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Imagine an alternate universe where the aborigines' impact on the Pleistocene Australian ecosystem was much less severe than it was in our timeline, and the Pleistocene megafauna managed to survive the sudden changes associated with human arrival in Australia.

Now, the year is approximately 6000 BCE, around the time when other societies were starting to take up agriculture and domesticate their first animals. Would the survival of these species provide any domesticable animals, or would the Aboriginal Australians continue their existence in a manner mostly unchanged from our timeline?

Here are the main megafauna genera/species in consideration:

  • Diprotodon (Wombat the size of a Volkswagen Beetle)
  • Procoptodon (Giant kangaroo #1)
  • Sthenurus (Giant kangaroo #2)
  • Zaglossus Hacketti (Echidna the size of sheep)
  • Palorchestes (Marsupial tapir)
  • Meiolana (Giant spiky-tailed tortoise)
  • Megalania (Imagine a komodo dragon but much, much bigger)
  • Genyornis (Omnivorous flightless bird that was over 2m tall and weighed up to 240 kilos)
  • Thylacoleo ("Marsupial lion")
  • Quinkana (Fully terrestrial crocodiles around the size of a saltwater crocodile)
  • Wonambi (30-foot-long snake)
  • Thylacine (Marsupial Wolf)

Other things to consider:

  • Dingoes are still brought over by the humans, as happens in our timeline
  • Aboriginal Australians have basically no contact with the outside world until the British arrive, similar to what happens in our timeline
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    $\begingroup$ I'll be honest here. I have no idea what any of those names except Thylacine and Dingoes are and I doubt many other users would to. To make it easier for other readers, I would recommend including either small descriptions (including the current or closest animal analogy helps) or a small image. $\endgroup$ – Shadowzee Oct 17 at 0:34
  • $\begingroup$ @011358smell Dingoes evolved on Australia from escaped dogs that the first Aborigines brought with them when they came to Australia. That's what I meant. $\endgroup$ – The Weasel Sagas Oct 17 at 0:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Shadowzee done $\endgroup$ – The Weasel Sagas Oct 17 at 0:53
  • $\begingroup$ @TheWeaselSagas Ooh, didn't know that, thanks. Previous comment retracted. +1 for schooling me. $\endgroup$ – We are Monica. Oct 17 at 1:00
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A couple of them at a push, but we probably want the smaller versions of even the best of these.

(Except the Thylacine, which is fine.)

It's pretty fun to look at ancient creatures and wonder if we could have rode around them, but we sort of forget how hard it is to domesticate or even tame large creatures in an early technology society and despite the billions of species on earth, humans have domesticated big ones about... er... 8 times. And annoyingly for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, 7 of those were on the Afro-Eurasia megacontinent, leaving South America with Llamas and North America with the long-lost memories of Horses that had all run off to Asia.

So I'm gonna go through all of these creatures.

We're looking for a few qualities (which I've stolen almost verbatim from CCP-Grey, but here we are):

Friendly - Anything that views humans as food or 'to be killed' is right out. Without serious protection, if getting started is near suicidal, we're gonna stick to hunting them. We can breed this out eventually if we can contain them initially, but this makes everything else harder.

Feedable - We ideally want to feed it something we don't eat, that's easily accessible. If we have to hunt meat or feed our other domesticated creatures to it; that's really inefficient. We definitely won't be eating any carnivores, because we'd rather just eat the meat that they would eat. Almost all our domesticated animals eat basically any plant and the ones that don't better have really good uses, and are usually much smaller.

Fecund - If we're seriously domesticating something, we want to be able to selectively breed that, which we can only really do if we can get multiple generations past in the space of a human lifetime. If we can't write anything down; 10 years between offspring might as well be infinity and we'll never make any progress beyond the initial taming.

Social - Our best options are also Social. The herd won't separate. If you grab the leader of the herd, the herd will follow. Better yet, if the herd just thinks you're a very strange member of their herd, they'll go wherever you go. Horses will follow the herd. Zebras will abandon a captured family member. Flush a familly of rabbits out of their burrow and they'll scatter in 12 different directions. (This is perhaps the hardest one to guess for prehistoric animals, but we can take a guess from their descendants or close relatives.)

