Book Summary: “Tamed: Ten Species that Changed Our World” by Alice Roberts

Title: Tamed: Ten Species that Changed Our World
Author: Alice Roberts
Scope: 3.5 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

If you enjoyed this book summary, please support the author by buying the book.

Topic of Book

Roberts overviews the history of ten domesticated plants and animals and examines their impact on human history.

If you would like to learn more about the role domesticated plants and animals played in human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

My Comments

The history of domesticated plants and animals has been seriously neglected in traditional historiography. Roberts helps to fill the gap.

Key Take-aways

  • Domesticated plants and animals have played a key role in human history. In fact, it is safe to say that without them, human history would be radically different.
  • Each species had certain genetic traits that, by coincidence, proved useful for human beings.
  • Humans then purposefully and accidentally changed those genes to make them even more useful to humans.
  • Humans also had to radically change their societies to make the best possible use of those plants and animals.
  • in some cases, human genes themselves were changed in the process.

Important Quotes from Book


“The morphological variety amongst modern dog breeds exceeds that in the whole of the rest of the family Canidae, which includes foxes and jackals as well as wolves and dogs.”


“We have this coherent story of people seriously exploiting wild grains by 12,500 years ago, and probably even making flatbread from finely ground flour; the emergence of cultivation of cereals from around 11,000 years ago, and the gradual domestication of species, at multiple, connected centres. By 8,000 years ago, most of the wheat and barley being grown across the Near East is non-shattering and large-grained.”

“After the peak of the last Ice Age, around 20,000 years ago, the world started to warm up.”

“As the Ice Age drew to an end – between 15,000 and 12,000 years ago – the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose from 180 to 270 parts per million. Experiments have shown that this would have resulted in up to a 50 per cent increase in productivity for many types of plants, and that even resilient grasses would have seen a 15 per cent increase.”

“As the world warmed and plant life flourished, grasses presented a dependable source of nutrition. As carbon dioxide levels rose in the atmosphere, the number of grains per plant would have increased, and stands of wild cereals would have grown in size and density – natural fields just waiting to be harvested.”

“When the world had begun to warm up after the last glacial maximum, the human population began to boom. This is before agriculture emerges. ”


“It seems most likely that domesticated cattle arose in the Near East, between 10,000 and 11,000 years ago, and then spread, meeting wild relatives along the way.”

“During the eighteenth century, British pioneers led the way in systematic selective breeding – and specialised breeds started to emerge.”

“In the second half of the twentieth century, cattle breeding got even more technical, with the introduction of artificial insemination.”


“Maize, it seems, is not so difficult to please. It appears to be extraordinarily cosmopolitan. It’s the most geographically ubiquitous grain.”

“The historical records show that farmers didn’t immediately swap their traditional crops for this new grain. Instead, maize was often grown on marginal land, by impoverished farmers trying to eke out a living in relatively barren areas. It was considered a food of the poor – and yet, once it had a foothold in the Old World, the global future of maize was assured. Its sheer variety, and ability to grow in such a wide range of crossed the Atlantic – it was poised to spread throughout the world.”

“All the maize lineages – from the temperate-adapted Northern Flints to the tropical types in Colombia, Venezuela and the Caribbean – tracked back and coalesced, converging on a single stem. So maize was domesticated just once.”

“Changing its form in response to climate and to selection by its human cultivators, maize began to spread from its homeland in the tropical forests of Mexico – up into the highlands, and into more northerly and more southerly latitudes – as the craze for agriculture took hold. The gradual spread of maize through the Americas allowed it to adapt to different environments – crucially becoming, not only a lowland plant, but a highland one; not only a tropical plant, but a temperate one.”

“Maize appears to have migrated from Mexico via separate highland and lowland routes, into Guatemala, and on, further south. It had reached northern South America by 7,500 years ago. By 4,700 years ago, maize was growing in lowland Brazil, and by 4,000 years ago, it was in the Andes. From northern South America, maize spread northwards to Trinidad and Tobago, and the other islands of the Caribbean. The spread of maize to North America was much slower – beginning in the south-west corner just over 2,000 years ago, but then spreading right up to the north-east, into what is now Canada, in perhaps just a few centuries. And as maize spread, it kept changing.

