The Story Of... Zebra and the Puzzle of African
Perhaps the most puzzling question Jared Diamond encounters
as he investigates animal domestication is: Why were no large mammals
ever domesticated in tropical Africa?
Africa, south of the Sahara, is home to the richest diversity of animal
life on the planet, including some of the largest mammals on earth.
So why did the Africans never domesticate the rhino? Why did they
never farm the hippo? The elephant? Or the giant wildebeest? Perhaps
most strangely of all, given the importance of the horse to European
history, why did tropical Africans never domesticate their own species
of wild horse, the zebra?
Zebra are closely related to the domesticated horse, sharing a
genus (Equus) and a common ancestor. They stand nearly
five feet at the shoulder, live in small family groups or herds,
are sociable herbivores who breed well in public and live in harmony
with their mammalian neighbors, like antelopes and wildebeest. They
are even strong enough to carry an adult human on their backs.
Zebras are also notoriously difficult to catch. They have evolved
superb early-warning mechanisms , such as peripheral vision far superior
to other horses. Often bad tempered, they grow increasingly antisocial
with age and once they bite, they tend not to let go. A kick from
a zebra can kill — and these creatures are responsible for more
injuries to American zookeepers each year than any other animal.
||Zebras are notoriously
hard to tame
Pity the poor human, therefore, who might try to domesticate a zebra in the wild. During the colonial era, some adventurous Europeans tried to harness this African horse. Lord Rothschild famously drove a zebra-drawn carriage through the streets of Victorian London. Yet these creatures were never truly domesticated — they were never bred and sustained explicitly under human control.
Why is it so hard to tame the zebra? Survival of the Fittest.
Zebra and other African game evolved characteristics to help them survive one of the harshest environments on earth.
Africa was the birthplace not just of humanity, but also of much of
our planet's plant and animal life. Species which remained on this
continent rather than migrating to new lands, evolved alongside one
another for millions of years, becoming highly attuned to the predatory
nature of their environment.
Sharing their habitat with some of the most dangerous predators on earth, including lions and cheetahs, leopards and hyenas natural selection forced African wildlife such as the zebra to evolve clever survival techniques.
Similar antisocial characteristics have prevented the domestication
of other African wild game. Rhinos, at over 5 tons in weight and immensely
strong, could have been terrific beasts of burden for African farmers
-just imagine the sight of a rhino-mounted cavalry! Yet rhinos are
spectacularly bad-tempered and unpredictable. Although they have poor
eyesight, their senses of smell and hearing are especially acute.
Despite their bulk, rhinos are remarkably agile, and when provoked
into a charge — often by little more than an unfamiliar smell
or sound — an agitated rhino can reach speeds of up to 45 km
per hour, even in dense undergrowth.
The hippo, could also have offered unique agricultural and military
advantages to African civilization. However, the hippo's aggressive
nature, crushing jaws and four-and-a-half ton size make them deadly.
They are also extremely territorial — males often fight to the
death over control of a harem. Hippos are said to account for more
human deaths throughout Africa per year than any other mammal, except
A pattern emerged. African herbivores were simply too aggressive for
human control. Elsewhere in the world, mammals evolved in isolation
from human interference — after all, man only lived outside
of Africa for a fraction of his existence on earth-- around 50,000
years. When man arrived in Eurasia and in the Americas, native herbivores
were by nature less cautious and more receptive to human control.
But in Africa, man and beast have evolved alongside one another for
millions of years. Large mammals have learned to avoid — or if necessary,
attack — human beings, resisting capture with some of the most sophisticated
physiological characteristics on earth.
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