There are various arguments on the web stating that the domestication of zebras is impossible, because zebras are bad tempered and skittish, and/or animals elsewhere are even-tempered and friendly. for instance PBS/Jared Diamond article, Brief history of zebra domestication, YouTube video
I think are making the cardinal scientific sin of not comparing like with like. First, they are working from the assumption that the domestication of the horse (or donkey, or camel, or cow) was a two stage process. Namely:
- Stage One: wild animal which people hunt for meat
- Stage Two: tame animal which people ride
The actual domestication of the horse to a riding animal was in fact a four stage process:
- Wild animal which people hunt for meat. You treat a horse like we treat a deer or antelope.
- Tame-ish animal which people herd for meat. You treat a horse like we treat a feisty or skittish beef cow.
- Very tame animal which people use to haul wagons and chariots - you treat a horse like we treat a draft ox. You also don’t start milking animals until you’re pretty sure they won’t bite, gore, kick or trample you to death during the process!
- Very tame animal which people ride. Congratulations, you have arrived at your destination of the riding horse. Your next task is to breed them up to a decent size and then invent cavalry.
Pretty much all wild animals are vicious and bad-tempered at Stage One of the domestication process. Aurochs had a reputation as ferocious. If you don’t want to believe classical sources like Julius Caesar (who after all thought moose had no knees), then consider the breeds of ‘re-wilded’ cattle (Heck cattle, Chillingham Park cattle) which have reverted to a pre-domestication lifestyle. BBC News report on farmer’s problems with psycho Heck cattle.
So taking that four stage process and 'not as bad tempered as an aurochs' as a starting point, could zebras have been domesticated? Since they weren’t, what reasons could there be for failure?
I’m specifically interested in the plains zebra (Equus quagga burchelli) which has exactly the same social system as the domestic horse and Przewalski’s horse. Namely a stallion-led harem as the main reproductive unit, plus bachelor herds of unattached stallions. The zebras in the harem do all the things that the YouTube video says they don’t – care about each other, stick together when they run away from predators, run in single file, etc. Ignore Grevy’s zebras (Equus grevyi) with their weird social system