Anthropology / Everything Human

The Domesticated Hominin


The Domesticated Hominin

“I do not think any spectacle can be more interesting, than the first sight of Man in his primitive wildness.”

—Charles Darwin, letter to J.S. Henslow, April 11, 1833

March 3 was World Wildlife Day, and that got me thinking: Are humans still “wild”? If not, when were human ancestors no longer “wildlife”? In other words, what event or transition in human evolutionary history marks the “domestication” of hominins?


An instinctual response to this question might be “the use or manufacture of tools.” Briana Pobiner’s recent SAPIENS article, “The First Butchers,” discusses evidence of tool use and manufacturing by various hominin species over the last 3.3 million years. Pobiner also addresses tool use by living nonhuman primate species, such as chimpanzees cracking open nuts with stones. If animals living in the wild today are using tools, then tool use by human ancestors wouldn’t necessarily mark a transition away from being “wildlife.”

What about toolmaking? Chimpanzees do not intentionally make complex stone tools, as Plio-Pleistocene hominins did. But they do prepare branches and stems to use as hunting spears and termite-fishing rods, respectively. So again, if we consider modern chimpanzees to be wildlife, then the earliest toolmaking hominins would be too, would they not?


An artistic rendering of the construction of the earliest known hominin-made shelter, discovered at a 400,000-year-old site in Terra Amata, France. When did human ancestors make the transition out of "wildness"?

An artistic rendering of the construction of the earliest known hominin-made shelter, discovered at a 400,000-year-old site in Terra Amata, France. Human Origins Program, Smithsonian Institution

What about the ability to come in from the cold, so to speak? Consider the behavior of altering one’s environment to build a shelter. That might strike you as a not-so-wild thing to do. Currently, the oldest evidence of hominin shelter building is located in France and dates to about 400,000 years ago. Could this mark a transition to domestic life for human ancestors? Well, other organisms build structures that could be considered shelters. A diversity of animals create burrows with “shelters” over the opening; beavers get cozy inside their dams; arthropods, birds, rodents, fish, primates, and other critters build nests; and there are even leaf-shelter-building caterpillars and tent-making bats. Perhaps shelter building isn’t the answer we’re looking for.


Some decorator crabs attach other animals, like anemones, to their bodies.

Some decorator crabs attach other animals, like anemones, to their bodies. R C/Flickr

At least 100,000 years ago, hominins began modifying resources from their environment for decoration—as personal ornaments. In some cases, this human behavior may be considered nonadaptive, meaning individuals don’t adorn themselves to attract potential mates or send a message to competitors—they do it just because. Do wild animals behave this way? Sarah Berke and colleagues define a decorator as “any animal that actively attaches foreign material to itself or to its biogenic structure,” and there are in fact plenty of wild animals that do this. Many of them, though, decorate to protect themselves from predators, pathogens, or parasites, or to signal their status. All of these count as adaptive behaviors, since they are used to secure an advantage over competitors. The caterpillar Uraba lugens wears a protective hat made of its old, molted heads. Crabs of the superfamily Majoidea are well-studied for their decorative camouflage and other anti-predator decorating behaviors. Some insect larvae wear shields of feces or molted body parts for protection. So are hominins the only animals to adorn themselves for reasons that may not be adaptive? Once again, Homo sapiens’ closest living relatives, chimpanzees, show that even the most seemingly non-wild human behavior is not unique—by putting grass in their ears, just because.


Humans have a unique relationship with fire. At least 800,000 years ago, if not 1 million years ago, human ancestors had control over fire. Regular use of fire is evident in the archaeological record by 500,000 years ago. Hominins certainly used fire for light, warmth, and protection from predators. Anthropologists think the controlled use of fire led to significant evolutionary outcomes, including cultural shifts as well as changes in the shape and function of the hominin body. Certainly, some of the major changes to human behavior and form resulted from cooking. Physical changes over time—to the gut, face, and brain, in particular—were influenced by the processing and ingestion of cooked foods. And researchers suggest that fire’s light may have even affected sleep-wake patterns and therefore hominins’ hormonally controlled body rhythms.

