Millennia before humankind began harnessing the power of agriculture, an unlikely animal has stuck by us through thick and thin, for better or for worse – the humble house mouse.
A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that mice have been living alongside humans for as long as 15,000 years. Ever since humans began to move from a nomadic lifestyle to more permanent housing arrangements, the house mouse has lived among us.
"The research provides the first evidence that, as early as 15,000 years ago, humans were living in one place long enough to impact local animal communities – resulting in the dominant presence of house mice," Fiona Marshall, study co-author and a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, said in a statement. "It's clear that the permanent occupation of these settlements had far-reaching consequences for local ecologies, animal domestication, and human societies."
The research involved analyzing the remains of teeth from small vertebrates found in prehistoric and historic sites in Israel and the Caucasus, the geographic bridge between Asia and Europe around modern-day Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey. Using a new technique called “geometric morphometrics”, they were able to differentiate between the minuscule remains of house mice and wild species of small vertebrates.
The findings suggest that house mice began living in the homes of Natufian hunter-gatherers about 15,000 years ago. The origins of agriculture are hazy, although most archaeologists and historians would agree it first occurred around the 10,000 BCE mark. The Natufian were particularly unusual as they managed to live in both sedentary (permanent) and semi-sedentary communities even before the introduction of agriculture, perhaps indicating they were a key transitioning culture between hunter-gatherers and farming humans.
Their research also managed to dig out information about how human mobility influenced competitive relationships between two species: the house mouse (Mus musculus domesticus) and the short-tailed field mouse (M. macedonicus). The house mouse eventually won this battle, pushing their cousins outside the settlement. Much like today, the mice were most likely drawn to human shelter and food.
Like much of human history before written records, the dates of animal domestication are far from clear. Some archeologists and anthropologists believe that dogs were domesticated around 10,000 years ago, however genetic data in 2013 showed that the domestication was actually closer to 19,000 years ago. Either way, this transitionary period of human history was filled with slow but monumental changes that undoubtedly swept up a few other mammalian friends along the way.
From the early days of basic Natufian shelter to our great ancient monuments, our Medieval castles, and now our automated underground subway trains – the mouse has been with humanity throughout.
Sorry for all the mouse-traps and lab testings, old friend.