Two other authors—F. E. Zeuner and H. Nachtsteim—have more to answer for. The duo mangled an account told by one Saint Gregory of Tours in the sixth century. Saint Gregory’s story involves a man who fell ill while threatening to sack the city of Tours. The man had allegedly been eating young rabbits during Lent—an act that Gregory implies led to the man’s death by divine retribution. Zeuner and Nachsteim got much of this wrong, and their miscitations led to the modern Pope Gregory myth. There was only ever the account of one man, rather than an official papal edict. That account clearly disapproved of eating rabbits during Lent, rather than condoning it. It said nothing about how popular rabbits were as food. Also, Saint Gregory of Tours and Pope Gregory the Great are different people.
And yet, thanks to Zeuner and Nachtsteim’s miscitations, and the blind actions of everyone who regurgitated this tidy narrative, the legend of an inadvertent bunny-taming Pope congealed into accepted fact. It was the origin of the specious, by means of natural selection. “It’s a beautiful myth that has been successfully reified by continued and uncritical citation in the introductory paragraphs of a lot of rabbit-domestication papers,” says Larson.
So, what’s the real story behind rabbit domestication? “We don’t have one,” Larson says.
Archaeological evidence tells us that people in Spain and France were eating rabbits as early as the Epipaleolithic period, between 20,000 and 10,500 years ago. During the Middle Ages, they became a high-status food and people started carrying them across Europe. But it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when this happened because of, as Irving-Pease and Larson note, “the intrusion of rabbits into archaeological stratigraphies.” Translation: It’s hard to know if a rabbit bone came from an ancient rabbit, or a recent one that went digging.
Genetic studies aren’t that helpful, either. Theoretically, it should be possible to compare the genomes of wild and domestic rabbits living today, measure how different those genomes are, and work out how long they would have needed to acquire those differences. Using this approach, Larson estimated that the common ancestor of domestic rabbits split away from its wild kin between 12,200 years and 17,700 years ago. Those dates seem far too old, and there are two big problems with them.
First, to make these calculations, you need to know how quickly rabbit DNA changes over time—and scientists have estimated four such rates that differ substantially from each other. Second, it’s possible that Larson and his team looked at the wrong population of wild rabbits, which don’t actually descend from the same group that gave rise to domestic ones. Larson thinks that probably is the case.
This shouldn’t be that hard of a problem. Rabbits are among the most recently tamed animals, and yet neither history nor archaeology nor genetics can accurately pinpoint when they were domesticated. “There is solid genetic evidence that domestic rabbits are closely related to wild rabbits from France, from which they were mostly derived,” says Miguel Carneiro from CIBIO, who recently did his own genetic study of rabbits. “But the timing, initial motivation, and the underlying process remain poorly understood.”