Is the control of fire what sets hominins apart from wild animals? Are the burned bones and plants found at nearly 1-million-year-old sites a sign of the emergence of the domesticated hominin? When scientists consider the process of domesticating plants and animals, they think of artificial selection—for example, crossbreeding of plants, directed mating of animals, or culling—and the desired evolutionary outcomes of those activities. The regular, controlled use of fire by hominins has evolutionary consequences; could this behavior be an unconscious form of artificial selection of hominins by hominins—in other words, selection without wish or expectation of change that inevitably alters the population?

What do you think? Are humans still wild?

Evolution / /

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  • Barry Bainton

    Good questions, Caitlin.

    I have thought about this issue a great deal lately, especially as it relates to what is or should be the focus of anthropology. That is, is anthropo (man) logy (study) the study of Mankind (Humanity) or is it only the study of Culture? My bias is the former.

    The key to being human or humanoid is a neurological system that produce an awareness of a Self separate and independent of its internal and external environment.

    Domestication began when hominids discovered that living in a prolonged relationships required that they had the ability to control the events in their lives. Those who could cooperate with one another and accept the rules of these relationships were favored.

    Domestication is the basis of cultural development, both terms that come from agriculture. Human domestication is learning to live with others and learning to communicate and share knowledge leading to a common tradition. “Wild” would imply acting basically on instinct and idiosyncratic experience based on S-R learning. The transition most likely occurred with the emergence of a neurological system that was capable of recognizing and processing operant conditioning, that replacing or adding to the Sign with a Symbol.

    Domestication created the ontological problem that humanity faces once. Once individuals discovered the “self” (as in self awareness), they became aware that there existed something beyond the physical animal body they inhabited. The Self implies a “spirit” or life force which they and other animals possess. But they experience a reality where this life force is finite and ends with death. They discover that they are no more immortal than any other animal. Yet, their self awareness rejects the idea of their own death. This recognition of self and death creates a the type of psychological conflict that leads to the search for answers. And these answers lead to social rules that limit and channel “instincts” into patterns that foster cooperation and explanations (beliefs) about death and life (religion).

    The humanoid mind at some point in time invented an answer for this conundrum in a belief in some higher power(s) that explained this dualism. In other words, the animal human submitted to the domestication practices of the cultural human. The many different forces you describe in you essay all contribute to and have a feedback effect on the process. At least that is where I am at this point in my thinking and research on the original question I’ve chosen to consider.

    • Caitlin S

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Barry.

  • Torbjörn Larsson

    Yes, good questions. And good analysis, I haven’t thought of the angle of considering an extended phenotype (sensu Dawkins) in the context.

    As for fire, there is now tentative evidence that raptors control (bush) fire – spreading it – in order to get prey. [ ]

    As for Barry’s untested ‘self’ (which as self-recognition is now arguably known from fishes (manta rays!; ) to many tetrapods closer related to us) and appeal to the magic thinking of religion I don’t see how it relates to domestication processes.

    In a more general analysis I don’t think an extended phenotype nor a specific trait defines domestication. Traces of self-domestication are at the very least reliance on a communicative face (passively, as in evolved variation of human faces to the point they are all individual; actively, as in visible eye focusing and expressions), hidden estrous, and extensive social capabilities.

    If so, it is a widely recognizable process without any specific event or transition marking it. It could possibly be reverted by evolution. In such a case we need a metric and a quantitative classification into non-domesticated and domesticated species.

    In practice, humans and their cognate (domesticated) species would cluster. Maybe that is a convenient mark of the transition we seek: when we domesticated the first non-hominin species we entered the domesticated era for sure. (So, that would make me wrong, the transition is visible and marked by an extended phenotype. Oh well, I constructed it as an upper limit for observing the transition.)

    • Caitlin S

      I am excited to learn about this research pertaining to raptors and fire. Thank you for sharing this. And keep the dialogue going!

