No development has had a greater effect on human history than the domestication of plants and animals. Domestication allowed for a controllable economic base and a need for complex social interactions that led to plant and animal husbandry and, ultimately, to the earliest civilizations. Animal domestication occurred independently in several regions of the world (e.g., the Near East, China, and Mesoamerica, among others), but archaeological evidence from the Near East has established it as the cradle of earliest domestication and husbandry. Egypt, to its southwest, similarly based its economy on husbandry and farming and became the site of one of the earliest great civilizations.

Numerous definitions for domestication have been offered by concerned scholars, and all seem to have avid followers as well as critics. Taking into account both anthropological and biological criteria, one of the more comprehensive definitions for a domesticated animal is the following: one whose genetic make-up (and thus whose gene pool) has been altered to satisfy the vital needs of humans, such that if it were released into its natural environment, it would be at a selective disadvantage when competing against its wild counterparts. In other words, an animal is a domesticate when human actions have resulted in genetically altering a group of animals so that they become dependent on humans for survival; then if returned to the wild, they would most likely perish before comparable wild animals of their kind.

Although examples do exist of domesticates returning to natural habitats, their descendants have taken on the behavior and appearance of their wild counterparts (e.g., wild boar, American mustang), demonstrating that domestication does not create a new species but selects particular traits that already exist in the wild species. In domestication, the forces of natural selection have, in a sense, been superseded by human selection.

The earliest morphological (appearance) changes that were associated with domestication and animal husbandry might not, however, have necessarily been a function of conscious human selection. Each animal species has its own evolutionary path, so some changes may be purely coincidental with changed conditions. What actually takes place when wild animals are adopted and dominated by humans is the same process as that of adaptation, which occurs to animals in the wild—but, in this case, the adaptation is for fitness into a cultural niche. The cultural niche offers different selective pressures than those that occur in the natural habitat. Thus, some characteristics, which may not have been important in the wild, may prove advantageous in a domestic context. For example, the supply and type of foods available to captive animals would differ from those of wild animals, because human groups would likely have different seasonal priorities than the captive animals' wild counterparts. Those that would not be able to adapt to the new niche—either because they will not submit to human dominance or cannot adapt to the new selective pressures—get culled out of the breeding population through natural or human-induced attrition. Some may even return to the wild; but those that have a selective advantage for survival in the cultural niche gain the best chance of passing on their characteristics to the next generation and ensuring the perpetuation of their genotype.

As a rule, the success in subjugating a species and creating a successful domestic form has depended on the presence of certain innate characteristics. For example, domesticated animals were generally gregarious and possessed, in the wild state, a discernible social order. This is not to say that all gregarious animals were predisposed to domestication and husbandry, as failed experiments by the ancient Egyptians with hyena and gazelles demonstrated, but that those animals that were successfully domesticated held such traits in common.

Although domestication was a process (rather than an event) leading to husbandry, certain points along the continuum may be identified as important stages in the growing influence of human selective forces. In the initial stage of animal domestication, the organisms were genetically the same as their wild counterparts, but they were behaviorally conditioned, or tamed, to accept the dominant position of humans. Their breeding habits, however, were not curtailed; an animal might even breed with wild members of the species. The second stage in the process included the presence of a restricted breeding population; control, whether intentional or otherwise, was attained over potential breeding partners by fencing or otherwise excluding wild members of the species. The second stage has often been correlated with early husbandry, and it is marked by morphological changes in the animal, such as a reduction in body or horn size, changes in hair color, or a reduction in the chewing apparatus. The third stage was the beginning of true husbandry, identified by the intentional development of discernible characteristics in the stock. Size management or the suppression of horn growth would be examples of early stage three; advanced stage three would be indicated by the development of breeds (subspecies), with specifically developed morpho-economic characteristics (such as plentiful milk or nonshedding wool or year-round egg production).

Hunter-Gatherers and Early Farmers.

Any discussion of the inception of animal husbandry in Egypt must consider the popular misconceptions about the lifestyle of early farmers and hunting-gathering societies. Ethnographic studies on hunter-gatherers and groups practicing simple, nonmechanized agriculture have shown that many of our still-evident Victorian conceptions are incorrect. For example, observations about the life of present-day hunter-gatherer groups, even those living in harsh and arid environments, suggest that their daily life is not a constant struggle and is composed of considerable leisure time (e.g., Hadza of Tanzania, the !Kung San of South Africa). Among the !Kung San, food sufficient to feed a family of four for three days, on the average, could be collected by one woman in a six-hour period. In contrast, present-day populations involved in nonmechanized agriculture work endless hours for the same level of caloric reward. Furthermore, life in crowded villages is often characterized by unsanitary conditions, which pose increased chances for the spread of disease.

