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I'm working on a pretty detailed alternate history of the ancient America's, and currently I'm focusing upon Mesoamerica in particular. The core difference is that, through several different mechanisms that can be handwaved away, the Natives at the time were able to domesticate significantly more animals than they did in true history.

One of the animals I'm eying for domestication, mostly for the cool factor, is the Kelenken. These birds were huge, nearly 10ft tall carnivores that went extinct a long time ago, significantly before any human presence in the area. I'm willing to handwave this as well, since it's decently plausible that a much smaller relative could be domesticated towards gigantism to bring them back in line with this size. For the purposes of this question, it's fair to just assume we're dealing directly with the Kelenken species, for simplicity.

However, a big issue that I'm running into is a rational reason for why the Natives would bother interacting with these large carnivorous birds long enough that they would be domesticated, and ideally a cool enough use for them.

I'd considered mounts, but birds-- even flightless ones-- are fragile and difficult to ride, and in this world the natives domesticated the Hippidion for riding anyway.

Then I thought about their potential as hunting partners, but humans brought dogs with them across the Bering Strait when they migrated to the Americas in the first place.

I don't really want them to just be another source of food, and eating a carnivore would be a waste of resources anyways.

I feel like I'm out of options here, but the idea of large domesticated carnivore birds is just too cool to give up!

How can I realistically justify the expenditure of time and resources towards domesticating the Kelenken species for pragmatic ancient humans?

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  • $\begingroup$ you might consider making them more omnivorous like dogs, that way feeding is much easier. $\endgroup$
    – John
    May 19, 2023 at 0:15

8 Answers 8

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Sprint hunters for the nobility

Humans and dogs are social endurance hunters - top speed is not that great, but we keep going until the prey is exhausted. Dogs work well with humans in this type of activity because they can use their sense of smell to track the prey's scent faster than humans would be able to track using visual cues.

This is not the only way to hunt, though. Kelenken are theorised to have been fast runners, which means that humans who domesticated them could take them out on a hunt in which some humans flush the game into the open and then the Kelenken handlers send the Kelenken to sprint after the prey and bring it down without a long chase, in the same way that very wealthy ancients used cheetahs. The humans share the kill with the Kelenken, but they also provide protection to the exhausted sprinter so it does not risk having its prey taken from it by scavengers.

The Kelenken are going to be high-maintenance, so they will only be domesticated by the wealthy, the same way that cheetahs or falcons were only ever kept by the nobles. Just make them sufficiently social that they will accept domestication and fast enough to be sprint hunters - most of what we "know" about Kelenken is speculation based on very little evidence, so you are fairly safe making up any minor details you like.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm leaning towards this as the 'most' practical, but I would be worried that this sort of 'luxury' domestication would only occur once the core necessities are already met, which would likely be much later in the cultural development of the Mesoamerica's. I worry that this wouldn't give much time for the process of domestication to really accomplish much, if necessary, though as you say it's possible their natural behavior may have been instantly conducive to domestication... $\endgroup$
    – Onyz
    May 16, 2023 at 12:13
  • $\begingroup$ Good points, but this is more taming than domestication. Neither cheetahs, nor falcons used for hunting were truly domesticated. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    May 18, 2023 at 12:34
  • $\begingroup$ @vsz agree, but taming is probably the most that can be hoped for with an animal like this - it fails to tick the checkboxes for being something that could be domesticated. The biggest pure carnivore that humanity has domesticated is the housecat - and it's questionable who holds the upper hand in that relationship. Given that the OP still wants dogs to be in their traditional role of guard/hunting animals - which makes sense, since they are much, much, much cheaper to feed - this was the best I could come up with. $\endgroup$ May 18, 2023 at 22:40
  • $\begingroup$ A lot of these answers have been really helpful, but in the end I decided to go with this one, since it brought up the most helpful points for me personally. I think between this one and a few others, I have an idea on how to proceed... Thank you all! $\endgroup$
    – Onyz
    May 22, 2023 at 10:27
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Because they are cool, but you have not considered just how cool.

enter image description here

Maybe you don't remember the arcade game Joust. The idea of having a bird large enough to ride is spectacular. Even if it can't fly. Even if it can barely hop. It's got those talons and that beak. And the feathers would be so stylish.

They could be specially bred to be good saddle beasts for both practical and ceremonial reasons. Their beaks and claws could be bred to be long and sharp and intimidating. Consider the range in different horses, from wild horses running around in the wilderness to Percheron stallions.

Other cool factors include that the color of bird's feathers can be quite amazingly varied. For example, green fur is unusual. I think the only case where mammals have green fur is when certain species get a kind of fungus. Birds can have green, gold, scarlet red, orange, blue, etc. They can have different colored feathers under the wings so when they spread their wings they can put on a gaudy display. Just imagine a peacock that weighs about 2 tons. Or imagine this guy scaled up to 12 foot tall.

enter image description here

And they could pull tricks that, while possibly not very practical, could be impressive to a festival audience. Bird in front spreads his wings to conceal what guy back there is busy doing, which is getting ready to fire his crossbow. A little nudge, bird flips down wings, crossbow bolt flies from concealment.

