Neighbors competitors and friends

Mammals and humans have been the closest relatives and nearest neighbors throughout the entire history of humankind. Mammals contribute essentially to our diet and we keep billions of domesticated mammals solely for that purpose. Hunting mammals for protein-rich meat became an essential background factor in human evolution several million years ago. More recently, the discovery of how to get such animal protein in another way started the Neolithic revolution some 10,000 years ago. The symbiotic coexistence with herds of large herbivores—which included taking part in their reproduction and consuming their milk and offspring— ensured the energetic base for a considerable increase in the human population of that time and became one of the most important developments in human history. Moreover, the other essential component of the Neolithic revolution may be related to mammals. Feeding on seeds of grass and storing them in the form of a seasonal food reserve could hardly have been discovered without inspiration from the steppe harvesting mouse (Mus spicilegus) and its huge corn stores or kurgans, containing up to 110 lb (50 kg) of corn. The theory that humans borrowed the idea of grain storage from a mouse is supported by the fact that the storage pits of Neolithic people were exact copies of the mouse kurgans. Mammals have even been engaged in the industrial and technological revolutions. Prior to the steam engine and for a long time in parallel with it, draft animals such as oxen, donkeys, and horses were a predominant source of power not only for agriculture, transport, and trade, but also for mining and early industry. Indeed, our civilization arose on the backs of an endless row of draft mammals.

At the same time, many wild mammals have been considered dangerous enemies of humans: predators, sources of epizootic infections, or competitors for the prey monopolized by humans. Many mammals were killed for these reasons, while some were killed merely because we could kill them. As a result, many species of wild mammal were drastically reduced in numbers leading to their local or global extinctions. The case of the giant sea cow (Hydrodamalis stel-leri) is particularly illustrative here, but the situation with many other large mammals, including whales, is not much different. The introduction of cats, rats, rabbits, and other commensal species to regions colonized by humans has badly impacted the native fauna many times, and the industrial pollution and other impacts of recent economic activity act in a similar way on a global scale. About 20% of extant mammalian species may be endangered by extinction, mostly due to the destruction of tropical forest.

However, since the Paleolithic, humans also have kept mammals as pets and companions. Even now, the small carnivores or rodents that share our houses bring us a great deal of pleasure from physical and mental contact with something that, despite its apparent differences, can communicate with us and provide what often is not available from our human neighbors—spontaneous interest and heartfelt love. Contact with a pet mammal may remind us of something that is almost forgotten in the modern age: that humans are not the exclusive inhabitants of this planet, and that learning from the animals may teach us something essential about the true nature of the world and the deep nature of human beings as well.

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