Alice Roberts - Tamed

Professor Alice Roberts , Professor of Public Engagement in Science answers questions about her new book 'Tamed: 10 Species That Changed Our World'.

What is the latest book about?

Tamed is about the deep histories of ten familiar species: dogs, apples and wheat; cattle; potatoes and chickens; rice, maize, horses, and finally, humans. I examine how each of these species became domesticated, using the latest discoveries from archaeology and genetics, and explore how teaming up with humans changed those species, and how they became intertwined with our own, human history.

Why this subject?

I’ve been interested in human origins for ages, and I love how you can bring lots of separate strands of evidence in and weave them together. There are clues from fossils, from archaeology – the material culture of the past, from written history, and now from genetics as well. In fact, genetics is transforming our understanding of how humans evolved.

I started to get interested in tracing the origin of other species, too, and I’d read that apples originated from Ur-orchards in Kazakhstan. When I started to research that a bit more, I uncovered a wonderful story – of the origin of apples with large fruit on the flanks of the Tien Shan mountains, of the spread of apples along the early Silk Roads, of the invention of grafting and the arrival of apples in Britain with the Romans.

I started to cast the net wider and research lots of other species that seem really familiar to us today, which we’ve domesticated, to find out where they came from – and how we tamed them.

Spoiler alert – From your list of 10 and excluding humans, which species has had the greatest impact (dogs, wheat, cattle, maize, potatoes, chickens, rice, horses, apples)?

That’s difficult to answer - they’ve each had their impacts, and they’re all very different. Dogs teamed up with human hunters and improved the success of the hunt, as well as being companions. Horses transformed travel, of course, but also warfare. But cattle have changed us genetically - most of us in Europe can drink milk: we continue making the enzyme lactase into adulthood. And that lactase persistence has spread through populations since the Neolithic - since the advent of farming and dairying.

What’s the most interesting or unusual thing you learned/discovered in researching it? 

There were so many surprises - I loved researching and writing this book! From the origin of the apple in Kazakhstan to the discovery of a Mesolithic site on the south coast by an archaeologist-lobster - the book is full of surprises.

But it’s the unexpected amount of interbreeding that’s happened between species - revealed through the latest large-scale genetic research - that’s been the biggest surprise. We’ve discovered that our human ancestors interbred with Neanderthals, that cultivated apples interbred with crabapples, and that dogs continued to interbreed with wolves long after they were first domesticated. It challenges the whole species concept in biology. It means that all species - including us - have hybrid histories.

If people want to find out more what should they do?

The book itself includes an extensive list of references, chapter by chapter. And of course I’m taking it on tour as well.