Here are some lists of North American and South American megafauna that went extinct during the Quaternary.

In Eurasia, many species of large mammal were domesticated, most particularly the 'big 4' edible animals--cow, sheep, goat, and pig--and the most important traction animal, the horse. There were other animals domesticated that were important in certain regions (water buffalo, yak, ass) but none spread universally at an early date like the aforementioned five.

Had the American megafauna not largely gone extinct, and had pastoral cultures developed in the Americas, which set of 4 or 5 animals could have been domesticated to provide meat, milk, fiber, and traction or riding power?

Stipulations: You may not choose any extant animals as one of your set except the llama or alpaca, since those were actually domesticated in ancient times.

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    $\begingroup$ Should the "would" in the title become "could" because "would" may be a matter of opinion? Interesting question though, +1 $\endgroup$
    – Zxyrra
    Dec 9, 2016 at 3:40

4 Answers 4


Ruling out Species

Based on your requirements, mammals are likely to be your best bet. Within mammals, you can eliminate the following possibilities:

  • Rodents (and other small creatures) will likely be too small to be worthwhile or practical. The other factor here is there's no way to have a herd of rodents.
  • Carnivores aren't a viable source of meat when you have to feed them meat. There's also the issue of humans being made of meat...
  • Elephants have never been domesticated (only tamed and held in captivity), since they have such a long reproductive cycle.

Domestication through Selective Breeding

I'm not sure you realize how powerful selective breeding is. Within 50 years, foxes in Russia were selectively bred, creating a new domestic species out of a completely wild one. And, once you have a domestic animal, you can continue to selectively breed them for other traits, such as long fluffy wool, more meat for slaughter, coat color, etc.

Selective breeding is definitely the way to go.

Preventing Extinction

While there's a lot of debate about why some of these creatures would have become extinct, one strong theory is that humans are, as usual, to blame. Many species may have been hunted to extinction.

Simply not hunting the creatures you want to domesticate is a good step to preventing their extinction.

Good Candidates

While we don't know what any of these extinct animals were like, there are some related species that were domesticated. It's possible that these species could have been domesticated as well.

Species Actually Domesticated in the Americas

It's important to realize that the Native Americans did domesticate some animals other than llamas and alpacas (although alpacas may not be as domestic as you think).

The paper Evidence for Pre-Columbian Animal Domestication in the New World lists the following:

There were seven domesticated animals kept in the New World before European discovery. The dog dates to 9500 BC at Jaguar Cave, Idaho (Lawerence 1971). The llama dates to 4200-2500 BC in the Central Peruvian Highlands (Wheeler Pires-Ferreia, et. al 1976). The guinea pig dates to 5000 BC in the highlands of Peru (Stahl and Norton 1987).

The Muscovy duck dates to 700-600 BC in the Ecuadorian lowlands (Hesse 1980). The turkey dates to AD 180 and probably came from the greater Southwest (MacNeish 1966). The stingless bee dates back to at least AD 180, at least, and is spread throughout Central and South America (Callen 1966). The cochineal is known historically, but there is no conclusive archaeological evidence for it (Donkin 1977).

See also

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    $\begingroup$ "The other factor here is there's no way to have a herd of rodents." Sure there is. Humans have domesticated the capybara, which is a large, herding rodent. And the article you quote at the end talks about domesticated guinea pigs. $\endgroup$ Dec 9, 2016 at 4:23
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    $\begingroup$ @TheBlackCat I have never heard that capybaras were ever domesticated. Do you have any references for that? $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Dec 9, 2016 at 7:13
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    $\begingroup$ I think you're wrong to eliminate carnivores, given that both dogs and cats have been domesticated (and in fact, your quotation shows that domesticated dogs were kept in the pre-Columbian Americas). You seem to be interpreting the question as requiring that each domesticated animal is used for each of the listed purposes, but I think it's intended to require only that the aggregate of domesticated animals is used for the aggregate of the listed purposes. So carnivores don't need to be domesticated for meat as long as they're used for something else in the list. $\endgroup$
    – ruakh
    Dec 9, 2016 at 7:15
  • $\begingroup$ This is a good post. Considering that Bison bison was never domesticated (not counting modern, partial domestication), why would make B. antiquus or B. occidentalis more likely to be domesticated? $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Dec 9, 2016 at 14:49
  • $\begingroup$ @kingledion They are in a bit of a gray area. Herds are raised and bred like cows, but it hasn't been going on long enough for there to be a major change in their form. appropedia.org/… $\endgroup$ Dec 12, 2016 at 18:31

It is hard to say with any certainty, but we can make some educated guesses based on domestications elsewhere.