The negative physical effects of a life devoted to farming, as opposed to hunting-gathering, can be further exemplified by evidence compiled from the study of ancient skeletal remains. Although the physical effects on humans who were associated with the shift to a domestic-based economy has not been well documented in Egypt, a recent study on the remains of a sample of Predynastic and Old Kingdom Egyptians showed that all groups suffered from anemia, with the exception of individuals recovered from elite tombs. Such widespread anemia was attributed to poor hygienic conditions, particularly to parasitic infestations that still characterize crowded agricultural communities. A separate study, centered in Nubia, showed a similar pattern. The development of a domestic-based economy there led to nutritional deficiencies that were manifested in the form of slow bone development, anemia, microdefects in dentition, and premature osteoporosis in juveniles and in young, adult females.

Information available on hunter-gatherers and early agriculturalists, exemplified by the few cases presented here, should help dispel the traditional Western myth of the hunter-gatherer life always near the brink of starvation but the early agricultural life as one of leisure. In fact, it may raise the question of why animal husbandry flourished in an environment as rich as that of the Nile Valley.

Origin of Egyptian Animal Husbandry.

Researchers have postulated that changes in the environment, in the biological makeup of the animals, or in human populations (cultures) might have singly or together produced the needed impetus behind the adoption of animal (and plant) husbandry in Egypt. It seems impossible, however, to delineate which, if any, was the primary cause. Various stimuli from each of these spheres no doubt functioned together in this transformation, and the evidence from Egypt appears to support this.

In many early Holocene epoch sites (9800 to 8900 BCE), the lack or rarity of faunal remains and the difficulty involved in determining whether, on the basis of fragmentary remains, these organisms were domesticated are serious problems in attempting to trace the origins of Egyptian animal husbandry. From three types of data, criteria are generally used to identify examples of prehistoric animal husbandry. The first type employs physical characteristics of the organisms involved, such as size, morphology, and color. The second concerns assessments of the ecological fitness of the animal to the local paleobiotype or the sudden appearance of a new species into the area. Studying the demography, ecology, and biogeography of exploited animal populations often involves the comparison of the sex ratios or mortality and survivorship patterns between recovered archaeological materials and a documented wild population. Artifacts and artistic scenes are the third source of information.

Unlike the plants and animals of the Levant and Near East, there is no definitive evidence that the wild progenitors that formed the basis of Egypt's domestic economy (i.e., pig, sheep, goat, but see the entry on CATTLE) were ever native to the Nile Valley. Consequently, many scholars believe that Paleolithic Egyptians learned the concept of domestication and husbandry from their eastern and, perhaps, western neighbors and that many of the domestic species raised in Egypt originated in those areas. Few scholars, however, have critically evaluated the established concept of a Near Eastern center for domestic origins. (In fact, it might be argued that the Near Eastern regional center for domestication may be the result of intensive scholarly research; traditionally, that area received so much attention that new discoveries continued to be compiled at a faster rate than in Egypt.)

A second, more important factor, however, may lead to the illusion of a Near Eastern center for domestication. Because domestic-based systems, like all biological systems, adhere to evolutionary principles, successful systems expand and come to dominate and replace less successful systems. The Near Eastern complex—of barley, wheat, legumes, sheep, goats, and pigs—is an example of a very successful system that spread throughout the Mediterranean region, westward and up the Danube and Rhine basins, as well as eastward to the Indus Valley. The success of that complex in Egypt does not automatically imply that when those domesticated species were first introduced they filled a niche unoccupied by other domesticates; it is possible that the Near Eastern complex simply outcompeted an already established, but less successful system that incorporated indigenous cultivated or proto-domesticated animals (and plants). Finds in the Sahara, Egypt's Western Desert, of two bones, believed to represent domesticated cattle, found in context with materials dated to about 6000 BCE, as well as bones believed to be those of domesticated cattle from Bir Kiseiba dated to 8000 BCE, lend some credence to just such a supposition.

Regardless of the initial date, the adoption of animal husbandry in the Sahara was most probably related to its desiccation and to the frequent variability in regional rainfall patterns, which were especially aggravated during periods of severe aridity. Modern studies in the eastern Sahara have shown that annual rainfall totals vary considerably from site to site and from year to year. Work conducted by zoologists, archaeologists, and geologists suggests that in the early and mid-Holocene climatic variability was even greater than that occurring today. Such variable conditions, it is hypothesized, may have led to serious attempts to manage wild animal resources. The resource management may have begun simply, by moving young captured animals to areas where water and vegetation were more immediately available. Such an explanation is, however, a simple summary of a complex set of processes.

