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In an alternate universe where Eurasia is less advanced and the native peoples of the Americas and Australia build powerful civilizations, what animals could be domesticated that weren't domesticated in real life?

There are many roles a domesticated animal can be used for. The major ones are farm labor, dairy production, meat production, clothing production, transportation, pets, pest control, egg production, and hunting/guarding. Other animal roles include things like experimentation and sending messages and a few other things I have missed.

An animal needs 3 main qualities in order to be domesticated. Firstly, it must be able to be controlled by humans. It cannot be too large and dangerous. It also cannot easily disrupt human efforts to control it. Secondly, it must make a lot of babies in a short amount of time. That way, selective breeding and culling of the unwanted offspring can happen. Finally, feeding this animal must be easy. Ideally, the animal eats things humans don't eat like grass but any animal that overall eats less than a human can work.

So given these qualities, could Native Americans with 10th Century Eurasian technology domesticate the Bison or American Buffalo? The Bison seems like an unruly creature that would be hard to contain and could potentially kill several Native Americans. On the other hand, the Europeans turned aurochs into cattle and all the hostile things you can say about Bison you can also say about aurochs.

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    $\begingroup$ Does this worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/q/60288/30492 or this worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/q/63975/30492 answer your question? $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Aug 18 at 15:22
  • $\begingroup$ This isn't really a worldbuilding question as written. In your world you could have domesticated bison or not. As written this seems more like a speculation about what could have happened rather than an attempt to build a specific fictional world. We're very permissive about the topics you can ask on this site, what we are restrictive about is the form of the questions that you ask. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Aug 18 at 15:34
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    $\begingroup$ This is clearly a question about the feasibility of an aspect of animal husbandry. Bison are notably unruly, determined to stay with their herd, and have been known to climb fences up to 30 feet in height. I'd like to see a few answers. $\endgroup$ Aug 18 at 17:21
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    $\begingroup$ Does this answer your question? Can the Buffalo Roam in Ranches? $\endgroup$ Aug 18 at 19:35
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    $\begingroup$ Just to note, the duplicate target is the answer not the question. $\endgroup$ Aug 18 at 19:40

2 Answers 2

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Short answer yes. And it could be done in the Stone Age. No metal working or other “advanced technologies” required.

People often think that domestication starts by grabbing a group of animal X, putting them in a pen, and having complete control over them. That will work on some animals. If you’ve ever worked with bison, you know that won’t work. At all!

Current theory on animal domestication suggest 3 paths. The one relevant to get bison is the predator/prey pathway. Animals that have been domesticated this way includes things like sheep, goats, cattle, llamas, and possibly horses. So, let’s due a quick hypothetical on how this should work.

A tribe of natives does a seasonal bison hunt, as was often the case before horses were introduced. Every winter they would find a herd and either run it off a cliff or corner in a valley. Then, kill more than they can eat and let the rest go. So far this is exactly what some native Americans did.

They begin the next step by building fences and corrals where they catch the bison to kill them. No domestication yet just improved hunting methods which provide more food which increases the size of the tribe which means they kill more bison. Which provides more food. You get the picture.

Then, the tribe notices that the number of bison is shrinking every year. Some bright individual makes the incredible discovery that bulls don’t have calves. So, they start killing most bulls and letting most cows live. Thus, increasing the size of the herd while maximizing the amount of meat produced. Now, domestication can begin. Once you start selecting which animals will reproduce and which won’t domestication is almost inevitable.

Having worked with cattle and bison, I know that the crazy one is the first to be culled.

This managed semi domesticated herd is slowly becoming calmer around humans to the point that they aren’t bothered by the presents of humans. But the transition to full domestication is caused by the need to protect the bison from other tribes. In order to protect their bison, the tribe transitions to either nomadic pastoralists. Or if the tribe has agriculture already they will keep them in corals at night and herd them during the day.

Later, the bison can be used for other things such as labor, milk, and wool.

Most large domesticated animals were domesticated this way. Notice how the bison were not penned up until after they were domesticated. Using this technique even the dangerous bison can be domesticated.

There are several other animals in North America that could hypothetically be domesticated this way. Ex. Big horn sheep, elk, mule deer, white tail deer, and caribou. All of these have an old world relative that was domesticated.

I could ramble all day but I think you get the gist.

