My daughter Brynn recently brought my attention to an interview on National Public Radio (NPR) with Charles C. Mann the author of the bestselling 1491 and 1493. I am intently interested in ancient American culture so I was happy that she had emailed me a link to the interview. I admire the incredible amount of effort required to research an write such an in depth look at early American history, but I was disappointed with one of the assertions made by Mr. Mann.
As he commented on the European diseases that wiped out large segments of the Native American populations he stated that Native Americans didn’t have similar diseases because they had no domesticated animals. He even went as far to say that “…there was no domesticable animals in the Americas.”
I was stunned by his comment, as my mind immediately thought of the new world Camelids (Alpacas and llamas) that I recently treated, are not these domesticated American animals, I thought? Mr. Mann then admitted a few minutes later, almost dismissively as if it was a mere side note in history, that South Americans had domesticated Llamas and Alpacas.
Native Americans both in the South and in the North did indeed domesticate a number of species. While not as many as in the Old World, but these species never the less, were and are very important to the first inhabitants of the Americas.
Llamas and Alpacas:
Evidence for Llama and Alpaca domestication is clear from archeological excavations and occurred sometime between four to ten thousand years ago1. Historically Llamas and Alpacas have and still do play a very important role in South America culture. They are bred for wool, pack animals, meat and are used extensively in Native American religious rituals.
Turkeys were domesticated in Mexico and the North American Southwest anywhere between 300 BC-AD 1003. Turkeys were used by ancient Americans not only a as food source, but were also significant in ritual offerings, and their feather and bones, were used for medicines, fans, tools, musical instruments and personal adornments3.
Archaeological evidence documents Muscovy Duck domestication by at least 100 BC4. Muscovy ducks were probably raised for meat and were distributed throughout Central and South America, and the Caribbean.
The fact that Native Americans co-existed with domestic dogs are clear. Archeological evidence of domesticated dogs in North America appeared about 20,000 years ago5. What is not completely clear is whether American dogs were domesticated here or came across the Bering Strait as prehistoric peoples migrated to America6.
Dogs were almost certainly used for a number of different tasks including food, as beasts of burden, for hunting other animals, and most certainly companionship5,6.
Guinea Pig domestication began approximately 4500 years ago in South America7. Guinea Pigs were and are still used as a protein source in South America6. Additionally Guinea Pigs were important as “sacrificial offerings, an antidote to sorcery, and for the diagnosis and cure of illness6.”
Melipona scutellaris, was one of the first bee species domesticated “by Potiguara, Kiriri, Xucuru, Pataxó, Paiaku, Tupicuruba and Aymoré indians” in Brazil8. In addition to Brazil, stingless bees were found throughout much of South America into Mexico, the Yucatan peninsula, and Central America6. These domesticated bees were used for honey productions, wax, food, and medicine6.
Cochineal is parasitic insect of prickly pear cactus. Adult females contain a red dye which can be used in the coloring of textiles, food and pharmaceuticals9. The earliest known use of Cochineal dye was associated with the Paracas culture in Peru (700-300 BC) and extended through South and Central America9.
The evidence is clear; Native Americans domesticated a variety of animals including camelids, birds, dogs, and insects. These animals were very important to pre-Columbian cultures that relied on them for food, transportation, medicine, rituals, medicine, and clothing. They sustained families, enriched cultures and stimulated trade. All of these animals are still cultivated today and enjoy international importance.
Compared to European colonists, Pre-Columbian civilizations utilized fewer domesticated species. This doesn’t however mean that they were any less important to Native American societies. The disparity in the numbers of species, when comparing the new to old world, I believe is due to the relative isolation of new world cultures. Europeans had the advantage of regular trade and cultural exchange with Asia and Africa. Old world societies were then able to exploit these trade relations with the natural result being a relatively greater number of domesticated animals at their disposal.
1. A Brief History of Camelids in the Western Hemisphere International Camelid Directory; Jane C. Wheeler page 2.
2. Improving llama production in Bolivia Leisa Magazine April 2002; Osman Rocha Ravollo page 1.
3. Earliest Mexican Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) in the Maya Region: Implications for Pre-Hispanic Animal Trade and the Timing of Turkey Domestication; by Erin Kennedy Thornton, Kitty F. Emery, David W. Steadman, Camilla Speller Ray Matheny, Dongya Yang.
4. New evidence for pre-Columbian Muscovy Duck Cairina moschata from Ecuador; Peter W. Stahl, Michael C. Muses and Florencio Delgado-Espinoza. Ibis (2006), 148, 657-663
5. Evidence of the Domesticated Dogs and Some Related Canids in the Eastern Great Basin Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology, 16(2); Karen D Lupo, Joel C, Janetski.
6. Evidence for Pre-Columbian Animal Domestication in the New World; D.L. Johnson and B.K. Swartz, Jr.. Ball State University Muncie, Indiana.
7. Wild genius – domestic fool? Spatial learning abilities of wild and domestic guinea pigs Frontiers in Zoology 2010, 7:9; Lars Lewejohann, Thorsten Pickel, Norbert Sachser, Sylvia Kaiser.
8. Areas of Natural Occurrence of Melipona scutellaris Latreille, 1811 (Hymenoptera: Apidae) in the state of Bahia, Brazil An Acad Bras Cienc (2012) 84 (3) Rogererio M.O. Alves, Carlos A.L. Caralho, Bruon A. Souza, and Wyrantan S. Snatos
9. Cochineal Production; a reviving Pre-Columbian Industry; Louis Rodrequez and Hermann M. Niemeyer Athena Review Vol. 2, No. 4