Tamed: ten species that changed our world

The strong autumn sun shines powerfully on the hills in front of me. Yellows, oranges, reds, and browns light up in a dazzling array of hues, as if the trees themselves are on fire. Three horses munch grass in a field below, oblivious to the beautiful display around them. Silence surrounds everything.

Suddenly, my neighbour’s dog barks, snapping me back to life. I turn around and see my very cheeky looking children, with big smiles on their faces, covered in flour. Hands. Jumpers. Face. There seems to be more flour out of the mixing bowl than in it. Fortunately they have done a good job at mixing together the flour and butter to make the pastry. And there is still enough. Soon the sweet, mouth-watering smell of apple pie will float through the rooms in our house.

Horses. Flour. Dogs. Apples. It’s truly astonishing how many species we use in our every day lives. We take it for granted, but these everyday species were, and still are, key to our very survival. When did we domesticate these key species? How did we? What made us chose them, or did they choose us?

These questions and much more are discussed in Professor Alice Roberts latest book, Tamed: Ten species that changed our world.

A rather excited blogger with his copy of Tamed to review. (Photo by author using a camera balanced on a shelf. 10 second timer. Best photo out of 8 taken.)

This book is an utter delight. Focusing on ten different animals and plants, including ourselves, Roberts traces back the origins for the first evidence we have for domesticating these species. From rice to wheat and horses to cows, we find out how important they were to our survival at key events in human history. It’s not an easy story to tell, but the text is clearly written, and there is a charming poetry to her writing throughout.

The domestication of species, or taming of nature, is simple for us to think about today. We see farms full of sheep, chickens and cows. They are tamed. Millennia ago, it was a different story. The first tamed species was likely a horrendous process of trial and error: hope and disappointment. Roberts tracks the very first evidence for taming these animals in the archaeological record: tiny smears of horse milk on thousand year old broken pottery, signs of a single seed. The archaeology is fascinating and sometimes frustrating because there are natural gaps in what has been preserved, or even sites we have visited.

Horses, for example, should be extinct. They are one of the few remaining mega-fauna still with us today. They were food for humans and most archaeological sites have butchered horse bones. Unlike the woolly mammoths in Europe, or the giant sloths in the Americas, they survived. And there are millions of horses on Earth today. Sometime around 5000 years ago is evidence of horses being tamed close to the Caspian Sea. Bones and residual enzymes from horse milk hint at taming the beast. Milk, food, helping with farming, or just the simple reason that someone jumped onto the back of a horse and rode them, changed the fate of this big beast.

Ice age horses played a key part in the survival of humans in Europe. (Art © Tabitha Patterson)

Clues in the ground give tantalising hints about the first sites of taming the wild. Roberts goes even further, and explores the very building stones of species. Each chapter examines the latest genetic evidence to help answer the riddle of the first tamed animal or plant. I like how it sometimes agrees with the archaeological evidence, and sometimes throws up surprises. Actually the genes that make up our tamed species today show that the road to being tamed was not simple, and in some cases may have been accidental. There are over 7,500 different varieties of apples today. Getting to the core of taming the forbidden fruit needed genetics. And it turns out that although apples have been growing in China for over 2 million years, the ‘tamed’ apples have a huge genetic diversity and show that they are a mix of those Chinese fruits and crab apples. As they spread west they pollinated with wild crab apples. Hybrids like this are seen with wheat, rice and potatoes making the ‘original’ source more complicated than simple.

There are other fantastic quirks to the book too. We find out how the tamed species spread across the globe. The first potatoes from the Americas, to the first apples to the Americas, there are wonderful stories about how these different species are so important in more recent history and the effect they had. Although the famous forbidden fruit in the story of the Garden of Eden is said to be an apple, Roberts shows why actually this isn’t the case. These little links to more recent history, ones were are familiar with, gives each chapter a delightful knowledge burst.

What is a wonderful treat is how each chapter delves into the evidence from the archaeology and the genetics, yet it is cautious to say exactly when and how that very first animal or plant was tamed. It’s a treat because we are normally told that this this or that happened. The taming of nature is not so clear. We can imagine someone 10,000 years ago planting a seed, but as much as the genetics and the evidence in the ground can tell us, we can never know why that person did. We know they did because we see it all around us every day. That legacy of a single person or small group of people lives on today, and was, and still is, vital to the survival of our species.

I have only one qualm with the book – it isn’t really a qualm, more of me being a little spoilt and wanting a little more. As well as a wonderful science writer and scientist, Roberts is also a gorgeous artist. Each chapter begins with the usual title, as would any book. Tamed is different. Above the chapter title are beautiful illustrations of the species about to be discussed. Three blades of wheat. An aurochs skull. Hand drawn in ink, they speak so many words. It would have been wonderful to have seen some more illustrations supporting the text. I can imagine Roberts’ drawings of where the Fertile Crescent is, or some different dog breeds, and they are gorgeous. For some parts of the book illustrations would help the reader visualise the places, or even the genetics, nicely.

I loved this book. I loved the stories, the information. But what I loved most was the message of the book: how to preserve what we have before we lose it forever. Humans have a massive impact on the plant, both locally and globally. With an enormous population of over 8 billion people, we need food to survive. That food is the tamed species we reply on. And they need space to live so we can use them. But at what cost? Clearing rainforests so our tamed species can be farmed is killing life, whole ecosystems. We need to find a balance before too much is lost. Roberts says it much better than I can:

“We’re clever – that’s always been a characteristic of humans. But we need to be cleverer than ever if we’re going to find a way of balancing the voracious appetite of a growing human population, and the hordes of tamed species we need to survive, with biodiversity and wilderness.”

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Further reading:

Roberts, A. (2017) Tamed: Ten species that changed our world. Penguin Random House

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5 Responses to Tamed: ten species that changed our world

  1. Awesome, I think I’ll ask for this book to my husband as a gift. Thank you for this discovering! 🙂

  2. awtytravels says:

    Mmmmh, sounds like an interesting read!!!! Added to the Amazon wish list, thanks a lot!

  3. dpawson says:

    Bit miffed. I bought the e-book – no pictures on each chapter!
    Good reading though.

  4. Lorraine says:

    “Although the famous forbidden fruit in the story of the Garden of Eden is said to be an apple, Roberts shows why actually this isn’t the case.”
    Portraying it as an apple is a European early-modern period artistic concept, based on a Latin pun between the homonyms for apple (malum) and evil (malum). In the Tanakh it was called the Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and no Christian, Jewish or Islamic teachings ever identified it as an apple.
    If Roberts seriously thought that anyone seriously believed the fruit was an apple then he was quite mistaken.

    • Thanks for the comment Lorraine. Professor Roberts was addressing how the fruit has been thought of by many as an apple, and showed how it quite possibly couldn’t have been 🙂 JF

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