What Happened to Neolithic China’s Farmers? Bad Hare Days

Isotopic evidence in hare bones shows that a significant number switched to eating millet cultivated by early farmers. Were they stealing, or domesticated?

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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When hares get hungry...
When hares get hungry...Credit: AP
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

When did the hare join the pantheon of animals we cherish rather than just hunt and eat – and where? It seems our admiration for the humble hare arose around the dawn of civilization. The long-eared leporid was featured in Neolithic art around 8,400 years ago; the skeleton of a hare was found facing the remains of a woman in Hungary, buried 6,500 years ago; and hare feet were discovered in a burial site in Sweden dating to some 5,000 years ago.

We cannot be sure how the prehistoric northern Chinese felt about the hare, but a new study reveals that some sort of relationship had developed between hare and human by 5,000 years ago. It may even be that the Neolithic villagers in Yangjiesha, a Neolithic site on a plateau in northern China, were keeping hares captive.

How do we know? Isotope analysis of the bones unearthed there shows that at about that time, some 20 percent of the hare population on the loess plateau began stuffing themselves with millet, according to a report in the journal Antiquity. The team included, from China, Pengfei Sheng of Fudan University with colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and Aarhus University in Denmark.

While early grain crops in the Middle East were chiefly wheat and barley, in Asia the staples were rice and millet, apparently starting around 10,000 years ago. Wherever early farming began, it was very slow to spread and become entrenched.

In the case of millet, happily for forensic archaeology, it has a unique isotope signal. The upshot is that archaeologists can analyze the bones of a long-dead consumer and if there is a significant millet signal, they can deduce that it was fed (or helped itself to) the grain.

The switch by about a fifth of the plateau’s hares to a millet diet around 5,000 years ago indicates the expansion and entrenchment of the cultivation of the grain in Yangjiesha at that time, the researchers posit. It also signals a transition from a predator/prey relationship to a commensal relationship, they add: one in which the animal population benefited from proximity to humans, without causing discernible harm to the people.

Jade carving of a rabbit/hare from a Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BC) tomb in Shaanxi Province
Jade carving of a rabbit/hare from a Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BC) tomb in Shaanxi ProvinceCredit: PHOTO : P. Sheng, Antiquity Publications

While it is hard to know whether the hares were captured and fed millet, or whether they raided it from the farms, in any case millet had become more available to them.

As for the roughly 80 percent of hare remains without a significant millet signal, the archaeologists suggested they apparently lived and were hunted at some distance from the fields.

But if a full 20 percent of the hares living on the plateau around Yangjiesha switched to farmed millet, could this indicate something else? Such as, that ancient Chinese villagers were at least trying to domesticate the famously “mad” hare?

Hare in hand

The waning of the Ice Age ushered in profound changes in human behavior, not least the emergence of civilization as we know it. It is surely no coincidence that the independent development of agriculture in various parts of the Near East and Asia followed the retreat of the glaciers.

Learning how to grow subsistence crops, more or less sustainably, in the more hospitable clime enabled people to gradually abandon the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and to settle down. The domestication of various animals was part of this transmogrification from a nomadic community to a settled one, featuring crops and animals they could pen and raise.

Excavation of Neolithic village in Yangjiesha, northern China
Excavation of Neolithic village in Yangjiesha, northern ChinaCredit: Pengfei Sheng / Yaowu Hu / Zhouyong Sun/Liping Yang / Songmei Hu/Benjamin T. Fuller/Xue Shang / Antiquity Publications

Arduous, odiferous and heartbreaking as animal husbandry can be, it beats subsistence hunting. Leaving the dog out of it, because its domestication is a wildly different story, various animals were gradually domesticated at different times in different places. Archaeologists believe that goats, sheep and cows were among the first to be cowed and penned. Today’s goats, for example, originate in bezoar ibexes that were caught and tamed at least 10,000 years ago in what is today Anatolia, Turkey and Iran. Goats are resourceful, hardy beasts and in a pinch can climb not only cliff faces but trees, making them ideal as early adoptees. Somewhat frailer sheep were apparently first domesticated at around the same time in Mesopotamia, and evolved from wild mouflon. Cows seem to have first been domesticated in Iran, arising from wild aurochs, a now extinct species of cattle.

Horses were also a different story; their domestication is a wild tale. Apparently they were captured and domesticated in central Asia by Botai nomads, not the Yamnaya people, and exploited for the purpose of riding about 5,500 years ago, (Quickly enough, possibly within a thousand years, the horse-drawn chariot would ensue.) However, the species that gave rise to the tamed horse went extinct and wild horses today stem from domesticated variants that escaped or were otherwise relieved of their captive status.

