People Have Believed a Lie About Rabbit Domestication for Decades

Scientists don’t know when bunnies became docile—and they're not even sure if that's an answerable question.

A woman kisses a rabbit.
A woman kisses her pet rabbit.  (Peter Cziborra / Reuters)

It is often said, in both popular articles and scientific papers, that rabbits were first domesticated by French monks in 600 AD.

Back then, Pope Gregory the Great had allegedly decreed that laurices—newborn or fetal rabbits—didn’t count as meat. Christians could therefore eat them during Lent. They became a popular delicacy, and hungry monks started breeding them. Their work transformed the wild, skittish European rabbit into a tame domestic animal that tolerates humans.

This was the story that Greger Larson from the University of Oxford heard when he first started studying domestic rabbits. Almost on a whim, he told his student Evan Irving-Pease to find a reference from the Vatican that they could cite. “I said: I’m sure there’s an edict or something,” Larson tells me. “Evan comes back a couple of weeks later and says: ‘Er, small problem, it doesn’t exist.’”

Irving-Pease traced every single reference to the Pope Gregory story, and every reference in those references. What he found was a web of confusion, inaccuracy, and embellishment. For example, no less a scholar than Charles Darwin suggested that rabbits must have been domesticated during the time of Confucius, since the sage counted them, per Darwin, “among animals worthy to be sacrificed to the gods.” Confucius never wrote about rabbits.

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.”

Larson thinks that’s because people tend to wrongly picture domestication as a singular event. “Everything’s the same, and everything’s the same, and something changes like a bolt from the blue, and now everything’s different,” says Larson. “A lot of our narrative structures hinge on that. But if you’re looking for a moment of domestication, you’ll never find it. It’ll recede from your fingertips.”

Domestication is a continuum, not a moment. Humans hunted rabbits, tens of thousands of years ago. They transported the wild animals around the Mediterranean. The Romans kept them as livestock in structures called leporaria. Medieval Britons kept them in “pillow mounds”—raised lumps of soil that acted as earthen hutches. Later, they used actual hutches. Eventually, we bred them as pets. None of these activities represents the moment when rabbits hopped over the domestication threshold. But collectively, they show how wild bunnies turned into tame ones.

So when it comes to domestication, Larson says that when is the wrong question. For that matter, he’s not too keen on why either. Many domestication narratives portray humans as deliberate actors, snatching animals from the wild and breeding them with a goal in mind. The Pope Gregory myth fits beautifully in that framework, which is partly why it went unchallenged for so long.

The problem is that there’s no solid evidence that humans domesticated anything deliberately (with the possible exception of tame foxes that were bred for scientific purposes). There’s no unequivocal case where humans grabbed a wild animal with the express intent of domesticating it. Instead, for example, it’s likely that scavenging wolves were attracted to human hunts or refuse piles, eventually developing a more tolerant attitude that led to their transformation into dogs. Similarly, mice were attracted to our grain stores, and cats were attracted to the mice. “There is no why to domestication,” says Larson. “That implies a directedness that appears not to exist.”

“It’s a coevolutionary process that’s very hard to slice up,” says Melinda Zeder, an archaeologist at the Smithsonian Institution. “We’re not dealing with these either-or situations. We need to understand the steps by which humans and rabbits came together. Until we do that, we won’t understand domestication. We’ll just write fluff pieces.”