Though there is a lot of data on how animals first became domesticated, nobody is quite sure when rabbits were first domesticated, according to a review published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. In the research, scientists from the University of Oxford found that historical, archaeological, and genetic records all suggest rabbits were first domesticated at different times.
Common research shows that rabbits were first domesticated by monks in 600 A.D. after Pope Gregory said that they could be eaten during Lent. However, genetic testing shows that story is not true.
By comparing the genes of a domesticated and modern wild rabbit, the team in the study managed to see how long it took for the populations to diverge. Rather than dating back to 600 A.D. as the story says, the two populations split sometime during the last ice age.
Though the team first thought that the wild rabbits in the study simply did not share recent ancestors with domestic ones, further insight into the archaeological records revealed that domesticated rabbits first came about in the 17th or 18th century.
Nobody is sure why the discrepancies exist, but it is most likely because of the way humans tell stories. People have trouble appreciating slow, gradual changes. As a result, an instant moment of domestication makes more sense than a process that took thousands of years to develop.
The new research shows that domestication came in waves. It likely began with hunting rabbits during the Paleolithic era and then grew as humans kept them in Roman and medieval enclosures.
“For the vast majority of human existence, no one said, ‘I am going to grab this wild organism and bring it into captivity and, voila, I will create a domestic one,'” explained Larson. “If you want to divide the continuum into a dichotomy of wild and domestic, you can do that, but you have to know that it’s necessarily going to be arbitrary.”
Scientists hope the research will alter the definition of domestication and show whether humans have ever consciously tried to influence it. They plan to further the research by reexamining other domesticated plants and animals that humans regularly rely on.