By the way, dog and cat remains in Neolithic Chinese villages that evince millet signals presumably hung out in the villages and ate rodents that consumed millet. Millet isotope signals in bones was also one method by which scientists determined that the pig was domesticated in China starting around 8,000 years ago. But hares?

Venerated leporids or hare pie

To dispel one common misconception, hares and rabbits are different animals, although they are “cousins”: Both belong to the greater family of leporidae. Hares are typically bigger, have longer ears and are more solitary than rabbits. There are over 30 species of hares today, compared with hundreds in the past. Present thinking is that the ancestral hare/rabbit split from rodents around 56 million years ago and the leporidae subsequently evolved in India, when that subcontinent was still an island. Once India became part of the great Eurasian landmass, the ancestral leporid waxed fruitful and multiplied, and can now be found on every continent except Antarctica.

Certainly today the hare and the rabbit are treated affectionately in popular culture, and have been for thousands of years, in both east and west. But it is also generally agreed that they are tasty, whether barbecued on a spit or in hare pie, which many consider a delicacy. Giant rabbits of truly astonishing dimensions are even bred in some parts of Europe, often not as pets but for food. Moreover, we know that consumption of leporids goes way back: Archaeologists have been a tad surprised to discover evidence that early humans and Neanderthals extensively hunted and ate hares and rabbits. The assumption had been that being speedy and small, the small creatures would have been too much trouble to chase and spear. .

A sandy Flemish male napping next to a sable and white sheltie
Giant rabbit (left) and a friendCredit: Stamatisclan, Wikimedia Commons

Of course once rabbits were domesticated, insofar as they were, the problem of catching them for supper took care of itself.

Hares, on the other hand, were never domesticated, insofar as is known. The so-called “Belgian hare” is actually a rabbit. It bears noting that the domestic rabbit may be more docile than a hare, may be quite tolerant but that doesn’t mean it cherishes our company.

“Charles Darwin once said that no animal is more difficult to tame than a hare. We believe that the people who lived on the Chinese loess plateau might have felt the same way as Darwin did,” Pengfei an archaeobiologist and the first author of the Antiquity paper, told Haaretz.

Yet some sort of hare-human relationship seems to have developed. The research team suspects that ancient villagers on the plateau indeed kept captured hares, though the evidence is circumstantial, she points out.

In the Neolithic era hares abounded on the Eurasian Steppe and in deserts too (they are a resourceful beast), and thronged most of northern China, where people ate them for tens of thousands of years. During Neolithic times, hares accounted for 40 percent of animal bones in some sites on the plateau. That means that either the people were adept at hunting them, or did keep them in captivity, the team writes.

“Maybe those millet-fed hares were good at stealing crops [and] then running away, compared with the other 80 percent of wild grass-fed hares at that site,” Pengfei remarks. “As the stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes of collagen of hare bones (the method we used in that study) reveal the dietary patterns of hares over several years, it is hard to imagine that the hares could consume so much C4 foods (millet) in an environment dominated by C3 plants (wild grass) without being caught by millet farmers.”

The brown hare: Never domesticated
The brown hare: Never domesticatedCredit: Jean-Jacques Boujot

Domesticated or not, at some point the hare became venerated. Jade sculptures of hares and bronze ornaments featuring them have been found in China, dating from the Bronze Age onward.

“Moreover,” the researchers point out, “the first oracle bone texts and the Shijing (‘The Book of Odes,’ 11th to 7th centuries B.C.E.) detail ritual practices related to hare hunting.” To this day some Asian cultures consider them to be “lucky” or at least objects of inexplicable fascination.

The team mentions a caveat: Climate change may have also changed the vegetation on the plateau where the humans and hares coexisted, and the period in question – about 5,000 to 4,000 years ago – was marked by environmental instability. In an era of changing plant life, possibly the millet fields proved to be a fatal attraction.

Bronze chariot ornament shaped like a rabbit from Lijiapancun, Shaanxi, China, 475–221 B.C.E.
Bronze chariot ornament shaped like a rabbit from Lijiapancun, Shaanxi, China, 475–221 B.C.E.Credit: Pengfei Sheng / Yaowu Hu / Zhouyong Sun/Liping Yang / Songmei Hu/Benjamin T. Fuller/Xue Shang / Antiquity Publications
Skull of a desert hare found at Yangjiesha, where hares developed an appetite for millet
Skull of a desert hare found at Yangjiesha, where hares developed an appetite for milletCredit: Songmei Hu, Antiquity Publications