A History of Animal Domestication

A History of Animal Domestication

Animals have a long association with humans. Since the evolution of man into hunter gatherers, over 100 000 years ago, animals have been integral to human lives, as colonies would follow their prey animals around in a nomadic lifestyle (Clutton-Brock; 1999). Domestication is the process whereby individual species have been altered to create breeds with characteristics more desirable to human needs. Hence, domestic animals can be defined as those that are ‘kept and bred in and around human habituation’, primarily for human advantage (Hemmer; 1990). Through domestication, massive changes have been made to many animals, making them almost unrecognisable from their ancestral species. Throughout the process of domestication, animals have developed unique relationships with humans, and the consequences of said processes can be perceived as advantageous for both parties. Animals from various different classes have been domesticated over several millennia (see Table 1), predominantly mammals, but also birds, invertebrates and more recently certain fish have too been through the domestication process. Each individual animal has followed a different path towards its current form, dependant on such factors as when and where it was domesticated, and the reasons for the process in the first place. 

Table 1 – A Table Showing the Location and Estimated Date of Domestication of Selected Animals (Data courtesy of  Hirst; 2010)

Animal Location of Domestication Estimated Date of Domestication
Dog Undetermined 14 000 BC (disputed)
Cat Undetermined 8 500 BC
Sheep Western Asia 8 500 BC
Goat Western Asia 8 000 BC
Cattle Eastern Sahara 7 000 BC
Pig Western Asia 7 000 BC
Chicken Thailand 6 000 BC
Donkey Northeast Africa 4 000 BC
Horse Kazakhstan 3 600 BC
Silkworm China 3 500 BC
Bactrian Camel Southern Russia 3 000 BC
Honey Bee Egypt 3 000 BC
Duck Western Asia 2 500 BC
Reindeer Siberia 1 000 BC
Turkey Mexico 100 BC – 100 AD

The dog is generally regarded as the first animal to undergo the domestication process (Jensen; 2009 / Hirst; 2010). Reasons for this could have been as protection to humans from other large carnivores, and even as an aid to hunting (O’Connor; 2000). However, after the dog, the domestication of plants appeared to have had a great impact on the species of animals which were subsequently domesticated. The agricultural based Neolithic revolution started with the domestication of grasses, around 10 000 years ago (Gupta et. Varshney; 2004). This brought about the first time humans started settling as opposed to hunter gathering, and opened a whole new possibility of domesticating animals. Animals could now be bred for food purposes, as well as raw materials. Primary products such as meat and hides could be used from domesticated stock such as cattle and sheep, whereas the same animals could also produce secondary products such as milk and wool (O’Connor; 2000). The same sorts of products were influential in the domestication of animals such as pigs and llama. Even horses are believed to have been originally bred for meat. However, with larger animals such as horses and camels, it was apparent they could be used for labour and transport, ideal for helping tend to larger areas of crops, as settlements grew. Another suggestion for certain civilisations domesticating the horse was for use in combat (Carlisle; 2004). Carlisle (2004) also suggests hens were domesticated for the primary reason of cock fighting. Humans are still finding new reasons for domesticating animals, and more recently animals are used for such purposes as laboratory rats, aiding medical and scientific research (Roots; 2007).

There are certain characteristics which make some animals more suitable for domestication than others. The key characteristic, notable in all species which have been domesticated, with the exception of the cat, is the ability to survive within a society, with a hierarchal structure. This is important when considering how humans will interact with the animals, as it gives them the ability to assume the alpha position of the society, and hence the subsequent submission of the animal. Other characteristics seen of great importance include an easily replaced diet, ease in taming of the animals, being easy to tend to, and replace their diet, and above all, useful to humans for whatever reason (Clutton-Brock; 1999 / Roots; 2007).