For example, considering that horses, camels, pigs, and oxen were domesticated elsewhere, and relatives of camels were domesticated in the Americas, if these hadn't gone extinct in the Americas they very well could have been domesticated. Many surviving peccaries and llamas have been domesticated, so extinct forms could have been as well. We have domesticated a lot of both land and water fowl, including some in the Americas, so extinct forms could have been domesticated in the Americas as well.

On the other hand, bears and big cats haven't been domesticated anywhere, so it is unlikely they (or other animals filling similar niches like Nimravidae) would have been domesticated in the Americas. Although it would be plausible for the dire wolf to be domesticated, humans would have brought their own dogs so this wouldn't likely have happened, and non-social canines probably wouldn't have been domesticated.

There are other animals where the situation is less clear. Glyptodonts, Notoungulata, and ground sloths were pretty diverse, so perhaps there were some varieties that could have been domesticatable (although I am not sure why someone would want to domesticate a Glyptodont). Reindeer have been domesticated, so perhaps some of deer varieties could have been depending on their behavior. Similarly, Asian elephants have been tamed (but not domesticated due to their long reproductive cycle) while African elephants haven't based largely on different temperaments, so it is possible some of the smaller varieties of elephant relatives might have been had short enough reproductive cycles and good enough temperament to be domesticated. As mentioned previously, most varieties of llama and camel have been domesticated, so the superficially similar Litopterna might also have been.

It is much harder to say with terror birds, humans never really had any contact with large carnivorous terrestrial birds. If they imprint like many bird species do then domestication would have been easy, otherwise it would probably have been extremely difficult.

Similarly there really are no living enormous rodents, so it is hard to say what we would do with something like the giant beaver. Although we have domesticated the largest living rodent, the capybara, it is naturally a herd animal, so it isn't a good basis for comparison. It is a South American animal, though, and it has extinct relatives that could have been domesticated as well.

Edit: I originally incorrectly said Asian elephants have been domesticated. They have only been tamed.

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    $\begingroup$ If they could be domesticated glyptodonts could pull a plow, and their shell could be used for housing. Although we have no ideas if they are suitable. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Dec 9, 2016 at 14:54
  • $\begingroup$ @John: I thought about that, but I figured they would be too slow compared to oxen or Notoungulata for most pulling tasks, and shelter wouldn't be common enough to warrant domesticating them rather than hunting wild ones. $\endgroup$ Dec 12, 2016 at 18:28
  • $\begingroup$ its not a matter of speed plow animals don't have to move fast it is how much weight they can pull. but glyptodon are small compared to those two so they could not pull as much. Keep in mind they don't need a purpose besides food to be domesticated, most of the other things we use animals for were discovered after they were domesticated. we did not domesticate cow or goats for milk we domesticated them for meat. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Dec 12, 2016 at 18:41
  • $\begingroup$ I feel I should mention oxen were bred from the same animals as cattle, the auroch, musk ox are a completely different species more closely related to bison. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Dec 13, 2016 at 1:56
  • $\begingroup$ Incidentally, elk are trivially tamed and might make a good choice to domesticate for meat. $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Jul 31, 2020 at 16:31

It's difficult to say scientifically, becasue to many factors are unknown. It is impossible to say yes this species would be domesticated, but we can eliminate many of them. Assuming you want these animals to be domesticated prior to industrialization then to be domesticated an animal needs four traits.

first it has to be mellow enough to get used to get used to having humans around and not trying to stomp them into a grease paste or run away as soon as they see them.

Second it needs to be pack or herd dwelling, if they won't tolerate others of their kind they are next to useless, becasue you can't breed them and they will not tolerate having people around all the time.

Third they have to mate with a fairly high turnover, elephants would have been great to domesticate if they didn't breed so incredibly slow.

lastly hey can't have a specialized diet or habitat. If humans can't take them with them they can't domesticate them.

many of these will be unknown for extinct fauna, especially temperament. Sadly many of the traits that make you easy to domesticate also make you easy to hunt to extinction.

we can rule out groups though for these reasons, mammoths and mastodons get dropped from the list for the same reason as elephants. The various bears and big cats can be ruled out due to temperament and lack of social behavior.