    • hello world

      Torbjorn, is the idea of a psycological “self” really untested? You consider yourself an individual psycologically do you not? You will tell me where you were born, what your parents do, your favourite films, your experiences, your memories, your hopes if you have any, and most people seem to, etc. This is the psychological entity that we call “me” or the self. It is based on what happened in the past. I think thats fairly clear and nobody would argue with that much so far. A Manta Ray may look in a mirror and recognise “itself” (still unproven according to the article) but still that is not the “self” of the human being. The “self” is the *accumulated* memory. The Ray will never assert “who it is”, since it will never carry the experiences of yesterday into today, even if it does recognise it’s own body in a mirror. We do carry the past into the present. Thought is what makes this possible, using memory, the two operating together. This trait of ours to store up the past is what has enabled all the knowledge that we have today. This knowledge has built beautiful cathedrals, cars, airplanes, lfe-saving modern medecine, the extraction of fossil fuels that cause destabilising climate change, the atom bomb etc.

      This same ability to accumulate is what is responsible for tradition – “I am a e.g Muslim or Christian, because my family has always been that”, and all of the war and killing in the name of this affiliated group on which my pyschological security depends. The group and the self are really key issues, totally interlinked. In some tribes, if they wanted to kill you, they just kicked you out of the tribe. Without secure ties to the rest of the group I feel lonely and insecure, like I “don’t know who I am anymore”.

      The group and memory/thought, may be interlocking keys in the domestication process in human beings. What other animal ever ended its life for being pushed out of the group? They have no-self image, not like we do. The child gets its image from the parents, since the parents have an image of themselves – including fixed ideas about right and wrong, what a “good job” is and what isnt etc, Images all of them, by the hundred. Images they likewise got from others. So in the domestication process a key factor is not finding things out for onself. Note I did not say “thinking for onself”. It may be possible to become mature, which surely means wise, by observation rather than accumulating knowledge, which is the essence of thinking.

      Thought to this day is worshiped for its abilty to create, to innovate further up the comfort curve, though most of our comforts and living situations are based on simply on liberating exosomatic energy at a wildly unsustainable rate quite likely to destroy us. Never appreciated is the division thought creates because of each mans faulty assertion that he is “himself”, a psycholgically different thing to you or another, the prime assertion of difference that causes conflict. He is in fact, not different, since his assertion to difference is based on the past. Now, you may have a different IQ to me, play football a little better, but that does not make you different from me except in the most trivial ways. Men everywhere are the same, they have the same psychological superstructure, the same needs, the same basic origins, the same needs..we are far more alike than we are different. But the man who believes because of his self-image that he is a Hindu or a Jew or an American or a Parisian or whatever is lost. He sees specialness in these things and identifies with them, they being merely concepts. He will naturally come into conflict with others.

      The self appears to offer security, I identify myself as this and that and I feel secure when I can identify with this or that and be a part of a group. This fragmentary activity means I can no longer see the whole, only the partial, why I can never see that every man is just like me, is my brother or sister. I will fight with that I dont know or am unsure of. That is simple, is it not? I put letters after my name and think Im different. The other fellow “thinks” he’s special because his race are supposed to be a chosen people. To have such illusions means freedom no longer is. When freedom is not, domestication, is. I have to repeat my actions to keep the letters after my name, go to church or the temple to assert my special race for all to see…that is repetiton, the very opposite of freedom. It is be domesticated and enslaved to an idea, the non-fact that Im different from another.

      IMHO, the subject of the self was most intelligently discussed by Jiddu Krishnamurti, and his conversations with the physicist David Bohm are truly remarkable. They are on YouTube, and the Brockwood Park Discussions, conversations 1-7 are some of the best. They really are unmissable.

      • Torbjörn Larsson

        I think Barry in hos comment does a bait-and-switch between self recognition and some nebulous (untestable) “self”.

  • Dwaynette O’Dougherty

    “Wild” means independent and outside human control. Domesticated means conditioned to human use and codependent on human life. So perhaps the humans on top of the power pyramid are wild, and those they control are domesticated. Any thoughts?