Imagine the display that the Royal Flyers could put on. The fact the birds never get more than a meter or two above the ground would not change their name. They would come out, do some close order precision marching, then present to the Royal Family with their wings spread. Imagine the RCMP Musical Ride, but on two ton birds with fantastic colored feathers. It would be glorious! And possibly quite loud, considering the noise that various birds can make.

Or, in actual battle, imagine 1000 of these suckers charging at you. Each with his wings flashing different colors, his rider brandishing a 12 foot lance, and the bird making his war cry. Every bird with a two foot long serrated beak and foot long razor sharp claws. Spectacular!

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Eggs

Yes, this is a food source, but in a roundabout way. What better way to start your day than whatever the authentic equivalent of a breakfast burrito is?

Pets

What 'use' are cats? I love mine but even my love doesn't make her 'useful'. Kelenken are dangerous pets, but that's surprisingly common too.

Vermin control

As per cats, a fig leaf of usefulness to justify a pet, or a truly useful societal purpose, depending on circumstance and how much you like kelenkens.

Gambling

Why not just use dice? I don't know, but cock fighting, bear fighting, horse racing, etc, etc, have been perennial gambling favourites in history. You have entire stadiums and fortunes that exist for nothing but racing horses, to this day.

Do kelenkens race? Fight? Race then fight? Fight people? Race people? Great, you can gamble on any of them.

Guano

Their poo is absolutely perfect for corn growing. And it comes in conveniently large quantities.

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  • $\begingroup$ cats are extremally useful in a preindustrial society for pest control/ when you have to store your food without refrigeration rodents are a huge problem. $\endgroup$
    – John
    May 19, 2023 at 0:17
  • $\begingroup$ @John Hence the vermin control subsection. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    May 19, 2023 at 5:09
  • $\begingroup$ 1. A several hundred pound carnivore is not eating vermin. 2 you are the one that asked what use are cats as is they were domesticated as pets. $\endgroup$
    – John
    May 19, 2023 at 20:25
  • $\begingroup$ @John My vermin control section specifically uses cats as an example and followed the pets section. Try reading things before commenting on them, this sort of thing makes you look silly. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    May 19, 2023 at 21:56
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Optical telegraph

enter image description here

One thing a large flying beast can do that dogs and horses can't is be seen from far away. I don't know how the economics work out, or why the riskiness of initial domestication would even be attempted. But once all the pieces are in place you can send messages over hills or across large distances, thousands of years before the electric telegraph. I imagine a pack carnivore may have the ideal mental traits for this kind of training.

See wikipedia

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    $\begingroup$ Hello! Thank you for the answer, but the Kelenken was far too large and heavy to be able to fly, and it had tiny little T-Rex hands instead of wings. I think this unfortunately jeopardizes your answer. $\endgroup$
    – Onyz
    May 15, 2023 at 17:21
  • $\begingroup$ Okay, well this is a bit of s stretch but... Your people follow the cult of the hungry god like @DWKraus said. To send messages great distances across the empire, they create optical telegraph towers, but the messages MUST be conveyed by the wings of a kelenken and not plebian cloth flags, because Kelenkos (the bird god whose egg is the Earth itself) will be pissed otherwise. And that is some guano you don't want to step in. $\endgroup$
    – Atog
    May 15, 2023 at 18:23
  • $\begingroup$ Continuing down this path, of the kelenken serving as the "voice" of Kelenkos... Eventually they are also kept as "priests" in temples. The lay people watch in awe as the heralds wave their wings around at the pulpit, which may or may not actually be taking direction from a human on a balcony over the audience, only visible to the bird. $\endgroup$
    – Atog
    May 16, 2023 at 17:04
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Terror Mount

enter image description here

As you can see the ostrich can carry a person for a stretch but is too small to do so without running into each other and falling down in comic fashion.

Terror bird is a jumbo ostrich. She is better adapted to her environment than a boring old horsey horse, and jumbo enough to carry a man well. Maybe TOO well, if you catch my drift. . . .

enter image description here

As John points out, they can also pull chariots. Like the Ancient Romans.

enter image description here

This is easier for training purposes. It is easier to train an animal to pull something than to carry a person.

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  • $\begingroup$ Alternatively have them pull a chariot. $\endgroup$
    – John
    May 19, 2023 at 0:20
  • $\begingroup$ @John That's a bit less fun, but I wonder what the harnesses would look like. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    May 19, 2023 at 11:15
  • $\begingroup$ see ostrich harnesses for racing, topendsports.com/sport/unusual/ostrich-racing.htm $\endgroup$
    – John
    May 19, 2023 at 20:28
  • $\begingroup$ @John Thanks, I've added a picture. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    May 20, 2023 at 8:29
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A Hungry God:

Birds and bird imagery were important to Aztec civilization. So imagine the bloodthirsty Aztecs deciding these tremendous creatures were sacred to their faith. Initially selected to consume the flesh of sacrificial victims (what the birds eat correlates to what the god gets), this relationship could expand over time as the birds came to accept domestication.

