Wild Origins: How The History Of Goats And Sheep Shaped The World

Goats are one of the oldest domesticated livestock on planet earth.  Goats adapted from the wild bezoar ibex Capra aegargus in western Asia.  It was native to Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iraq, Iran, Russia and Turkey.  The archaeological evidence traces goat domestication as far back as 10,500 years Before Present and DNA evidence suggests 10,000 years BP.


Domesticated Goats’ Wild Ancestor The Bezoar Ibex

Between 10,000-11,000 years ago Neolithic farmers starting keeping small herds of ibexes for milk, meat, dung for fuel and for materials for clothing and building.  They used the hair, bone, skin and sinew for such purposes. There are over 300 breeds of goats that exist on our planet today living on every continent except Antarctica.

Sheep were domesticated during the stone age, around 10,000 B.C.  They were bred from three different sub-species of the wild mouflon that lived in ancient mesopotamia with archeaological evidence from that period located in Iran.  Modern sheep’s wild ancestors had several characteristics that made them well suited for domestication including lack of aggression, a manageable size, early sexual maturity, a social nature, and high reproduction rates.


Wild Mouflon

Note above that the mouflon do not have wool but hair.  Woolly sheep began to be developed around 6000 BC in Iran, and cultures such as the Persians relied on sheep’s wool for trading. They were then imported to Africa and Europe via trading.

It is very interesting that some evidence suggests that overhunting of wild sheep may have contributed to the domestication process–there are indications that the wild sheep population decreased sharply in western Asia around 10,000 years ago.  This well can explain the movement from hunter/gatherer societies to pastoral societies.  This partnered with the end of the glacial age and climate warming enabled pastoral options to develop.  This is the epic human shift from foraging off the wild to raising domesticated species for food.

This period of sheep and goat domestication is known as a period within the three tired stone ages, peleolithic, mesolithic and neolithic.  Peleolithic was pure hunter/gatherer era transitioning into the mesolithic where the first farming was done at the end of the glacial period with planet now warming, which is known as the holocene warm period around 11,660 BP.   The next period is known as neolithic  which was a period in the development of human technology, beginning about 10,200 BC and ending between 4500 and 2000 BC.

It is in this great expansive window of time that sheep and goats transformed nomadic cultures.  In one of the earliest episodes of the Bible, Cain became a tiller of the soil, whereas Abel became a keeper of the flock (Genesis 4:2).  The flock, here and elsewhere in the Bible, can be composed of either sheep or goats, or of both together. The mosaic panel called the Standard of Ur—centuries old and buried underground already by the time Abraham was born—shows sheep and goats being driven together. A slate votive tablet from Nippur shows the same animals driven by two men, one with a staff in his hand, the other with a milk pail on his head. Man and flock go back together a very long time.

Commodities taken from the flock were so important to early Hebrew pastoral economy that to have a large flock of sheep and goats was a sign of wealth. Jacob was described as an exceedingly rich man because he possessed “large flocks, maidservants and menservants, and camels and asses” (Genesis 30:43).

It is interesting to note that human interaction with animals developed in this order – hunting, then herding, evolving into animal husbandry, on to animals working land like plowing, and last introduced as an important component of warfare to pull chariots of great nations in battle.

Obviously, the domestication of animals drastically changed how people lived.  Once the transition from hunting to herding and then animal husbandry occurred, permanent settlements could be built.  It is in this shift to societies that animals were incorporated into rituals with wild animals symbolizing untamed forces of the universe, while domesticated animals symbolized peace, safety and comfort.  In fact, animals were such a significant part of ancient society that belief systems forged the notion that animal spirits could cross over to that of humans and visa versa.  In Egyptian tombs, cats and dogs were buried along side the mummies.

Truly the role sheep and goats played in transforming human activities from one of a nomadic hunter/gatherer culture to a pastorial one where settlements and civilizations could be formed, is significant. It is the true bedrock of society formation as we know it today.

I wonder when people drive down the road and see a pastoral setting if they think of the epic shift in human existance I reference above?  Is there a voice deep in our DNA that calls to us about meaning and significance of such open spaces when we leave a city and hit the open road with rolling sheep filled hills?

I wonder.

This world and our history are truly fascinating.  The role of farms and livestock are too.

Here are a few interesting finds just in the last five years on Mysterious Ancient Rock Art unearthed in Jordan’s Black Desert with inscriptions that tell a story of how life flourished in the desert over 2,000 years ago.

“Investigations to date the rocks more precisely are still ongoing. Based on other excavations nearby, the team working on this excavation estimates that the artworks date back to some 2,000 years ago, sometime between the third century BCE and the first century CE.  It is difficult today to imagine how ancient populations may have one day lived in the desert when you look at current climate conditions – the very harsh, arid weather makes it extremely difficult for humans to survive.  Yet, the rock art tells the story of life thriving in the desert thousands of years ago with more animal diversity than today. “Based on the inscriptions on the rocks, we can say that the people who made the inscriptions may have evolved in some kind of pasture, raising sheep, goats and camels. They also represent a great diversity of animals which also seem to indicate different environmental conditions – greener and wetter.” – excerpt from the the article on this new archeological find.

God Bless! L. Davis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s