7. Why Most Domesticated Animals and Plants Stayed Home
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7 Why Most Domesticated Animals and Plants Stayed Home When something important is missing it is said to be “conspicuous by its absence .” A matter that has puzzled many when considering the possibility of early transoceanic influences is the question of why, despite numerous cultural commonalities, the pre-­ Columbian New World nevertheless lacked many important domesticated animals, crop plants, and technologies present in the Old. In the early 1920s, A. L. Kroeber confidently stated, “No domesticated plant or animal (except the dog) was transported from one hemisphere to the other before Columbus.”1 This seemed to him a strong argument against trans­ oceanic contacts having taken place, as it did to other influential scholars such as the Göteborg Museum ethnologist Erland Nordenskiöld and the Harvard University plant taxonomist Elmer Drew Merrill. The noted Harvard Mayanist Herbert J. Spinden put it plainly: “The fact that no food plant is common to the two hemispheres is enough to offset any number of petty puzzles [of similarity] in arts and myths.”2 With entirely different suites of domesticates, these and other distinguished scholars concluded, the pre-­ Columbian cultures of the Old World and the New had to have developed separately, with minimal or no communication between them.3 Absent Domesticated Animals In Eurasia and north­ ern Africa, the following animals were domesticated in early times: horse, donkey, vari­ ous kinds of cattle, two species of camel, sheep, goat, reindeer, pig, rabbit, dog, cat, chicken, mallard duck, goose, guinea fowl, pigeon, and some lesser others such as dormouse, ferret, honeybee, and silkworm . In the Americas, the list was much shorter. The dog appears to have been imported many millennia ago via Beringia (the present greater Bering Strait region); the animals domesticated within the hemisphere were the turkey and 72 / Chapter 7 the cochineal insect in Middle America, and the llama, alpaca, guinea pig, and muscovy duck in South America. Some have attributed this relative paucity of New World domesticates to a narrow range of domesticable Ameri­ can fauna. Jared Diamond, the physiology and membrane biophysicist turned UCLA geographer , has asserted, “Surely, if some [other] local wild mammal species of these [non-­ Eurasian] continents had been domesticable, some Australian, Ameri­ can, and Af­ ri­can peoples would have domesticated them and gained great advantage from them.”4 Nonetheless, there did exist many potential New World domesticates that were ignored despite their clear tamability in several cases, in­ clud­ ing a number of animals that were close or approximate equivalents of Old World domesticates: bison, musk ox, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, caribou, peccaries, hares and rabbits, pigeons, geese, mallard duck, prairie chicken, and so forth— granting that only hares, rabbits, geese (winter only), pigeon, and mallard were native to Nuclear America (Mesoamerica and the Central Andean region), the regions that possessed elaborated civilizations. Also ignored as potential domesticates were vari­ ous other deer species, tapir, quail, partridges, and pronghorn. The Andean camelids alone were used in a fashion somewhat like Old World herd animals: although smallish, llamas served as beasts of burden, and both llamas and alpacas were fiber and meat sources. Since there are hints of quite early south­ west­ ern Asian cultural influences in Peru, one must wonder to what extent llama and alpaca herding might reflect such influences, but as far as is known, neither they nor any other New World animal were milked. Like most of the world’s non-­ Caucasoid peoples, adult Ameri­ can Indians cannot digestively tolerate liquid milk—the same factor that contributed to the failure of dairying to spread from the West into East and South­ east Asia and the Pacific islands and surely enough to have prevented its adoption by Native Ameri­ cans. A number of cultures even consider milk to be a disgusting excretion in the context of adult consumption. Other widespread animal-­ food avoidances in vari­ ous parts of the world—of perfectly safe, nourishing, and tasty items, in­ clud­ ing beef, pork, horsemeat, chicken, cat and dog flesh, fish, insects, eggs, and so forth—that is, “natural” things to eat, seem to be purely or largely cultural in nature, not medical, physiological, or economic.5 As far as bovines, equines, and to some extent certain other animals were concerned, their non-­ nutritional utility came mainly from their functions as pack animals, as mounts, and as providers of traction for plows and wheeled vehicles, plus, to some extent, in turning mills and threshing cultivated grain— none of which concepts other than packing existed...