Once upon a time in a far-off medieval French monastery, a pope named Gregory declared it acceptable to eat feral rabbits – called laurices – during lent because, as it turns out, they were fish.
French monks far and wide chased after the quick-footed fluffy animals to confine and breed them within monastery walls.
And just like that bunnies went from ranging wild nomads to the domesticated fluffy friends we know today.
Sound a bit off to you? Well, that’s because the tale of original bunny domestication is one that was probably made up, but the story held. One scientist even turned to it to test a new DNA modeling method.
“I had cited it, colleagues of mine had cited it, it’s all over Wikipedia and the web,” said Greger Larson, lead author and researcher at Oxford University, in a statement.
As any good scientist would do, Larson and his graduate student Evan Irving-Pease began to dig deeper into the tale and found that it was actually a misinterpretation dating back to the mid-1900s.
“It turns out that the modern story is a complete house of cards,” said Larson.
The study instead revealed a much more intricate story of domestication. Taking a multi-faceted approach, researchers analyzed genetics, historical documents, archaeological remains, and fossil evidence.
They compared the genomes of wild to domestic rabbits to see how long it took for them to diverge. They thought it would point to around 600 AD, but found that domestication didn’t date to a specific event and instead evolved over time.
Archaeological records show that it all started with hunting during the Paleolithic era. Historical documents reveal that Romans were the first to keep the fluffy critters in hutches for breeding. Flash-forward a few hundred years to the Medieval Ages and rabbits were transported around the continent, being served up on dinner plates as a delicacy.
Larson says it’s human nature to pinpoint changes to one specific point in time, but that doesn’t make it accurate.
"We really have trouble appreciating slow, continuous change over long periods of time," he said. "Our narrative structures work much better if you have a eureka moment."
Not only does this change the way we should think about domestication – as a culmination of events over time rather than one aha moment – but it begs the question of whether or not humans ever intended to do it.
What we do know is that the process of science is gradual and each discovery lends itself to the next. The way we look at the domestication of rabbits serves as a bigger metaphor for how scientists might look at their own discipline.