Evidence from the Faiyum suggests that the lifestyles of the late Paleolithic, Neolithic, and Predynastic peoples of the area were similar. In general, a mobile hunting-gathering way of life was maintained, but during the Neolithic, animal husbandry was added to the system; that is, domesticated animals were added to an already broad and diversified, mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyle. This additional resource served as insurance against an increasingly unpredictable food supply, brought about by changing environmental conditions. A complete reliance on domesticates, however, was not practical west of the Nile, because of the potential fluctuations in vegetal productivity brought on by unpredictable rainfall. Any group that would have fully adopted domesticates in place of wild resources would, in the long run, have eventually been forced to abandon such a lifestyle. It therefore seems that a balance of wild and domestic resources was best suited to the local environmental conditions (and to long-established patterns); this prevailed until the advent of large-scale irrigation from the Nile during the Middle Kingdom lessened the potential for failure.

A mixed strategy, such as that outlined for the Faiyum, is thought to have existed in other areas of the Western Desert as well. Initially, cattle were herded and, later, sheep and goats; crops were planted in those areas where they could be sustained. Groups were not sedentary, but practiced seasonal migration, so that they could take advantage of the different resources in different areas as they became available. Studies of Egypt's paleoenvironment suggest that conditions became increasingly less hospitable during the early-to-mid Holocene. Evidence from geologic, climatologic, and faunal studies indicates that from c.8000 to 3000 BCE (roughly the time from the inception of domesticates in the Egyptian region to the rise of the first dynasty), the environment of North Africa became increasingly more arid, accompanied by decreased Nile flooding and increased variability in winter temperature and precipitation. If these ecological assessments are accurate, Egypt's early and mid-Holocene inhabitants were faced with an increasingly less productive (or at least a less predictable) resource base; undoubtedly, some cultural adjustments had to be made.

Evidence from the archaeological record supports this ecological scenario. Winter rains had been important, affecting the vegetal productivity of desert margins and oases, which were used as grazing sites by wild animals and the newly domesticated herds. Coinciding with the increasing trend toward aridity, those fertile areas would have become less productive, so cultural groups depending on these resources would have had to adjust their settlement and subsistence strategies. The archaeological record has provided evidence that during the early-to-mid Holocene, the frequency of sites with Saharan-type artifacts increased dramatically along the Nile. Studies of regional settlement patterns in the Nile floodplain have also indicated a corresponding increase in the number and size of sites along the river (from c.10,000 to 4500 BCE). The associated faunal record has demonstrated that a decreasing emphasis was placed on the large animals characteristic of more open terrains (e.g., wild cattle, hartebeest, and red-fronted gazelle); an increasingly strong emphasis was placed on Nile resources. Additionally, the type of domesticates known from the Sahara and the Faiyum in the early Holocene (c.5000 BCE) were the same as those that occurred after 5000 BCE in the Nile Valley: cattle, sheep, goats, and (perhaps) grain.

The apparent adoption of Saharan domesticates by Nile groups enabled them to produce and store surplus food, as was evidenced by the discovery of food-storage facilities at both Merimde and the Faiyum. In turn, humans were able to alter their immediate environment so that the restrictions imposed by a mobile hunting-and-gathering lifestyle became less relevant. Food supplies, in the long run, became more stable and human populations slowly increased.

Animal Husbandry.

Dynastic Egyptians utilized a variety of wild animals throughout their long history. In time, some of them became domesticated; others remained genetically wild but were nurtured and tamed for use in both religious and secular activities. Cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs comprised the main source of domesticant protein throughout most of Egyptian history. Cattle (genus Bos) and, perhaps, sheep (genus Ovis) were intentionally bred, eventually resulting in identifiable breeds. Egyptian herdsmen were aware of fundamental breeding practices, because special bulls were known to be kept for breeding purposes. Herdsmen understood how to assist the cows in calving. The bovine life cycle, from birth to mating to death, was displayed in tomb art from all periods and provinces. Some tombs included scenes of calving, grazing, drawing ploughs, and butchering.

