How Animal Domestication Works

Beasts of Burden: Domestication of Cattle and Other Livestock

Sheep and shepherding were common by Christ's lifetime.
Sheep and shepherding were common by Christ's lifetime.
Philippe de Champaigne/ The Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images

At first, it was obvious that livestock offered early farmers a handy supply of fresh meat and milk. Eventually, people discovered that animals could also assist with farming, and provide fertilizer and new clothing material. Here's a list of some of the major livestock animals that have played significant roles in the history of humanity:

  • Cattle: Aurochs, an extinct species, serves as the ancestor of today's tame cattle. In places like the Near East and Africa, people began taming Aurochs. These animals later evolved into the cattle we have today. Perhaps their most important contribution was their use in tilling the land, which expanded farming land and thereby yield significantly.
  • Oxen: In a way, the domestication of the ox (around 7000 B.C.) even overshadows the invention of the wheel in its importance to early human civilization. For, without the enormous strength of the ox to pull heavy loads on these wheels, life would have been significantly harder.
  • Sheep: Next to dogs, sheep are perhaps the oldest domesticated animal. To take advantage of the wool, people bred wild sheep to lose their kemp (longer hairs) and draw out their wool (inner, shorter hair). It became obvious that herding these animals was only a matter of taking the role of leader in­ their social hierarchy. Although domestication occurred in the 9000 B.C., weaving wool may not have come around until 4000 B.C. [source: Tomkins].
  • Goats: Goats aren't picky eaters, which makes them useful in their ability to survive despite living on dry and infertile land. Poor people who live in areas with few other resources can use the goat for meat, milk and materials like mohair and cashmere [Sherman].
  • Pigs: From domestication of the wild boar, humans developed the pig. Having a taste for waste, pigs ate from human trash piles, allowing a primitive trash recycling. And we, in turn, ate pig meat.

Next, we'll take a look at many other animals that provided what was perhaps just as important -- transportation for long distances and heavy loads.