By the time of European contact with the Americas, a huge range of varieties of maize had developed, growing everywhere from Mexico to north-east America, from the coasts of the Caribbean and the valleys of Brazil, up into the heights of the Andes.”


“Savannahs contain many more plants with ‘underground storage organs’ – such as rhizomes, corms, bulbs and tubers… 40,000 kilograms in every square kilometre of the savannah, compared with a meagre 100 kilograms per square kilometre in the forest.”

“Root and tubers are actually fairly low-quality foods – they have nowhere near the amount of energy that’s packed into fruit and seeds, meat and honey. But they are dependable. Anthropologists asked Hadza about food preferences, and found that honey – the most energy-dense food in nature – came out on top. Tubers consistently ranked lowest. Meat, berries and baobab fruit come somewhere in between. But despite the low ranking of tubers, they’re also the foodstuff that makes up the bulk of the Hadza diet – precisely because they can depend on them”

“Two key developments – one cultural, and one genetic – would have hugely helped to unlock the energy bound up in starch. That cultural development was cooking; the genetic one was the multiplication of a gene that produces an enzyme in saliva, to break down starch”

“The latest archaeological and genetic evidence suggests that a wild potato species was first domesticated somewhere around Lake Titicaca, in the high Andes, between 8,000 and 4,000 years ago – around the same time that the llama was domesticated. But genetic studies also provide support for the hybrid origin of the Chilean potato cultivar, meaning that, as the original Andean domesticate spread, it hybridised with other, wild species.”

[Incans] “the potatoes were transformed into chuño – freeze-dried potatoes”

“Perhaps even more importantly, making chuño transformed potatoes into a form that could be stored for extended periods, sometimes years. While the elite amongst agricultural societies in the Fertile Crescent grew wealthy by amassing stores of wheat and herds of cattle, the Inca chiefs grew rich and fat on their stores of dried potatoes. Chuño became a currency in its own right – the peasants paid their taxes in it, while labourers and mercenaries were paid in it.”


“The original homeland of domesticated rice – in China itself. This centre of domestication had also given the world domesticated soybeans, adzuki beans, foxtail millet, citrus fruits, melons, cucumbers, almonds, mangoes and tea.”

“a single origin of Oryza sativa indica, in southern China, with japonica developing as a later, upland adaptation.”

“Although rice seems so important, from a modern perspective, it was actually only a minor crop to begin with. Foxtail millet was more important as an early cereal – domesticated as far back as 10,000 years ago – and its spread seems to have pre-empted the spread of rice.”

“In each centre of domestication – including East Asia, the Fertile Crescent, West Africa, Mesoamerica and the Andes – early farmers domesticated at least one indigenous species of grass and one indigenous species of legume or pulse. Today, the descendants of those founder crops of cereals and legumes feed the majority of the global population. In the Fertile Crescent, early farmers grew lentils, peas, chickpeas and bitter vetch alongside emmer wheat, einkorn and barley. The farmers of the Yangtze Valley were growing soybeans and adzuki beans alongside rice and millet. The separate centre of agriculture in sub-Saharan West Africa saw the cultivation and domestication of hyacinth beans and cowpeas alongside pearl millet, finger millet and sorghum, between 5,000 and 3,000 years ago. In the Americas, common beans (also known as string beans, and – quite wrongly – as French beans) and lima beans were grown alongside maize.”


“This hat-trick of three separate strands of evidence – the leg bones, clear signs of bit wear, and use of mare’s milk – all point to the same thing. The Botai of ancient Kazakhstan were harnessing, milking and keeping domesticated horses by the fourth millennium BCE.”

“This early expansion of steppe people may have carried something of its own, along “with the horses: they may have been speaking a Proto-Indo-European language, a language which would evolve into Anatolian as they moved even further south.

So it seems likely that taming and riding horses could have started a thousand years before the Botai culture emerged – perhaps as early as the fifth millennium BCE.”

“The connection is clear: horse-riding and domesticated horses were spreading – fast. Horses and horse-riding spread south of the Caucasus, too. After 5,300 years ago, horses are found more frequently in Mesopotamia – just as the Sumerian civilisation began to blossom.

