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Animal Husbandry

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East What is This? Provides comprehensive coverage of the history and scope of archaeology in the Near East.

Animal Husbandry

The domestication of animals is a component of the “Neolithic Revolution” and a process that had an impact both on the biology of the tamed and the culture of the tamers. One of the main centers for the evolution of husbandry was the ancient Near East, where its beginnings, in the early Holocene c. 9000 BCE, can be found in Iran, Iraq, Anatolia, Syria, and the Levant, within the hilly zones adjacent to the Fertile Crescent. There, within a relatively short period of time—a few thousand years at most—mobile hunting and gathering, a strategy that had been successful for millennia, was replaced by sedentary farming and animal husbandry as the primary mode of subsistence for most communities. These three aspects of the Neolithic Revolution—sedentism, husbandry, and agriculture—are interwoven but independent components of the process; thus, evidence for the presence of one is not certain proof for the existence of the others. For this reason, the primary evidence for animal husbandry is to be sought in the bones of animals recovered at archaeological sites.

Bones reflect domestication in two ways. One is the impact the process had on the wild species that came under human control; the other is its impact on human values and social organizations. Shifts in the selective forces affecting the small populations of animals initially tamed gradually changed the appearance of their descendants: most became smaller, neotenous features were retained, and coat color and texture as well as other morphological features became more variable. These changes were likely not intentional goals of the first herders but emerged from the process of selecting animals who were easiest to manage and maintain. Some novel morphological and behavioral features did come to have economic significance: the wooly coat of sheep or a more docile personality in cattle; others, such as the corkscrew horns of goats or the shortened faces of pigs, although perhaps culturally salient, did not contribute obvious material benefits to the husbanders' new adaptation to the environment.

Morphological features produced through unconscious human intervention are visible in skeletons and can be used to demonstrate the presence of domestic stock at an archaeological site. At Ali Kosh, in southwestern Iran, the presence of domestic sheep c. 7500–7000 BCE is evidenced by the skull of a hornless ewe; domestic goats are deduced from horncore morphology (the horns of bovids, which are not shed like antlers, are keratinous sheaths covering bone spikes that project from the frontal bone of the skull). At Hallan Çemi, in eastern Anatolia, domestic pigs can be demonstrated in about 8000 BCE on the basis of the discovery of teeth smaller than their wild ancestors'. The existence of domestic cattle in central Anatolia in the late sixth millennium has been argued on the basis of the small overall size of the animals. Morphological evidence alone, however, is insufficient to trace the process of domestication. The earliest stages of husbandry—those that occurred before morphological changes appeared—will be missed. Moreover, the remains of domestic stock at a site is not certain proof that the people who slaughtered and consumed the animals also raised them. Thus, the second way in which bones reflect domestication is crucial.

Domestication is the incorporation of living animals into human society. Domestication not only produces domestic animals, it encourages the adoption of different values and social organizations by the societies that employ it. A major adjustment is required: an increased sense of property becomes a measure of social status. The term husbandry means to conserve, keep, and alienate resources. The route to success is through resisting the impulse to slaughter stock so that herd growth can be encouraged. This way of thinking is anathema to many foraging societies in which there is strong pressure to share the game from a successful hunt across the whole community. The demographics of pastoral societies are shaped by the ratio between the number of herders and the size of the flock, a relatively rigid relationship that fosters segmentation within communities on household lines and discourages the free flow of personnel between camps or settlements that is characteristic of hunters. The events of the early Holocene in the Near East therefore produced significant changes in the values and social organization of the emergent communities. The new attitudes can only be inferred indirectly. A key component of husbandry is the decision to cull. The proportions of the different ages and sexes in the animals that herders choose to slaughter to feed their families are distinct from those seen in the animals hunters are likely to kill. Thus, evaluation of the mortality of potentially domesticable animals at a site is a key technique in determining whether the human behaviors associated with pastoralism are present. Though other information is supportive, demographic information is central to the conclusions that sheep were domestic by about 8500 BCE at Zawi Chemi and Shanidar cave in northern Iraq and goats husbanded at Tepe Ganj Dareh in western Iran by 7000 BCE.

