"Domestication" by Jody Hewgill

We humans love cats and dogs. We raise chickens and collect their eggs. We drink milk from cows, eat bread from wheat, and wear sweaters of wool from alpacas and sheep. What would life on Earth be were it not for the domestication of plants and animals?

For more than 10,000 years, domestication has shaped human evolution and the world as we know it. Yet researchers still have a lot to learn about this remarkable phenomenon. “Domestication is not just something that happens to other species; it’s also happening to us — it’s a relationship,” says SFI External Professor Amy Bogaard, professor of Neolithic and Bronze Age Archaeology at the University of Oxford. It’s a complex, long-term, multi-generational process in which “we’re all affecting each other’s evolution.”

That marks a dramatic shift in thinking about domestication, which was long mischaracterized as “human mastery of the environment or the wild,” she says.

Bogaard is working with University of Oxford evolutionary biologist Greger Larson, director of the Palaeogenomics & Bio-Archaeology Research Network, to bring 16 researchers to SFI March 9‒11 to debate the most cutting-edge research and questions about domestication. “The conversation is necessarily cross- disciplinary,” Bogaard says, with participants in zooarchaeology, archaeobotany, genetics, anthropology, and more.

But a precise definition of domestication is not on Larson’s agenda. “We are instead querying the nature of relationships between human groups and lots of different plants and animals, and then how all of those things get complicated because they all start integrating with each other,” says Larson.

As an icebreaker, Larson will ask each researcher to share “the most radical, crazy idea about the origins of domestication.” It’s intended to be a fun but productive conversation that transcends traditional silos of thought.

Understanding our origins is key to understanding who we are, Larson says. “The entire planet and everything that we’re surrounded by — including our electricity and our clothes and our houses and everything that we take for granted about the way in which we interact with the planet — is predicated upon a relationship that is a domestic one between us and a bunch of plants and animals. And we still really don’t have the foggiest clue of how this all came about.”

Read more about the working group, "Re-evaluating the Origins and Trajectories of Domestication," which runs March 9-11.

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