Utility - Whether food, combat, travel, hunting or ploughing; we need this creature to serve a purpose, otherwise it's pointless.

So


- Diprotodon

Friendly - Wombats will attack humans even now, and this version is the largest marsupial to ever exist. There's little evidence of us even hunting them, (just like we didn't hunt Bears or Rhinos), and they're probably not friendly. Ambivalent at best. D-

Feedable - Eats basically any plant. Doesn't eat meat. Quite large though and probably migrated to find food, suggesting their impact on a local ecosystem would be significant. B+

Fecund - Based on size and herd numbers (Huge and >40); year long gestations. Multiple years between births. Basically impossible to selectively breed. F

Social - Herds of large numbers have been found, containing family members of all ages. Perhaps this aspect might be to our advantage. A?

Utility - Meat. Agriculture. Travel. Maybe even riding. A+

Overall Rating: C. Possible to be tamed in small numbers, much like elephants, for which they have their uses, but with no real success in domestication.


-Procoptodon & Sthenurus (Gonna group our Giant kangaroos)

Friendly - Based on our current Kangaroos, almost certainly not. Males especially. Current tangles with Kangeroos are dangerous and these ones are taller than us. F

Feedable - Both herbivores. They only good aspect of this creature. A

Fecund - Slow to breed even at their non-extinct size. Even worse for a bigger prehistoric version. Pouch and fighting to mate makes it even harder for humans to intervene. F-

Social - Smaller families with complex herd dynamics. Potentially okay, but quite antagonistic. B-

Utility - Not the best source of meat and has little other utility. D

Overall Rating: D-. Impossible to properly domesticate and the value of taming them is low.


-Zaglossus Hacketti (Echidna the size of sheep)

Friendly - Likely timid and flighty. Defenses are not so great that they'd stand their ground. Teeth aren't a threat, so they're unlikely to turn and attack us. A+

Feedable - A diet of insects. We could, perhaps, suppose it supplemented this with fruits, but the digestion of modern Echidnas and creatures like the Giant Anteater suggest this adaptation is probably unlikely and still doesn't get us to the point of it eating ubiquitous shrubbery that we'd like it to. C-

Social - Solitary? Current echidnas are, and so are non-extinct large insectivores. (Bacause hunting bugs is a solitary pursuit). Going to be hard to gather a herd. D-

Utility - Meat. Spines for tools? B-

Overall Rating: C. Despite the safety of this one, it's solitary and hard to feed. We'd better breed that solitary nature out quickly and find an area rich in something like termite mounds if we want to herd these.


-Palorchestes (Marsupial tapir)

Friendly - Probably not. Modern tapirs would prefer to flee, but will turn and bite humans with powerful pig-like jaws if they feel threatened. A creature 10 times the mass of that probably won't bother to flee. D-

Feedable - Fruit, berries, leaves, bark. Pretty ubiquitous. A

Fecund - As above. Long lifecycle in living species. Even longer in larger exitinct ones. D-

Social - Pairs or small groups. Not ideal. C-

Utility - Meat. Agriculture. Travel. Riding? A+

Overall Rating: D. We'd love to domesticate or even tame these, but being somewhat comparable to an elephant but with even less social structure, we're more likely to be killed.


-Meiolana (Giant spiky-tailed tortoise)

Friendly - Hard to say. Dangerous bite and tail, but slow and with low reach, so the threat is possibly avoidable? B-?

Feedable - Everything we want. A.

Fecund - Bloody hell. With a lifespan even longer than than ours, and a maturity rate to match, despite the fact that they'll churn out offspring once they are mature, we won't make any progress on domestication. F

Social - Very hard to guess. Possibly solitary. Possibly social. Unlikely to herd. D

Utility - Meat. Somewhat usable shells? Extremely slow to grow either though. C.