Based on tomb scenes from all periods and provinces, the Egyptians had special personnel to select beasts for sacred and secular butchery, to direct the killings in accordance with the sacred rites, and to examine the flesh for any marks of disease or impurity. Butchers were portrayed as commoners and were probably not supervised by priests or priest-physicians. Cattle were slain by cutting their throats with a knife; they were then bled and skinned. Scenes show priest-physicians inspecting the blood to make pronouncements on its purity. A paragraph in the Ebers Papyrus suggests that a dish was made of cooked blood. After the animal was bled, it was skinned, disemboweled, and then dismembered. Select pieces were presented as offerings or they were exhibited as filets or joints suspended in meat shops. Diverse parts were also used in medicinal prescriptions. Representations of butchers in association with meat shops were made during the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms. The brains were also eaten. Cattle skulls recovered from a sixteenth dynasty animal cemetery were split along the median (basocranial) axis, to permit access to the brain.

Although ancient Egyptians were exceptionally fond of dining on fowl, only two forms were clearly domesticated, the greylag goose and the white-fronted goose. The wild bird resources of Egypt were so great that the widespread domestication of bird species may not have been as practical or efficient as hunting and trapping. Nevertheless, many species of birds have been depicted in aviaries and pens and, like other important food resources, were managed.

The origin of beekeeping is still a mystery, but Egypt is one of the earliest cultures known to have kept bees and may have pioneered ancient apiculture. As early as the fifth dynasty, apiculture as a profession was illustrated. A bas-relief in the Chamber of Seasons of Newoserre Any's solar temple at Abu Ghurob clearly shows a man working with bees. The presence of royal, or state-controlled, hives was suggested by the Middle Kingdom titles of a man named Intet, “Nomarch, Royal Acquaintance, and Overseer of Beekeepers,” and another Middle Kingdom title, “Overseer of Beekeepers of the Entire Land.” By the Ptolemaic period, both royal and private bee farms existed.

Household pets, such as dogs and cats, were common in Egypt. Several breeds of dogs were present, and some were clearly products of selective breeding, especially the greyhound and the soluki. Animals such as monkeys, ibex, and even hyenas were also kept for various purposes. Although a great variety of individual animals were tamed (not bred) for religious and secular purposes—ostriches, ibex, gazelle, and others—and as pets, particularly among the fashionable upper classes, such animals remained genetically wild.



  • Bökönyi, Sandor. “Archaeological Problems and Methods of Recognizing Domestication”. In The Domestication and Exploitation of Plants and Animals, edited by P. Ucko and G. Dimbleby, pp. 219–230. Chicago, 1969. Outlines a series of morphological, as well as cultural, criteria considered when inspecting skeletal remains that might represent domestic forms.
  • Brewer, Douglas. Fishermen, Hunters and Herders: Zoo Archaeology in the Fayum, Egypt (ca. 8200–5000 bp). British Archaeological Reports, International Series, 478. Oxford, 1989. One of the first works (in Egypt) to look at an archaeological problem from the perspective of the animal remains. The conclusions indicate that Neolithic Faiyum peoples practiced a mobile lifestyle little changed from the peoples of the preceding Upper Paleolithic.
  • Brewer, Douglas, Donald B. Redford, and Susan Redford. Domestic Plants and Animals: The Ancient Egyptian Origins. Warminster, 1992. A survey of ancient Egyptian domesticates, their origins and uses; provides an introduction that defines domestication.
  • Lovell, Nancy. “Anemia in the Nile and Indus Valleys: Evidence and Interpretation”. In Comparative and Intersocietal Perspectives: The Indus Valley, Mesopotamia and Egypt, edited by R. Wright (forth-coming). Demonstrates the afflictions that can be directly traced to Neolithic living conditions, such as overcrowding, nutritional stress, and diseases.
  • Morey, Darcy. “Cranial Allometry and the Evolution of the Domestic Dog.” Ph.D. diss., University of Tennessee, 1990. Good review of how domestication might have proceeded for animals in general and the dog in particular.
  • Redford, Donald. Egypt and Canaan in the New Kingdom. Beer Seva, 1990.
  • Redman, Charles L. The Rise of Civilization: From Early Farmers to Urban Society in the Ancient Near East. San Francisco, 1978. The impact of domestication on settled peoples; how it offered a new lifestyle, leading to complex societies.
  • Wendorf, F., A. Close, R. Schild, K. Wasylikowa, R. Housley, J. Harlan, and H. Królik. “Saharan Exploitation of Plants 8000 BP.” Nature 359 (1992), 721–724. A review of possible climatic shifts, as recorded in the Western Desert of Egypt.
  • Zeuner, F. E. A History of Domesticated Animals. New York, 1963. Classic work on domesticated animals, outlining their origins and wild progenitors.

Douglas J. Brewer