We have to be careful when just assuming species that look alike behave similarly however. Calmness can't be estimated well by morphology. Zebra and horses are all but identical but one was easily domesticated and the other is completely unsuitable becasue the temperaments are completely different. Fossils just don't give enough information for anything but gross estimation of behavior.

It is important to remember just becasue an animals is domesticated today does not mean it can be domesticated without technological support. Bison are a great example, which were not really domesticated some individuals are tamed and with things like steel fencing and tranquilizers we can contain herds for our purposes but that's not the same thing as domestication.

If you are making a story with this you might be better off taking all of the suitable candidates putting them in a hat and pulling four or five at random and saying those are the ones that turned out to be domesticable.

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    $\begingroup$ Asian elephants have been domesticated. $\endgroup$ Dec 9, 2016 at 3:29
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    $\begingroup$ I disagree that it's impossible to know - calmness can be estimated by physiology (Predator? Prey? Related to something we know?), pack size/lack thereof can be estimated by looking at fossils (are they found in groups?), mating turnover can be estimated similarly to behavior, and diet/habitat can be identified again by physiology and fossil distribution. $\endgroup$
    – Zxyrra
    Dec 9, 2016 at 3:44
  • $\begingroup$ elephants were domesticated very recently with modern technological support. I assume the poster wants these animals domesticated in antiquity. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Dec 9, 2016 at 14:29
  • $\begingroup$ @zxyrra did you read my whole answer? say the part about ruling out groups? I never said all of it is unknown just enough that we can't say which would be suitable. Calmness can't be estimated well by morphology. Zebra and horses are all but identical but one was easily domesticated and the other is completely unsuitable becasue the temperaments are completely different. Fossils just don't give enough information for anything but gross estimation of behavior. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Dec 9, 2016 at 14:34
  • $\begingroup$ @John It's not easy and not applicable to everything but we can make educated guesses. $\endgroup$
    – Zxyrra
    Dec 9, 2016 at 14:36

There is a very thorough analysis of what makes an animal domesticable in Guns Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. The Wikipedia article has a good summary of the general theory, but doesn't explicitly list all the criteria for an animal to be suitable for domestication.

"As early Western Asian civilizations began to trade, they found additional useful animals in adjacent territories, most notably horses and donkeys for use in transport. Diamond identifies 13 species of large animals over 100 pounds (45 kg) domesticated in Eurasia, compared with just one in South America (counting the llama and alpaca as breeds within the same species) and none at all in the rest of the world." Wikipedia

FYI, none of the five animals you mentioned were native to Europe - they were brought there as domestic animals. GG&S also explains why "civilisation" (AKA settled agricultural society) developed first in the Middle East, and why it then migrated into Western Europe a couple of millennia later.

Diamond also says that domesticable grains are a necessary prerequisite before animals become domesticated on a wide scale, especially large work animals, because the people need to have a grain surplus to feed their work animals, and also because hunter-gatherers don't really have enough useful work for animals to do to justify the effort of gathering food for them.

"Eurasia has barley, two varieties of wheat, and three protein-rich pulses for food; flax for textiles; and goats, sheep, and cattle. Eurasian grains were richer in protein, easier to sow, and easier to store than American maize or tropical bananas." Wikipedia

Maize does have the advantage that it can grow in relatively poor soil, so in the Americas, cities could form in places where a wheat/barley/legume culture simply wouldn't be able to grow enough food to survive.

  • $\begingroup$ I have read Guns, Germs and Steel, and it is what prompted this question. The question is, what animals might be domesticated if they were not extinct. You haven't really answered it, do you have any advice on what otherwise-extinct megafauna of the New World might be domesticable? $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Jan 14, 2017 at 20:15
  • $\begingroup$ Diamond's criteria include behavioural traits that can't be detected from fossil remains. For example, you could not tell from their skeletons that horses were domesticable and zebras weren't. If you are writing fiction, you can hand-wave the behavioural characteristics to make an extinct species domesticable. You can just filter the ones that meet his criteria as far as we can tell from their physical remains, and then hand wave the rest of the criteria. $\endgroup$ Jan 15, 2017 at 4:02
  • $\begingroup$ @JnaniJennyHale: The accounts of the wild ox are about as bad as the zebra, but the ox was domesticated from it all the same. $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Jul 31, 2020 at 16:28

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