What motivated the incorporation of animals into human society? Most theories have argued that the reliable production of meat was the incentive. It is widely agreed that human population was increasing in the Early Holocene, forcing marginal habitats (from a hunter-forager perspective) to be occupied—lands with less game, where those communities with domestic herds would more easily survive. Because some of these marginal habitats are outside the range of the wild ancestors of sheep, the discovery of their remains at such Pre-Pottery Neolithic sites as Jericho in the Jordan Valley, Beidha in Jordan, and Abu Hureyra on the Euphrates River in Syria has been taken as direct evidence of domestication. For what, then, were they being raised? At the same time marginal habitats were being invaded, the environment of the Early Holocene was both spatially variable and temporally erratic—conditions ethnology tells us promote storage as a buffering mechanism, and husbandry is a form of storage on the hoof. The difficulty with these models has been the lack of an explanation for how hunters can avoid killing the animals they encounter and instead treat them more like gathered resources—which, again ethnology reports, are shared within the household, not the community at large. One controversial explanation for the motivation is the milk even wild caprines yield. Small numbers of tame stock maintained by households for dairy products could have served as the basis for the development of larger herds capable of producing meat. A second factor is the behavior of two of the wild species first domesticated—sheep and goats. Both of these animals are “vertical migrators,” adapting to the change of the season by moving up and down precipitous terrain. They contrast with “horizontal migrators,” such as gazelles and equids, which deal with variable climate by traversing great distances. Sheep and goats also have a considerable attachment to their home ranges. Exploiting them, rather than the horizontal migrators, would have given a new definition to the concept of hunting territory because sheep and goat habitat is productive year-round rather than just seasonally. It is more worth defending. Game-management techniques, which mimic some herding strategies and so are hard to distinguish in the archeological record, would have had value and offered another potential pathway to more intensive husbandry.

Although husbandry was underway by about 9000 BCE, it took nearly eight thousands years for the list of Near Eastern domesticates to be complete. Sheep, goats, and probably pigs were first, domesticated across southwest Asia by 7000 BCE. By 6000 BCE, the first sites with multiple species of domestic livestock are recorded (e.g., Erbaba in Anatolia and Jarmo in Iraq, among many others). At about the same time or a little earlier, a figurine found at the western Iranian site of Sarab indicates that woolly sheep were known. Hunting had not died out as an important subsistence pursuit-—though at sites where the important domesticates belonged to the same species as the wild animals hunting might also have been pursued—but there is presently no way to estimate its contribution accurately. However, at the site of Umm Dabaghiyeh, a sixth-millennium settlement in Iraq, onagers (a wild relative of the horse) were hunted intensively. A scattering of domestic donkeys is found in various parts of the Near East in about 3000 BCE, in Mesopotamia often in ritual contexts. Shortly thereafter, the animal became a mainstay as a beast of burden. The horse was domesticated in central Asia by the fourth millennium and seems to have appeared in the Near East by the third millennium, although a Chalcolithic horse bone has been found in Israel's Negev desert. Cattle entered the barnyard at the end of the sixth millennium and were used for motive power and milk by the fourth.

The centuries just before 3000 BCE have been referred to as the period of the Secondary Products Revolution—a time when donkeys not only entered the work force, but sheep, goats, and cattle began to be managed for their fiber and dairy products. In fact, the management for secondary products probably began much earlier; it is more correct to say that the effort invested in these forms of husbandry increased with the advent of complex society.

The complex political organization associated with the rise of the state reshaped animal husbandry in the Near East. One development was specialized nomadic pastoralism, an adaptation dependent on the economic infrastructure the state provides. It is not, as some would have it, a simpler subsistence mode into which people slip during the intermittent periods of social disintegration brought on by the collapse of states and empires. Nomadic pastoralism has the capacity to generate considerable political power. Though it is counterintuitive, the successes and failures of individual pastoralists do not even out over time. Instead, some succeed enormously and are able to employ or otherwise attach their luckless fellows to manage their ever-increasing herds. These arrangements are capable of multiplying to produce nomadic “kingdoms” of considerable power. Under the state, animal production was managed either through bureaucrats or the action of markets. In either case, husbanders were encouraged by the demands made or the opportunities provided by these institutions to redirect their efforts away from household production and toward the creation of animal products for exchange. For example, in the Levant, at Tel Ḥalif, donkeys were produced on a large scale, presumably to serve a regional need for transport animals. This principle also is visible in the transformation of culling strategies for sheep and goats. Effective multipurpose management of these animals for household consumption focuses on dairy production as the most efficient method of producing calories. Evidence for herding techniques aimed at the production of meat or wool implies that the exchange value associated with these products was sufficient to outweigh the overall decrease in total production. These are recorded in all parts of the Near East. In Mesopotamia, cuneiform documents indicate that by the end of the third millennium extensive centralized sheep herding was underway. Unfortunately, the documentary record refers almost exclusively to state-directed activities and provides no picture of the rural domestic production of animal products, which must have been enormous.

The textual record also indicates that local “breeds” had developed. It is a mistake to view these as distinctive morphologies produced by deliberate isolation and selection, as is practiced in modern husbandry. Instead, subregional economic, political, and physical boundaries produced isolated populations of domestic stock that, either through adaptation to local conditions or the effects of genetic drift, attained distinctive and recognizable qualities. In these circumstances, local herds, even though named, actually contain a wide range of morphologies. Genesis 31 provides a clear example of the principle. While Jacob believes that the characteristics of the male goats in his flock will turn up in the next generation of kids, the flock itself is very diverse in appearance, hardly the modern idea of a breed.

