Unhappy bunnies?

Why were rabbits never domesticated in the Americas, despite being a feature of human life?

Here at Past Worlds, we have long wondered why ancient Native Americans never domesticated wild rabbits. Today, rabbits of all sizes and types abound in the Americas. But all the domesticated breeds came originally from the Iberian Peninsula and southern France, where they provided meat and fur. There are, of course, numerous wild rabbit species throughout the Americas, which were widely trapped with nets in large numbers in areas like interior California and the Great Basin, but never domesticated.

Archaeologists Andrew Somerville and Nawa Sugiyama examined thousands of cottontail bones found in excavations at the great city of Teotihuacán at the edge of the Basin of Mexico. Cottontails represented no less than 23 percent of the animal bones found during the classic period of the city’s history in the early first millennium AD, far more abundant than deer, domesticated turkeys, and dogs. Their bones also occur in the stomach contents of eagles (as pictured above), pumas, and other animal sacrifices.

Almost certainly these cottontails were raised for food and sacrificial purposes, probably being fed on corn. Forty-six percent of the animal bones in one apartment complex were those of rabbits, which were fed maize and other grains, apparently housed in a room where the phosphate level from urine was high. Clearly, rabbit husbandry was of considerable importance, yet cottontails were never domesticated. Despite this, they remained a part of human life: the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés describes rabbits for sale in the Aztec marketplace at Tlateloco a thousand years later.

So why were they not domesticated? Ultimately, the only difference between cottontails and domesticated European rabbits is in their social behaviour. European rabbits dwell in large social groups, while the American cottontails are solitary. The cottontails also live above ground, not in burrows, and in more dispersed territories. Greater species diversity resulted among the less social cottontails in the Americas, and this appears to be why domestication did not take hold.

Image: the bones of two rabbits found in the stomach contents of an eagle sacrificed at the sun pyramid at Teotihuacán, Mexico.

Credit: Nawa Sugiyama/UCR.

The open-access paper, "Why were New World rabbits not domesticated?" is published in Animal Frontiers and available here.