Overall Rating: C. We could pen these in and feed them on grasses, but they'll probably grow slower than their wild cousins and they already grow slow. Stick to hunting this really easy to hunt animal.


-Megalania (Imagine a komodo dragon but much, much bigger)

Friendly - HAH. F

Feedable - Nope. F

Fecund - Eh. D

Social - Normally solitary. Groups can form around water sources, but there's no social structure. F

Utility - Hunting partners. A.

Overall Rating: F. Only good if you're looking for a hunting partner that will spend most of its time hunting you.


-Genyornis (Omnivorous flightless bird that was over 2m tall and weighed up to 240 kilos)

Friendly - Extremely dangerous if cornered. Otherwise runs away. We've tamed other species like that (see: Horses). We're not a valid food source. C?

Feedable - Is maybe herbivorous? Possibly supplemented with small animals. B+?

Fecund - Not great, but at least they lay eggs, so we can pretend to be their parents when they hatch, further improving on their sociality? C+

Social - Possibly lives in groups, a la modern Ostrichs, with a Top Hen as a leader. We could be Top Hen. B+?

Utility - googles Ostrich riding Um. Hm.

Overall Rating: I was expecting to completely rule these out, but they're most closely related to modern Fowl, potentially have a social structure and eat plants. Uh.. B?


-Thylacoleo ("Marsupial lion")

Friendly - "Pound for pound; Thylacoleo carnifex had the strongest bite of any mammal species, living or extinct" - F

Feedable - Eats bone marrow. Yours. - F

Fecund - Fine, but irrelevant. C.

Social - More in common with Kangeroos than cats, but an even smaller brain to body ratio suggests we're out of luck here. D

Utility - A hunting partner that will eat your entire kill. D

Overall Rating: F. I... No.


-Quinkana (Fully terrestrial crocodiles around the size of a saltwater crocodile)

Friendly - No. F.

Feedable - Also No. F.

Fecund - Go on. Stick your hand in a crocodile nest. F

Social - Nope. F.

Utility - Nope. F

Overall Rating: F. Nope.


-Wonambi (30-foot-long snake)

Overall Rating: F. See above.


-Thylacine (Marsupial Wolf)

Overall Rating: Gonna skip over the details on this one because really we just need to know if it behaves more like foxes or wolves. If it's the latter, we're in luck and we just acquired our dog precursor. If it's foxes, well, then we might be approaching a domestic cat analog instead.


Final Summary

I expected to agree with some of the other answers for the giant Wombat and Tapir, but both these species are too large to contain, too slow to domesticate and the Tapirs aren't even social. At best we have the same relationship as Elephants, where we can get them to do stuff for us, but only on an individual basis (i.e. One elephant can be trained to do X. A herd of elephants does whatever it wants and wanders off whilst ignoring us.)

Weirdly, the giant Echidna seems viable if your society lives near a lot of termite mounds you can move the herd between or have lots of insects in your better-climate Australia. Good meat and potentially spines or long hair for wool (if you want to take a guess at features we're lacking a paleological record for.) I haven't done the maths on a insect to Echidna consumption efficiency, but if you're happy to gloss over that, or bump up the number of insects in a hot, wet Australia, then you're probably fine.

The 2 metre tall speed-chicken isn't as absurd as I'd expected either, being potentially herbivorous and social. The greatest barrier to entry would be catching one, but you and 4 mates with ropes to try and catch it around the neck would allow you to get one without having to get too close to it's feet. (If your society is starting to need a Horse analog for travel.)

Realistically, you probably want to tame the non-giant versions of some of these. We have Phascolonus, a quite large wombat that would cheerfully chew through all the plants we want to it to, without being quite so dangerous to contain whilst we selectively breed it. It's sturdiness could make a good Oxen analog if we're shifting to agriculture. Or Ngapakaldia, a sheep-sized Tapir.