Riding horses wouldn’t just have helped with horse husbandry – it would make herding other animals much more efficient as well. One person on foot, with a good dog to help, could herd 200 sheep. On horseback, with a dog, you could control 500 – and cover a much larger area. ”

“Riding and warfare seem to have been intimately linked, even at this early stage. Formal cavalry might not have emerged until the Iron Age, around 3,000 years ago, but mounted raids – stealing animals from other tribes – and the internecine strife that went with them probably go back to the very dawn of horseback riding.”

“The solution: wagons. These wheeled vehicles first appeared on the steppe around 5,000 years ago.”

“Rather than multiple, independent centres of domestication, the picture that’s now emerging is one of domesticated horses spreading from their original homeland in the steppes – but with plenty of wild mares being added to the existing domestic herds along the way, and through history. So it wasn’t just a spread of an idea and a new technology after all – it was a spread of horses, too.”


“But ancient apple orchardists eventually discovered how to make the apple stay “true. They found a way of capturing the qualities of a prized apple tree and passing on those traits to other trees. In the fourth millennium BCE, gardeners invented cloning.”


“In Europe, there are genetic echoes of three major waves of immigration. The first wave represents the Palaeolithic colonisers – although the very first of this group to arrive, reaching Britain at the far western edge of Europe by 40,000 years ago, leave little genetic trace. Their population would have crashed at the last glacial maximum. But after the ice sheets receded, survivors in southern, Mediterranean refugia recolonised the north”

“ These people were soon to be joined by the second major wave of incomers – who would bring a whole new way of life with them. Farmers, originally from Central Anatolia, expanded across Europe, in fits and starts, and probably travelling by boat, reaching the Iberian Peninsula around 7,000 years ago, and settling in Scandinavia and Britain by 6,000 years ago… “The third wave of immigrants arrived, with their horses and their new language, in the early Bronze Age – around 5,000 years ago – as the Yamnaya population expanded and spilled over into Europe.”

“Anthropologists and archaeologists have described three main pathways to domestication of animals – and it was never an ‘event’, rather a long, drawn-out evolutionary process. One pathway involves animals choosing humans, borrowing resources from us. As they moved in closer, they began to co-evolve with us, becoming tame long before any sort of human-directed selection… Dogs and chickens both became our allies in this way. The second route is the prey pathway. Even here, there would have been no initial intention to domesticate animals – only to manage them as a resource. This would have been the route for medium and large herbivores such as sheep, goats and cattle – first hunted as prey, then managed as game, and finally herded as livestock. The final pathway is the most intentional – where humans set out to capture and domesticate animals, right from the start. Usually these animals were seen as useful for something other than just meat – and horses, tamed as our steeds, are a prime example.”

“Human history would have played out very differently if the other species we interacted with had been different – missing altogether, impossible to catch or to domesticate,”

“Humans are extremely sociable, tolerant creatures”

“If we compare ourselves with our closest living relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, we come out extremely well. In other apes, large social groups tend to tear themselves apart, while fear and stress are natural responses to meeting an unfamiliar member of one’s own species.”

“our peculiar success as a species, and the development of our extraordinary cumulative culture, rests on that ability to cooperate and help each other. To achieve that, we’ve had to become – tame.”

“Over the last 200,000 years, human skulls have also changed, becoming less robust, with less pronounced brow ridges, thinner bones overall, and less of a difference in the size of canines between males and females. This looks like a similar pattern to that seen in silver foxes and other domesticated animals. The change may be linked to a reduction in testosterone levels – which affects bone growth as well as behaviour. ”

“Domesticated animals share another characteristic with us humans – and we’ve taken it to an extreme. We tend to develop slowly. We’re childish, or puppyish, for longer than our wild counterparts. Infants and juveniles are more trusting, more friendly, more playful, and more receptive to learning than adults.”

“there is something that may unite all the changes – neural, physiological and anatomical – which are seen in the ‘domestication syndrome’ in different animals. That ‘something’ is a certain population of cells in the embryo which go on to make a great range of tissues in the body… neural crest cells”

If you would like to learn more about the role domesticated plants and animals played in human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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