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The First Domesticated Animal? Clue: Slime June 22, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Prehistoric , trackback

snails

***Dedicated to Wade and Larry***

What was the first domesticated animal? Ask a hundred people and seventy odd will give you the ‘correct’ answer: the dog. The dog was, after all, already domesticated by 10000 B.C. (discuss) when human beings crossed the landbridge into the Americas. In fact, the dog, well, actually the wolf, was domesticated perhaps twenty or thirty thousand years before. However, there is another candidate for the first domestic, which pushes ahead by a score of eyestalks. Beach refers not to the cat, which took a little longer than the dog, nor, indeed, to the goat or sheep or pig: that trio of chemical bombs that would eventually kill millions in the New World. No, the animal in question was, of course, the snail.

First, let’s establish why it makes sense to ‘herd’ snails. As the great Felipe Fernández-Armesto puts it:

‘They are an efficient food, self-packaged in a shell which serves at table as a receptacle… The waste is small, the nutrition excellent. … snails are readily managed [compared to ‘intractable quadrupeds’]. By culling small or unfavoured types by hand the primitive snail farmer would enjoy the benefits of selective breeding. Snails are grazers and do not need to be fed with food which would otherwise be wanted for human consumption [i.e. you can tip your waste in]. They can be raised in abundance  and herded without the use of fire, without any special equipment, without personal danger and without the need to select and train lead animals or dogs to help. They are close to being a complete food, useful as ration for traders’ journeys, pilgrimages and campaigns. Some varieties, such as eremina, contain water for several day’s travel as well as plenty of meat.’

Put like this it was inevitable that our hunter-gathering ancestors would have decided to put aside a corner of their cave or compounds for the little slimes. There are many Paleolithic sites where there are large piles of snail shells: bushels of them, in fact. For example, at the well excavated Klissoura site in southern Greece, snail shells become particularly common in the late Paleolithic. And what is fascinating is that the shells are, at many of these sites, large by today’s standards: as FFA points out above, we likely have selective breeding at the end of the Ice Age. A question follows from this. Most anthropologists believe that the hunter-gathering division was male female. They may have a point, though their deduction depends largely on studies of the last hunter-gatherer cultures. If that is so who was responsible for the snails: the male hunters or the female gatherers? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Were there snail shamans? Shudder.

Also Larry and Wade sent in this great new snail history story: thanks!

25 June 2013: Chris from Haunted Ohio Books writes: You mentioned shamans. I remembered reading something about snail slimes having  hallucinogenic properties.   This link mentions South American tribes crushing and burning snail shells to add to their berserker snuff.  Apparently the slime can also be good for you.  On the other hand, snail parasites are not. There is an unappetising disease called  “Rat Lungworm,” which comes from eating contaminated snails or slime. The disease also causes hallucinations.  And then there’s this spoof article about the perils of snail licking.  Oddly enough there are a large number of videos on YouTube showing people licking snails, to judge by my search results. I’m not sure if these are there for the “gross-out” or “double-dare” factor or if these are snail shamans in training. I think I probably don’t want to know. Then Wade sends in this great link: This seems like synchronicity. An article on stone age consumption of shellfish or molluscs. Thanks Chris and Wade for this education!