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  • $\begingroup$ current relatives are not a great indicator of personality, horses and zebra are closely related and have almost completely opposite personalities, but a very good answer overall. $\endgroup$ – John Oct 17 at 20:14
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At a guess: Diprotodon, Palorchestes, and Thylacine.

There was a Russian study which tried to domesticate foxes, attempting to mirror the dog-from-wolves domestication. It started in 1959, and is still ongoing, at least to a minor extent due to budget cuts. Look up the study if you want more information, but the long and short of it is that it seems most animals can be domesticated - well, at least most mammals. There's never been a succesfully documented case of a domesticated reptile. (Friendly, yes. Separate subspecies, no.)

So now the question is really just 'Which of these species would the Aboriginals want to domesticate?' And the answer seems pretty straightforward.

Diprotodon & Palorchestes - food. Wombat meat used to be a staple of Australian culture before they became endangered, so Diprotodon is an easy choice. Palorchestes would be my next pick for domesticated game, even though it's closer to horse than cow. After all, horse meat is considered to be fair game by ancient China.

Thylacine - wolves to dogs. Dogs have a very well earned reputation as man's best friend, and the Aboriginals would love a faithful companion to help them hunt.

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    $\begingroup$ Ditto on "Which of these species would the Aboriginals want to domesticate". In the end it all sums up to how their culture develops around these fauna. Typically docile and/or social animals are domesticated, but there are counter examples such as cats that ended up being domesticated because of other factors such as wherever there are humans, there is also food, either through scavenging their leftovers or through direct donations for being cute. $\endgroup$ – V. Sim Oct 17 at 2:16
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Probably none, alas.

You need a number of characteristics for animals to be domesticated, at least these:

  • sufficiently docile
  • gregarious
  • willing to breed in captivity
  • having a social dominance hierarchy

That will eliminate every species that is not a mammal, and if a carnivore, wolf size or smaller. Also, as thylacines will have direct competition from dingo's, and as dingo's are step ahead in the domestication curve, have a big problem there.

Mind you that the bigger the animal, the more dangerous is becomes to domesticate. Cattle (cows and bulls) are thought to have only be domesticated two, max thee times, due to being so incredibly dangerous to do so. And with as little as 80 individuals in one case. Horses have been domesticated multiple times, as have sheep, goats and donkeys. You can see the pattern here.

Taming options:

Palorchestes & Diprotodon, come kind of close to the north african elephant. Maybe a few can be tamed, if raised from young.

Domestication option(s):

Zaglossus Hacketti, if it was a group animal and not a picky eater, is my best pick. Small enough to be able to handle quite well. Kind of like sheep. (but the picture with the long snout does not bode well for food)

Thylacine, if dingo's do not survive long and man decides it needs a new best friend. Else the competition is probably to strong.

Smaller option:

If you have something that can fill the function of ducks or chickens, you might have an alternative. But nothing I have read points to bigger birds a domestication options.

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  • $\begingroup$ Not exactly true. Humans domesticated wolves, they don't look sufficiently docile or willing to breed in captivity to me... $\endgroup$ – tfrascaroli Oct 17 at 15:33
  • $\begingroup$ @tfrascaroli, I have been reading up on wolf / dog domestication: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origin_of_the_domestic_dog, and the jury seems to be still out on this one. Will update to wolf size or smaller though. $\endgroup$ – Flummox - don't be evil SE Oct 17 at 18:19
  • $\begingroup$ @tfrascaroli they are actually both, they don't look like it only when compared to already domesticated animals, which is just unfair. $\endgroup$ – John Oct 17 at 20:07
  • $\begingroup$ three bigger birds where domesticated, swans, geese, and turkeys, and there just aren't many birds bigger than those to choose from. $\endgroup$ – John Oct 17 at 20:11
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    $\begingroup$ @John I can think of animals that are not domesticated that are much more docile than wolves (ie: Elephants, which are only tamed, not domesticated - granted, it's because of the long breeding cycle; or horses, which still have to be tamed even if they are considered "domestic") $\endgroup$ – tfrascaroli Oct 18 at 7:28

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