In Egypt, domestic sheep and goats seem to have been imports from southwest Asia. In the case of cattle, the case is not settled. A center of domestication, independent of the one in Anatolia and southeast Europe, may have existed in northeast Africa. Certainly in the pharaonic era, extensive experimentation with a wide range of animals was practiced. While most ventures never went beyond taming, some birds, notably geese, became significant domesticates, as they did in Mesopotamia.

The date the camel entered the register of domestic stock is unknown. Though most authorities would place the event in Arabia and eastern Iran sometime in the third millennium or a little earlier, the evidence is extremely thin and subject to alternative explanations. As important contributors to the economy, however, the evidence for camels points certainly to the early first and perhaps to the middle of the second millennium BCE.

Other animals deserve some mention. The humped Zebu cattle, especially well adapted to arid conditions, is present in Jordan by the Late Bronze Age, although the difficulty associated with identifying its remains means that it may be present elsewhere earlier, but unrecognized among the bones of the more common taurine cattle. The same problem faces the identification of the contribution of the water buffalo, presumably wild examples of which have been found in Halafian deposits. Faunal evidence shows that the animal was domesticated in the Indus Valley by the third millennium, and a seal impression places the animal in Mesopotamia at about the same time. Little more is known. The indigenous hare of the Near East was not domesticated, and rabbits were not introduced until Roman times. Fish were raised in ponds in Mesopotamia but do not seem to have been true domesticates. Bees were kept in Egypt beginning in the Old Kingdom (third millennium), but the technology does not seem to have spread to Asia.

The elephant presents an especially complex problem. The discovery of ivory at such workshops as Bir es-Safadi in the northern Negev indicates the presence of the animal in the Chalcolithic period. Scattered bone and tusk finds together with textual records of imperial hunting suggest that a relict population of an as yet undetermined species of elephant was present in Syria as late as the beginning of the first millennium BCE. However, at least one authority has argued that these animals were actually transported from India for royal sport and so technically would be domesticates.

Finally, the chicken has been reported from occasional finds as early as the Early Bronze Age. The scarcity of these reports and the possibility of contamination associated with most of them contrasts with the explosion of chicken husbandry that begins in the Persian and particularly the Hellenistic period. The evidence now points to an original domestication of the chicken in China during the Neolithic, followed by an extremely slow diffusion west.

[See also Camels; Cattle and Oxen; Equids; Paleozoology; Pigs; and Sheep and Goats.]


  • Boessneck, Joachim. Die Tierwelt des Alten Ägypten: Untersucht anhand Kulturgeschichtlicher und Zoologischer. Munich, 1988. Encyclopedic survey of animal domestication in Egypt.
  • Clutton-Brock, Juliet, ed. The Walking Larder: Patterns of Domestication, Pastoralism, and Predation. London, 1989. Presents important studies by Pierre Ducos and Sandor Bökönyi from a social and instrumental perspective, as well as a survey by Richard H. Meadow of the methods of determining animal domestication in the Near East.
  • Crabtree, Pam J. “Early Animal Domestication in the Middle East and Europe.” In Archaeological Method and Theory, edited by Michael B. Schiffer, pp. 201–245. Tucson, 1993. Clearly written summary of the evidence for animal domestication, although it does not emphasize social process.
  • Gautier, Achilles. La domestication: Et l'homme créa ses animaux. Paris, 1990. Important European perspective on the process of animal domestication.
  • Grigson, Caroline. “Plough and Pasture in the Early Economy of the Southern Levant.” In The Archaeology of Society in the Holy Land, edited by Thomas E. Levy, pp. 245–268. New York, 1995. Recent review of the process of domestication in the western Near East. Emphasizes a critical review of the evidence within an ecological model.
  • Redding, R. W. “A General Explanation of Subsistence Change: From Hunting and Gathering to Food Production.” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 7 (1988): 56–97. Utilizes a systems approach to explain the advent of domestication.
  • Russell, Kenneth. After Eden. British Archaeological Reports, International Series, no. 391. Oxford, 1988. Important statement from the perspective of optimization theory on the process of domestication, providing the argument for the early exploitation of dairy products.
  • Tchernov, Eitan, and Liora K. Horwitz. “Body Size Diminution under Domestication: Unconscious Selection in Primeval Domesticates.” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 10 (1991): 54–75. Sophisticated analysis of the coevolution of domesticators and domesticated.
  • Zeder, Melinda A. Feeding Cities: Specialized Animal Economy in the Ancient Near East. Washington, D. C., 1991. Based on a study of Tal-e Malyan in Iran, providing a systems view of the impact of complex society on animal production systems in southwest Asia.

Brian Hesse

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