Humans ‘Domesticated’ Mice 3,000 Years Before Inventing Farming, New Research Shows

Published March 29, 2017
Published March 29, 2017

A new study upends conventional wisdom in demonstrating that humans first "domesticated" mice some 15,000 years ago.

Lab Mouse Og

Wikimedia Commons

Scientists have recently discovered that the house mouse, or Mus musculus domesticus, first became “domesticated” around 15,000 years ago, National Geographic reports. It’s an interesting revelation, as that would be 3,000 years before the agricultural revolution took place.

“It’s important to understand that mice have been accompanying us for a very long time,” study leader Lior Weissbrod, a zooarchaeologist at the University of Haifa in Israel, told National Geographic. “We’ve been changing them, and they’ve been changing us in ways that are not immediately apparent.”

Scientists determined this new domestication timeline by focusing on the evolutionary journey of mice in the Middle East that lived in and around a group of human hunter-gatherers called the Natufian some 12,000-13,000 years ago. There they found a certain ratio of house mice (those that would emerge after domestication) to wild mice (those that wouldn’t).

The researchers then set up rodent traps around the area inhabited by one of today’s few remaining hunter-gatherer tribes, the Maasai in Kenya. There they once again compared the ratio of house mice to wild mice and discovered that the proportions in Kenya were very similar to those once in the Middle East.

But among the few domesticated homes of the Maasai, the proportion of house mice increased, as it surely did when the ancient peoples of the Middle East first domesticated thousands of years ago.

“This then gave us the key that we needed to make sense of varying mouse proportions in all of our other samples from both earlier and later periods,” Weissbrod said.

According to Keith Dobney, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Liverpool who spoke to National Geographic, these results are “very cool and exciting…. [and provide a] new, detailed window into the past.”

These findings have allowed the researchers to use the house mouse’s domestication to track the progression of human society as it left the hunter-gather phase and entered a more sedentary, agricultural phase.

In other words, as Miloš Macholán, an evolutionary biologist and co-author of “The Evolution of the House Mouse” told National Geographic, the study’s results are “a nice example of how house mouse research can be helpful for studying our own history.”

Next, check out how scientists can now “turn on” the killer instincts of mice, before digging into the widely circulated photo purportedly revealing mice on Mars.

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