Animals That Changed History

The following article is from the book Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Attack of the Factoids.


Impact: Plagues, ending the Middle Ages

From 1347 to 1350, the a virulent disease ravaged the populations of Asia and Europe, killing more than 25 million in Europe alone— about a third of the population. Most people died just three days after becoming infected. Scientists remain perplexed by the outbreak, but many agree that the disease was probably the bubonic plague (or the “black death”) and it was probably spread all over the world by infected fleas traveling on rats. In those days, rats thrived among people— on ships and in cities. Infected fleas, the thinking goes, simply hopped off of dying rats and onto people.

The disruption to medieval society was immense and the outbreak helped bring about the end of the feudalism. Muslims in Crimea, in what’s now the Ukraine, blamed Christians and expelled them from trading cities, spreading the disease deep into Europe. The Christians blamed Jews and burned many of them alive, killing crucial tradesmen and leaving towns without blacksmiths, innkeepers, bakers, millers, and weavers. Many towns and farms were abandoned, leading to food shortages. Ultimately, the nobles couldn’t enforce control on their surviving peasant laborers. So, despite laws aimed at keeping serfs’ wages low, the desperate noblemen began doubling and tripling wages, encouraging the serfs of other noblemen to jump ship. Over time, the serfs were able to demand and get a higher standard of living and new rights, loosening the binds that kept them enslaved to one estate and bringing an end to the economic system of feudalism.


Impact: Hunting, herding, self-defense

Humans began welcoming dogs into their settlements about 14,000 years ago, the first animals to be domesticated. At first, groups of wolves probably began scavenging human settlements, snatching up the scraps, bones, and other perfectly good animal parts that humans threw out after hunting. Eventually, people discovered that dogs also made good watch animals at night. Humans favored the friendlier, less skittish animals and their puppies, unintentionally breeding dogs that were tame. About 3,000 years ago, people began breeding dogs intentionally, choosing specialized hunting and herding functions. The results were affectionate, efficient hunting animals, and the ability for one person to control an entire herd of sheep, goats, cows, or swine. This allowed tribes to own more livestock and freed up shepherds to pursue other needed occupations like hunting, farming, and metalworking.


Impact: Made agriculture possible, prevented plagues

Historians believe that about 10,000 years ago a few African wildcats decided to adopt humans. Genetic studies indicate that all of the world’s 600 million house cats descend from as few as five original cat pioneers. As a result of this very restricted inbreeding, house cats developed all kinds of quirks and defects, including an inability to taste sweetness.

This all happened in the Fertile Crescent— an unusually fertile area in otherwise barren Egypt and Mesopotamia— at about the same time that people began growing wheat, rye, and barley. These crops provided humans with food stability and allowed them to stop wandering and erect permanent settlements. A few wildcats discovered that the barns and homes in these settlements offered sunny places to sleep, protection from larger animals, scraps of food, and huge quantities of big, juicy mice and rats. Humans, bedeviled by rodents that ate and contaminated the crops they stored after harvests, learned to value their feline friends. Ancient Egyptians even grew to worship cats, making it a crime to kill one. The Romans spread cats across Europe, and the Europeans took them to ports around the world. Cats went through a dark period in Europe during the Middle Ages, when people began seeing them as evil spirits and companions to witches, resulting in widespread extermination of entire cat populations. But the result was a continent overrun with rats and the diseases they brought, which eventually caused humans to forgive cats and welcome them home.


Impact: Food, clothing, tools, and fuel

For about 8,000 years, cows have provided humans with food from meat and milk; clothes, blankets, and tents from their hides; fertilizer and cooking fuel from their dung; tools from their horns, teeth, and bones; and transportation and power. And they do it all by eating grasses that humans can’t digest. Like cats, cattle were adopted by humans after people organized into permanent settlements. That’s because, unlike sheep and goats (which had been herded for more than a thousand years before), cattle like to graze familiar fields and return to the same shelter each night. So nomadic lifestyles don’t really suit them.


Impact: Pre-industrial power and transportation, Mongol invasions

People began domesticating horses about 6,000 years ago, and long before the Industrial Revolution, humans discovered that the animals made great workers and companions. The Mongols were master horsemen who, during the 13th century, ruled the largest empire in history, containing 100 million people and 22 percent of the world’s total landmass, stretching from Hungary to the Sea of Japan. Mongol soldiers often rode for hours without stopping, drinking blood from their horses as they conquered new lands. Over time, horses became inextricably linked to humans, providing transportation, power, and even tail hair for violin bows and an estrogen supplement called Premarin, whose name honors its source material: “pregnant mare urine.”


Impact: Native American settlement of the Great Plains; American roads; consciousness about saving endangered species

Massive bison herds, numbering up to 30 million animals, once grazed the grassy plains between the Rockies and the Appalachians, from the far north of Canada to Mexico. Native Americans used their migration paths as transportation routes that became road and rail beds still used today. And for thousands of years, Native Americans survived on the grassy North American plains by hunting the bison. But then came Europeans.

When white settlers arrived in North America, they were amazed by the number of bison, a seemingly endless supply, and began shooting them for skins or sport, usually leaving the meat to rot in the sun. There are also reports that wholesale bison slaughter was a deliberate tactic to deprive the Plains Indians of their main food source.

By 1889 the American bison population was down to just 1,091 animals. When the government shrugged off that fact, a few prescient ranchers saved a handful of the remaining animals, breeding them for eventual reintroduction into the wild. Those bison now make up the populations of Yellowstone National Park and Canada’s Elk Island Park. The ranchers’ success inspired attempts to save other endangered species through laws, hunting bans, and captive breeding programs that release animals into the wild.


Impact: European exploration of North America, destruction of Native American tribes

Like the American bison, beavers were also nearly wiped out for their fur. In the 1700s, 60 to 80 beavers populated every mile of every stream in Canada and the northern United States. But within 100 years, the critters were hunted to near extinction. Why? Because beaver-skin top hats were all the rage in England. Fur traders had finished off the European beavers, so they went searching for the animals in other British holdings. They discovered a vast beaver population in North America that, in the 1790s, allowed them to ship more than 30,000 pelts a year back to Europe. As the beavers along the American East Coast disappeared, fur trappers explored farther west, following the Great Lakes and continuing in all directions. In 1793 Alexander Mackenzie, the first European to travel across the North American continent, did so on behalf of the North West Fur Company.

For Native Americans, beaver-mania was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they could exchange furs for many goods they needed. But on the other, waves of European interlopers were infringing on their lands. Worse, the diseases the explorers brought were disastrous to many tribes, wiping out most or all of the inhabitants of some villages.

Fortunately, in the mid-1800s, beavers got a reprieve. Silk hats slowly gained favor, leaving the few remaining beavers in North America alone long enough to repopulate.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Attack of the Factoids. Weighing in at over 400 pages, it's a fact-a-palooza of obscure information.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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