When considering the ancestral species of domesticated breeds, it is evident the sheer scale of changes which have been bred into the animals familiar today. In particular, the dog has become the most variant species on the planet, despite many believing all modern domestic dogs came from a single common ancestor – the wolf. More precisely, scientists have used genetic information to pinpoint the European Grey Wolf as the ancestral species of the domestic dog (Roots; 2007). Such is the diversity in the domestic dog, there are now over 400 recognised breeds (Jensen; 2009). The same applies to other animals. The pigs of today bare little resemblance to their wild boar ancestors. The body proportions have been dramatically altered, primarily through selective breeding, to suit the needs of humans. Other suggested ancestral species are shown in Table 2.

Table 2 – A Table Showing Suggested Ancestral Species of Domesticated Animals (data courtesy of O’Connor; 2000)

Domestic Animal Suggested Ancestor
Dog Wolf (Canis Lupus)
Horse Wild tarpan (Equus ferus Boddaert)
Dromedary Camel Wild form of same species
Pig Wild Boar (Sus scrofa L.)
Sheep Wild form (Ovis orientalis Gmelin)
Fowl Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus L.)

The process of domestication, as said, varies greatly depending on the individual species concerned, and the reasons for domestication in the first place. However, there is much debate and contrasting theories on the processes, despite the range of archaeological evidence available (Roots; 2007). It seems a common interpretation that, contrary to much prior belief, the domestication of many animals, including dogs, may have actually been more of an accidental process than a deliberate one, hence one reason why there is such difficulty in determining exact dates, and processes (Clutton-Brock; 1999 / Roots; 2007). Turner and Bateson (2000) suggest domestication can be split further into two separate stages, or phases. The first stage is the capturing and keeping of the animals, with no deliberate attempt to change their behaviour or influence reproduction – this is effectively a period of acclimatising the animals to humans. The second stage is a more rapid process, whereby humans start to regulate breeding and behaviour. This is where adaptations are introduced, and breeds are formed. The first purposeful domestication is generally considered those food animals bred with the rise of agriculture (Roots; 2007).

The domestication of the cat was one such process which is believed to have started off more by accident than design (Turner et. Bateson; 2000). It is thought that cats invaded human settlements, in search of prey. This is viable, as rodents would have been commonplace amongst primitive food stores. As their prey of rodents was seen as vermin, the cats were welcome visitors, and were positively encouraged to visit, with residents leaving scraps of food and offering shelter for the cats. Over a period of time, cats became more reliant on humans for food and shelter, and people started keeping cats more permanently. This led on to the breeding of cats in captivity, and eventually breeding for more aesthetic purposes as we know today. Although this theory is often disputed, genetic assessment from cats around the Near East appears to support the correlation of cat domestication with the rise of settlements (Driscoll et al; 2007). However, the same research shows cats were likely to have descended from five different species, as opposed to the single species synonymous with other domesticated animals. Most of the further evidence supporting cat domestication is from Egypt, where there are plentiful mummified remains of cats, as well as the aforementioned pictorial evidence showing cats with humans. However, this evidence is far more recent, dating to around 3 500 years ago (Turner et Bateson; 2000).

One process, which is widely regarded as a genuine possibility, is the domestication process of the Norwegian rat. From written documentation, it is apparent naturally occurring albino rats were discovered, and provoked interest from the public. Out of nothing more than curiosity, people started caging these, and keeping them as a point of interest. Upon discovering the docility and fertility of the caged rats, people started breeding them, and they became popular as a pet (Roots; 2007). In more recent times, further uses of the rat have been identified, such as medical research, and the domestication process has carried on. Recent laboratory evidence shows that wild caught rats can be tamed and reduced of their natural aggression and territoriality within six generations, a discovery that adds further weight and viability to this theoretical process.

