeologist from the Smithsonian Institution. - We do not consider situations like or-or. We need to understand the stages by which humans and rabbits come together. Until then, we will not understand domestication. Until then, we will simply write banal articles [ wordplay - fluff pieces can be translated as "banal articles", or as "fluffy lumps" / approx. trans. ].

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