The pig, Sus scrofa, was domesticated in the Near East from two wild subspecies, S. s. attila—a habitant of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq—and S. s. libycus—common to the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt. The earliest evidence for domestic pig comes from Hallan Cemi in southeastern Turkey. Based on morphological changes and mortality patterns, domestication is dated by radiocarbon analysis to c. 8500 to 8000 BCE. This preliminary new evidence supersedes the well-known morphological evidence for domestic pig (shortening of the skull and teeth) found at the Neolithic site of Jarmo in northern Iraq, dated to c. 6500 to 6000 BCE. A few sites, particularly in Anatolia, show extensive exploitation of the animal in later phases of the Neolithic. In the Levant, one molar documents pig domestication at Tell Judeideh, a site on the Plain of Antioch, shortly after 6000 BCE. Husbanded pigs spread to the southern Levant by 5000–4000 BCE, at such sites as Tell Turmus in Israel. Pigs were a mainstay of the Levantine diet in the Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods, preceding the advent of complex society. Domestic pigs were present in the Nile valley by the Gerzean period (c. 3500–3000 BCE). A number of principles underlie the distribution of pigs. Environmental factors are primary because pigs require habitats receiving more than 300 mm of rain per year or the presence of marshlands. In all periods, increased moisture is predictive of swine exploitation. Pigs also prefer a forested habitat; some of the overall decline in swine husbandry seen over the sweep of Near Eastern history is the result of a steady deforestation of much of the environment.

With the emergence of complex society in the Early Bronze Age, factors beyond environment influenced the use of pigs. Based on the faunal record in the Levant, pigs were a rural subsistence strategy, becoming particularly important in periods and places of decreased political centralization. In general, pigs are substantially less abundant in the whole of the Near East after the onset of the Middle Bronze Age. An exception is the first wave of Philistine settlement, a phenomenon more likely an example of the worldwide pattern in which immigrants in the first phase of settlement turn to pig husbandry than a reflection of ideology. Because the animal reproduces more rapidly than other domestic stock, it provides a quick and abundant source of protein. Certainly, in later phases of Philistine settlement, pig husbandry declines abruptly. Throughout the rest of the Iron Age in the Levant, pork is only a marginal addition to the larder.

Swine were uncommon in other parts of the ancient Near East after the onset of complex society, again with a few exceptions. Pigs were a dietary mainstay at the Early Bronze Age city of Leilan in Syria. Other large and politically important sites in the same region, Lidar Höyük and Korucutepe in modern Turkey, for example, show continued exploitation of the pig into the Late Bronze Age. Hittite texts indicate that the animal was used in ritual contexts, though perhaps not those of the official cult. In southern Mesopotamia—though the faunal record is very sparse—a few large sites, such as Isin, even as late as Neo-Babylonian times, have significant amounts of pig remains. Cuneiform texts indicate that the animal, which lived as a loosely controlled urban scavenger, was held in low esteem. In Egypt, pigs are very infrequently mentioned in texts or depicted in art. Osteological evidence shows that their exploitation was related to the intensity of political control of the economy. Additionally, pig consumption in Egypt was related to social class. The comments of Herodotus about the status of swine herds are reflected in much earlier remains from Amarna, where pork was the food of the working class.

The dietary laws of the Hebrew Bible, a product of the Priestly source (dated variously from the eighth century BCE to the Persian period in the sixth century BCE) were composed when and where swine husbandry was a nearly invisible pursuit, at least on the basis of the archaeological record. The inclusion of the animal in the list of prohibited species would therefore seem to be the incorporation of a region-wide bias into the biblical tradition rather than a theological innovation directed toward pigs.

[See also Animal Husbandry.]


  • Firmage, Edwin. “The Biblical Dietary Laws and the Concept of Holiness.” In Studies in the Pentateuch, edited by J. A. Emerton, pp. 177–208. Supplements to Vetus Testamentum, vol. 41. Leiden, 1990. Recent survey of the theological implications of the dietary laws in the Hebrew Bible, with some attention to the archaeological evidence.
  • Flannery, Kent V. “Early Pig Domestication in the Fertile Crescent: A Retrospective Look.” In The Hilly Flanks and Beyond: Essays on the Prehistory of Southwestern Asia, edited by T. Cuyler Young, Jr., et al., pp. 163–188. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, no. 36. Chicago, 1983. Thorough review of the Neolithic evidence for domestication of the pig.
  • Hesse, Brian. “Pig Lovers and Pig Haters: Patterns of Palestinian Pork Production.” Journal of Ethnobiology 10.2 (1990): 195–225. Survey of pig use from the Neolithic to the Iron Age and the relationship of the archaeological evidence for swine to the anthropological and historical explanation of its use and avoidance.
  • Redding, R. W. “The Role of the Pig in the Subsistence System of Ancient Egypt: A Parable on the Potential of Faunal Data.” In Animal Use and Culture Change, edited by Pam J. Crabtree and Kathleen Ryan, pp. 20–30. Philadelphia, 1991. Survey of pig use in Egypt and its relationship to political centralization.
  • Wilford, John Noble. “First Settlers Domesticated Pigs before Crops.” The New York Times, 31 May 1994, pp. B6 and B9.

Brian Hesse