  • John Japuntich

    Are Humans wild or domesticated? A good question but what does one use to define domesticated? We could compare ourselves to animals that we have domesticated like dogs and cats. Dogs and cats have smaller brains, skulls and canine teeth than their wild fore-bearers wolves and wildcats. Like dogs and cats we have smaller brains, teeth and are in general less robust that our ancestors say 20,000 years ago. Therefore it seems that we are indeed not wild.

    So, what happened in the past 20,000 years that caused us to have smaller brains, teeth and to be less robust? The neolithic revolution happened. Domestication of plants and animals for food happened. Once we were no longer dependent on wild animals and plants for food we no longer needed to be as robust and thus domesticated ourselves.

    • Caitlin S

      I am so intrigued by this idea of “self-domestication” of humans by humans. Be sure to follow the hyperlinks in this post – I’ve linked to some great (open access) articles that will allow you to read further and dig deeper into these ideas.

  • TiaLee13

    “Wild” is just a name that humans give to other animals that can fend for themselves without human help. Under that definition, yes, humans are “wild”.

    These kinds of questions don’t matter at all. What matters now is convincing people, mostly the ones indoctrinated by religion, that humans are simply another animal on the Earth. The most destructive one, for sure. How “smart” can humans be that we are destroying our own planet with abandon?

    We are not even smart enough to put ego aside and try to live as animals should on the Earth.

  • Beau Ravn Ap Gwyddon

    Humans ceased to be ‘wild’ the moment that we chose to no longer recognise ourselves as being a part of nature; the moment that we chose to believe that nature is one thing and ‘we’ are something separate (some even believe ‘divine’ or having dominion over nature); the moment that we chose to deny our symbiotic roles and functions within the natural world or biosphere; the moment when we decided that we were no longer a part of the land, and to divide it into areas that we ‘own’ as either tribes or individuals. Basically, we ceased to be wild the moment that we believed ourselves to be ‘civilised’ and, thus, outside of the natural world. This is our dis-ease; the use of fire, shelter, tools, etc are irrelevant. It was/is what has happened in our collective consciousness that is the issue. Right now, even with our great technologies, cities, etc, we CAN choose to re-acknowledge ourselves as being one with our living environment once more and modify our technologies to support the acceptance of that divine union again should we choose to do so. We CAN re-wild ourselves regardless of what tools we use and objects/art we make. It is wholly a state of BEING, not DOING. Blessings.

  • Caitlin S

    Have you seen this?? “The astonishing age of a Neanderthal cave construction site” – via The Atlantic (May 25, 2016)

  • Rissa

    This is really about what makes us human as in what sets us apart from nature and all other animals; always an impossible question. You might start by considering what you mean by domestication.

  • mbg1

    What got me thinking on the subject of human self-domestication is the Industrial Revolution (IR). I live in a harsh rural environment (high desert at 8,000ft elevation). I’ve recently read some local history accounts during the IR. Survival was considerably less certain then, than today. The human traits/characteristics (phenotypes) of just a few generation ago (pre-IR) vs. today for the purpose of survival are significantly different. The ability to construct a sturdy shelter isn’t as necessary as the ability to pay a skilled contractor; the ability to be a successful hunter/gatherer/farmer/rancher isn’t as necessary as being able to pay for food at the grocery store. The most significant impact of the IR is discretionary income. The ability of the majority of people to acquire needs, and wants with a singular employable skill. On the farm/ranch the ability to create your own crew was accomplished through procreation, the kids. Before domestic mechanisms women’s work was very physical. Now smaller families with a woman’s ability to work a skilled job is preferred. So this led me to question; How much natural selection vs. self-domestication influenced hominines’ evolution? The attractive human traits/characteristics (phenotypes) in mate selection have changed very quickly in the matter of a few generation. Being a physically aggressive male was an attractive asset, where today it’s typically frowned upon. Being a physically strong/big woman was more attractive pre-IR than is typically promoted today. Evolution is observed over 1,000s of years, or more, domestication occurs over 100s of years. I know it’s a combination, but from my limited perspective it seems that human self-domestication has far exceeded natural selection in human evolution. Is this correct, and if so, do we need to be more mindful of what we’re creating, what we’re losing, and where we’re going?