The Odd, Tidy Story of Rabbit Domestication That Is Also Completely False
Few domesticated animals have as neat an origin story as the pet bunny.
As the story goes, around 600 A.D. Pope Gregory the Great issued an edict declaring that rabbit fetuses, called laurices, were not meat but fish. This meant they could be eaten during Lent, a Christian period of repentance in preparation for the Easter holiday. As a result, French monks supposedly rushed to collect this new food source and breed them within the monastery walls, where they eventually grew into the loveable critters we know today.
It’s a nice, neat tale of domestication. It also almost certainly never happened.
A new study, published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, takes a trip down the rabbit hole of recent rabbit evolution using a multi-faceted approach of genetic analysis, historical documents, archaeological remains and fossil evidence to tease out the real history of bunnies. The results suggest that this myth arose from a simple misinterpretation—and lends support to the idea that the story human interaction with wild beasts is inevitably a far more complex process than the legends say.
The study began when Greger Larson, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University, was hoping to test a DNA modeling method his lab previously developed to map genetic history of modern domesticated and wild animals. Bunnies were an ideal test subject since their domestication seemed to have a definitive start: 600 A.D., when the Pope issued his edict.
“My first instinct was not to question that story,” says Larson. But in an off-hand remark to his graduate student Evan Irving-Pease, who led the analyses, Larson requested he find a reference for the papal decree to pair with the genetic study. As Irving-Pease soon discovered, no such decree exists. So where did this domestication myth come from?
Irving-Pease traced the peculiar story to a 584 A.D. document from Gallo-Roman bishop and historian St. Gregory of Tours—not Pope Gregory the Great. The passage describes the actions of Roccolenus, a henchman from northern France, who planned to ransack the city of Tours. But before he could, the henchmen fell dead, incidentally after eating young rabbits during Lent. The passage was misinterpreted by scholars in the mid-1900s, and over time the apocryphal tale was born.
Next, the researchers turned to genetic analysis to fill out the picture. All modern pet bunnies come from wild rabbits of the species Oryctolagus cuniculus cuniculus, which likely roamed the South of France and northeast Spain for several million years. As documented in a 2014 study published in Science, during the last glacial maximum (roughly 18,000 years ago), advancing glaciers likely pushed the French bunnies back into Spain. Once the ice retreated, rabbits returned to France, with the marks of this population shift still discernible in their DNA. Our modern domesticated rabbits all evolved from the French populations, the DNA suggests.
To find out when exactly this happened, the Oxford team applied their DNA modelling method to parse through the genome of modern wild and tame French bunnies. What they found surprised them yet again: The analysis suggested a split occurred between 12,200 and 17,700 years ago, thousands of years before the supposed papal decree and well before records suggest intense bunny-human interaction.
To be clear, this doesn’t suggest early Homo Sapiens had a fondness for the little fluffs. Instead, the split could reflect other factors, such as geographic separation, which limits mating and could have created several subgroups of bunnies, with some genetically closer than others. Later, one group of critters became domesticated.