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    $\begingroup$ you also need enough land exclusivity other tribes can't hunt your bison. +1 for a good scenario though. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Sep 9 at 0:01
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    $\begingroup$ You might also start to selectively breed for smaller animals to make controling them easier. $\endgroup$
    – FlaStorm32
    Sep 9 at 7:48
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We already have a real life example of this in the form of Alpacas and Llamas, where domesticated by the Incas and most likely their predecessor Kingdoms. In fact the famous Inca roads were developed to favor these pack animals... and unintentionally disfavor horses (one of the things not well known is Inca roads had steps that Spanish Horses couldn't stand. Had the Inca not been in the midst of a succession crisis when they encountered the Spanish, they could have proven much more difficult to conquer. To this day, the Inca language, Quechan is still a national language in some Andean states and is not dying like many other native languages).

Many North American Native Ranchers do raise Bison as livestock today and they are raised much like cattle in the same style of ranching. However the Bison would not meet your criteria (which ignores another domesticated animal) in that Bison are not prolific breeders (This became a problem in start of the 20th century where the Bison population dropped from 564 individuals to 300 between 1900-1901. Most animals of the Bison's size only birth one calf per breeding season. There are reasons why raising of Buffalo didn't happen until the introduction of techniques from European Settlers, but we'll discuss that later.

Other tribes also domesticated dogs, which is an animal that breaks two of your rules. First dogs are descended from wolves, which are most definitely dangerous to humans. But the reasons Dogs are "Man's Best Friend" is because Wolves/Dogs and Humans hunt in similar ways: Persistent predation. Essentially, a persistent predator would hunt larger animals by moving to threaten them, at which point the the animal will either fight back or flee. In either case, the stamina and pain tolerance of the a persistent predator is better than that of it's prey. If it attacks, the wound is less likely to be fatal, if it runs, they can run after it. The predator might be slower, but the prey will tire out before the predator... which means it will be chased to exhaustion. Humans and wolves both do this, but humans have an advantage in they can out perform even dogs. In fact, the fastest animal in an Ultra-marathon (100 mile race) is the human. No animal can out match us in endurance. It's how the ape from the rift valley became a dominant species on every continent save Antarctica. Humans and dogs worked well together BECAUSE they were both threatening animals that ate the same things. In fact, there are few animals that humans domesticated that don't eat anything humans would eat, being that humans are omnivorous and will eat just about anything. There are things we might not WANT to eat, but few things we can't handle eating... and among those, most animals cannot eat them either.

Dogs were important to many Native American cultures. To the Lakota, the Dog was respected above all other animals. Unlike most cultures, for them Dogs were pack animals and would carry things like Llamas for the Inca. Like many of the plains Indians, they are more well known for their love of horses, but in the Lakota language, the word for horse derives for their word for dog, because Horses did the same thing as dogs.

Which brings me to my final point and answer. Most likely it would not have happened, because the Americas lacked an animal that could be domesticated that could act as fast transport... a domain occupied almost exclusively by the Eurasian native, the Horse. If you look at many cultures that never made it to medieval tech before encountering Eurasians (sub-Sahara Africa, the Americas, Australia) these are all areas which never had access to domesticated horses, mules, or donkeys. Horses could move heavy loads and were fast, which helped develop overland movement of goods and services swiftly over large distances. This sped up communication and history tends to show that the speed of technological innovation exponentially increases with the speed of innovations in communications. In fact, stuff we take for granted today wouldn't exist with out trans-Columbian trade. We all know that Native Americans loved Horses, Italian cooking makes heavy use of tomato sauce, and the Irish diaspora was a result of the collapse of their staple food crop, the potato... but the Horse was brought over by the Europeans, who in turn brought tomatoes and potatoes back from the Americas (The Incas domesticated the Potato as well... yet hardly anyone associates the hardy food stuff with them.).

Suffice to say, without somehow introducing an animal like the horse to pre-Columbian Americans, it's hard to see how their civilization prospers.

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    $\begingroup$ Who used horses to move heavy loads overland before the Middle Ages? The classical ancient civilizations used oxen. The only things pulled by horses in the Antiquity were light chariots. A reasonably efficient way to harness horses to pull loads was invented in China in the 3rd century of the common era; the invention reached Europe at some point in the 9th or 10th century. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 18 at 18:55
  • $\begingroup$ Dogs don't violate the domestication qualities. They reproduce fast, eat less than a human, and an unruly dog isn't a major threat to an armed caveman. Also, donkeys and mules come from Africa. $\endgroup$
    – ITM_Coder
    Aug 19 at 2:52
  • $\begingroup$ +1 Some folks inevitably quibble at the edges (they always do) instead of addressing the main point: This is one solid, well reasoned answer the question that was asked. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Aug 19 at 3:21

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