The roots of agriculture: Animal production

Farm Forum

Although dogs were domesticated from wolves as long as 30,000 years ago, available historical and genetic evidence suggests raising animals solely for food and clothing began about 10,000 years ago.

For this article I drew from Jared Diamond’s book, Guns, Germs and Steel, and many other books and articles, both popular and scholarly. A bibliography is available on the website: .

Dogs and humans have long mutually beneficial relationships. Genetic analyses indicate all canines descend from wolves. Wolves hung around hunter-gatherers such as Neanderthals to scavenge food scraps or eat the people.

Evidence suggests humans probably took care of orphaned pups and kept them for food when little else was available. The animals that were most docile were allowed to breed. Through selection, over successive generations ever tamer pet wolves were produced until they diverged enough to be considered dogs.

With their keen olfactory sense, dogs assisted humans by tracking prey and guarding their human associates. Some scientists speculate humans’ need for an acute olfactory sense diminished as they came to rely on the sensitive noses of dogs, and because upright-walking humans no longer had their noses close to the ground like their earlier quadruped predecessors.

Eventually, powerful dogs were harnessed to pull travois (two long sticks strapped to the beasts onto which packs of belongings could be fastened and drug behind the animals) on the ground, or sleds on snowy terrain. Besides serving as food during lean times, dogs provided skins and bones for use by humans. Canines benefited by having a steadier food supply than if they depended only on themselves and they experienced protection when proximate to human groups.

What about cats? Cats probably adopted humans, rather than vice versa. Ask cat owners and most will tell you that kitties are more interested in satisfying their needs than yours.

As modern man began some 13,000-15,000 years ago to harvest and store the grains and legumes they raised, rodents that invaded the grain containers were a ready source of cat-food. Cats that hung around humans gradually developed ever shorter “flight distances” and eventually let humans pet them.

Ungulates (animals with hooves) came next on the domestication record. Accumulated evidence suggests sheep and goats were the first domesticated livestock, although humans hunted these animals long before they were tamed some 10,000 years ago.

Sheep and goats were good choices for domestication. They provided meat and milk for food. Hair, wool and skins could be used for garments. Horns and stomachs could be turned into tools and storage containers.

Perhaps even more important, sheep and goats possessed few defense mechanisms, such as the sharp teeth and claws many species relied on. Other than butting and running away, they had few behaviors that deterred their domestication.

Many types of sheep and goats also exhibited a natural tendency to group together for safety, which made them well suited for handling.

The first known shepherds were inhabitants of southwest

Asia where farming had begun earlier. Wild sheep and goats that roamed the nearby Zagros Mountains were good candidates for domestication. Once again, dogs showed their adaptability as they became herders who assisted their human masters.

Cattle, pigs and horses were tamed some 7,500 years ago. Two types of cattle were domesticated in Asia and Europe.

Bos Indicus, a class of cattle well adapted to warm climates and the presence of pests, inhabited much of southern Asia. These animals were fairly docile. With patience by their handlers, the cows allowed themselves to be milked and they gradually surrendered to being hooked to plows and sledges.

Bos Taurus, a rugged and often ill-tempered animal that was suited to the colder climate of Europe, was harder to handle and slaughter. When crossed with Bos Indicus however, their temperament improved and they became the ancestors of many of our current breeds of cattle.

Pigs were domesticated thereafter because of their capacity to utilize many food sources, including refuse in the expanding Asian agricultural communities. Horses, and their relatives, asses, were domesticated mainly for riding or pulling, as recent as 5,000 years ago in Asia also.

Domestication of chickens likely occurred first in China about 8,000 years ago. Their uses for meat and eggs quickly made them popular across Asia, Europe and Polynesia. Likewise, ducks and geese were tamed first in China, but perhaps only about 2,000 years ago.

Few domesticated animals were available in the western hemisphere. Scientists have established that the first human Americans brought tame dogs with them when they crossed the Bering Strait some 30,000 years ago. The llama was the only indigenous animal that was tamed in the Americas; the Incas accomplished this about 4,000 years ago.

Like raising crops, animal production was important to the emergence of humans as the dominant species.

Dr. Rosmann is a Harlan Iowa psychologist and farmer.