There is much evidence supporting theories of domestication. One of the most significant is the archaeology of animal bones (O’Connor; 2000 / Jensen; 2009). Bones can tell us much about the history of the animals from which they were found, both through their location – particularly with regard to proximity to human settlements, as well as their age, and changes observed in bones throughout timescales. For instance, in the dog, the skull shape has gone through dramatic adaptations from that of the wolf – changes accelerated through the domestication process, and preserved through archaeological evidence in bones. Similarly, archaeological finds of implements designed for animal use, as well as secondary products such as textiles is supportive evidence of domestication. Other means of evidence are varied. Written documentation as well as pictorial evidence illustrates the relationship between animal and humans over time, such as the Egyptians pictures of cats (Turner et. Bateson; 2000). Turner et. Bateson (2000) suggest evidence may be seen from isolated tribes today, who still practice hunter gathering techniques in South America. They still capture wild animals, and keep them solely as pets, regardless of whether they are edible. More recently, and perhaps most conclusive of all, genetic evidence, from DNA extracted from bones as well as modern domestic animals is giving scientists a much clearer image of how and where animals were domesticated (Jensen; 2009 / Roots; 2007).

Domestication has certainly impacted on the lives of humans and animals immensely. The process has invariably had an effect and somewhat acted as a catalyst in the transition from man as a hunter gatherer to the settlements and civilisations we know today (Clutton-Brock; 1999 / Gupta et. Varshney; 2004). However, both parties have received benefits from the process. Feldhammer et. al (2007) suggest the relationship between animals and man is a symbiotic one, similar to those symbiotic relationships found all over the natural world. As such, humans have obviously benefitted from the presence of domestic animals, and their related products, whereas animals benefit from factors such as a reliable food source, shelter, protection and improved reproductive potential. They argued further that domestication is nothing more than a further evolutionary advance of animals, inevitable due to the close proximity humans and animals now inhabit. This viewpoint is favoured by Budiansky (1997), who agrees the process was somewhat natural, and was a choice made as much by animals as humans. Whether this is believed or not, it cannot be argued that certain adaptations bred into breeds to suit humans would not have any benefit to the animals in a wild state, but the protection domesticated animals receive nullifies such threats.

In conclusion, the domestication process of animals has occurred over at least ten thousand years, having a massive impact on the lives of humans and development of civilisations, as well as a startlingly rapid effect on the characteristics of animals, both physically and mentally. The process has occurred through differing strategies, dependant on the purpose of the domestication, and the animals involved. It is a well studied subject, with numerous avenues of supportive evidence available, showing estimates of the time scale of the processes, as well as the reasons and locations in which animals were domesticated. As a consequence, many new breeds have been formed, with potential positive and negative repercussions for the animals involved. The study of domestication is an ongoing process, much like domestication itself, and with so many gaps still left in the evidence of its roots, there is still much speculation on the theories involved.


Budiansky, S. 1997. Convenant of the Wild: Why Animals Chose Domestication. Phoenix; London

Clutton-Brock, J. 1999. A Natural History of Domesticated Mammals. Cambridge University Press; Cambridge; pp1-9

Driscoll, C. A. Et al. 2007; The Near Eastern Origin of Cat Domestication. Science Express. 317: 519-523

Feldhammer, G. A. Et. al. 2007. Mammalogy: Adaptation, Diversity, Ecology. The Johns Hopkins University Press; Maryland; USA; p526

Gupta, P. K. et. Varshney, R. K. 2004. Cereal Genomics. Kluwer Academic Publishers; Dordrecht; Netherlands; p165

Hirst, K. K. 2010. Animal Domestication: Table of Dates and Places; available from:

http://archaeology.about.com – date accessed: 09/04/2010

Hemmer, H. 1990. Domestication: The Decline of Environmental Appreciation. Cambridge University Press; Cambridge; pp1-12

Jensen, P. 2009. The Ethology of Domestic Animals: An Introductory Text. CAB International; Oxfordshire; p192

O’Connor, T. 2000. Archaeology of Animal Bones. Sutton Publishing Ltd.; Stroud; pp148-149

Roots, C. 2007. Domestication. Greenwood Press; Connecticut; USA; pp1-21

Turner, D. C. Et. Bateson, P. 2000. The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour. Cambridge University Press; Cambridge; p181

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2 responses to this post.

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