Ancient millet farmers in Neolithic China may have kept wild hares as pets, forming close relationships and nearly taming the small animals 4,900 years ago, new research suggests.
Hares in Yangjiesha likely lived within close range of the ancient settlements and inhabitants may have even fed them, suggesting what could be the closest people have come to domesticating hares. This “commensal” relationship may have started naturally as the animals were drawn to cultivated crops, but ultimately evolved more pet-like. It’s possible that early inhabitants even revered the animals for spiritual or religious significance, further allowing local populations to flourish. Other excavations in northern China similarly show symbolic depictions of hares beginning around 3,000 years ago.
At the site of Yangjiesha, where early millet occupied from around 2900 to 2800 BCE, an international team of researchers analyzed the bones of 54 desert hares (Lepus capensis), using isotopic analyses. Isotope levels are influenced by the type of nutrients ingested by an animal; different foods have different ratios of isotopes whose makeup can help inform what ancient animals – and humans – ate. Most of the animals were found to have eaten wild plants, but about one-fifth of their diet was dominated by millet grown by the farmers over long periods of time.
“We find a pet-like human-hare relationship beyond the hunter and the hunted in Neolithic China,” said lead author Pengfei Sheng from Fudan University in a press release emailed to IFLScience. One of the rabbits since dubbed “16Y33” had a diet similar to pigs, leading researchers to believe that it may have lived within the household, possibly as a pet.
“The domestication of a select number of plant and animal species has transformed human interactions with a multitude of other, non-domesticated plants and animals," write the researchers in the journal Antiquity. “Specifically, food-production systems have created new niches for animals, instigating commensal interactions—that is, animals benefiting from a relationship with humans, which neither benefits nor harms the latter—which, in turn, may influence faunal evolutionary trajectories.”
Humans started hunting hares during the Stone Age and during the Copper Age, around 5000 BCE, developed a closer relationship with hares in several parts around the world. The researchers note that tracking the evolution of human-hare relationships could help to inform how Ancient China developed spiritually, socially, and economically.
“These findings suggest that changing land-use patterns indirectly affected the diet and behavior of small wild mammals on the Loess Plateau during the Mid to Late Holocene, a process that may have shaped co-evolutionary trajectories,” write the researchers. Such a process, note the authors, is “not only indicative of the spread of agriculture but also extends back in time the significance of human relationships with hares in China.”