They would make terrifying additions to a military (envision these critters sent ahead to terrify the local tribes). Since their specific appearance and behaviors/abilities aren't well understood, they could be wildly colorful and quetzal-like (especially if they were recapitulated to this size AFTER domestication). The Aztec elite warriors wouldn't be eagle warriors, but kelenken warriors. And if one of these beasts occasionally ate a citizen, WELL it must be the will of the gods.

enter image description here

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ Hello! While this is a potentially appropriate answer for living in tandem with these creatures, I would hesitate to call "living with a creature that randomly eats you" actual domestication, which is usually characterized by changes in appearance and behavior to better suit human needs. $\endgroup$
    – Onyz
    May 15, 2023 at 17:23
  • $\begingroup$ On the other hand, if this is occurring further back in history to allow for physical changes to emphasize the Quetzal-like appearance of the creature, this would likely need to be so far back in history that the Mesoamerican Aztec culture had not yet developed, making this a circular concept. Bear in mind that the Aztec civilization as a whole only existed for a little over 200 years, around 1300AD to 1500AD. With that in mind though there's no reason a separate cultural concept couldn't arise as a result of these birds, much earlier, but that would be like domesticating jaguars. $\endgroup$
    – Onyz
    May 15, 2023 at 17:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Onyz You said you were looking for a reason people would go down the road of domestication. This is where you start. As for the coloration, that's entirely up to you, since it doesn't need to be EXACTLY a Kelenken, and I don't know that we know exactly what they looked like, anyway. Males could have been quite colorful. And you were the one suggesting selection post-domestication, so I mentioned it accordingly. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    May 16, 2023 at 20:19
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You write:

I'd considered mounts, but birds-- even flightless ones-- are fragile and difficult to ride, and in this world the natives domesticated the Hippidion for riding anyway.

I have a memory of seeing an illustration of Sultan Muhammed XII of Grenada, known as Boabdil, as a child riding on an ostrich.

And some ostrich farms offer ostrich riding for tourists. you can find photos and videos of ostrich riding on the internet.

Ostriches are not really strong enough to be ridden at lot.

If the kelenken was a terror bird, it would probably have been much stronger and sturdier than an ostrich to survive the injuries received when fighting its prey.

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The same reason we "domesticate" Tigers/Lions/etc.

Terror birds were alpha predators. They are too big and dangerous to just bully around like you can with with dogs or cats meaning that they require very specialized handling to even begin to domesticate. Even if you've owned a Kelenken since it was a whee little chick, there is still a good chance that its predator nature will take over one day, and it will kill you anyway.

So, it sounds like I'm saying the native Americans would not keep any domestic Kelenken, but on the contrary, the fact that they are so dangerous is precisely why they'd have a few. Throughout history, lions and tigers have been kept as highly exclusive pets. The kind you put into a circus to show off your masterful animal handling skills, or the kind you keep staved and in a cage that you feed prisoners to as the ultimate form of corporal punishment, or the kind you have expert gladiators or other alpha predators face off against in mortal combat.

... or if you want a more symbiotic use for them, they could take the role of Destiers

Hippidions have bodies more like donkeys than horses meaning that they probably have a lot of strength and endurance, but can not move much faster than 15mph, maybe 20mph. Kelenken however have bodies more like an Ostrich meaning they can probably sprint at speeds up to about 40mph, but probably not the best endurance runners.

Historically people have breed horses for 3 major jobs:

  • Draft horses: Horses bread to pull carts and plows. Your quadrupedal Hippidions will certainly fill this role best.
  • Palfreys: Horses bread to be comfortably ridden over long distances. Given the shape of thier backs and better endurance, Hippidions are again the clear winner in this catagory.
  • Destiers: War horses bred to carry knights quickly around the battlefield. These were the most expensive of horses because it is hard to bred and train a horse to be aggressive and brave enough to even carry you into a line of screaming guys with weapons... and then on top of that, they need to do it as quickly as possible. Here the Kelenken are much better than Hippidions, and possibly even better than horses. Kelenken are predators so they WANT to charge and attack at things, and they can do it at speeds much greater than a Hippidion ever could.

Historically, Destiers were not great draft animals and they were considered way to valuable to risk ridding for long distances. A knight would bring a separate Destier, Palfrey, and Draft Horse while on campaign anyway; so, you're not taking anything away by forcing your war-mounts to be a different animal than your work horses.

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  • $\begingroup$ the other issue is just feeding them, you need to generate a lot of meat to feed a population of large carnivores. Another reason to only be rich peoples toys. $\endgroup$
    – John
    May 19, 2023 at 0:12
  • $\begingroup$ I like the Destier use-case here. $\endgroup$
    – Onyz
    May 19, 2023 at 10:29
  • $\begingroup$ @John For help with that issues, this related question may apply: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/245394/… $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    May 19, 2023 at 12:57

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