During the most recent ice age, from about 20,000 years ago, large mammals such as bison roam on the sub-arctic tundra of Europe and Asia. They are preyed upon by two groups of hunters, both much smaller and weaker than themselves – but both with a sufficiently developed social system to enable them to hunt and kill in packs.
These hunters are humans and wolves.
The typical pack of wolves and of humans is surprisingly similar. It it is family-based, led by a dominant male whose female partner is likely to have an authority second only to his. Members of the group are friendly to each other but deeply suspicious of outsiders. All members (not just the parents) are protective of the newly born and the young. Both species are good at interpreting the moods of others in the group, whether through facial expression or other forms of body language.
Legend acknowledges these shared characteristics in stories of children suckled by wolves. The other side of the same coin, in real life, means that wolf cubs adapt easily to life among humans.
For mutual benefit
Humans and wolves are competing for the same prey, but there are advantages for both in teaming up. For the wolf, human ingenuity and the use of weapons mean a share in a greater number of kills – and perhaps even an occasional taste of larger victims, such as mammoth. For humans, the wolf’s speed and ferocity is equivalent to a new weapon.
The partnership is natural. So, undoubtedly, is how it first comes about. People love to nurture any abandoned young animal, and a wolf cub is well adapted to learn the rules of a hierarchical human society (in which its place will be low). From this partnership all dogs derive. Unbelievable though it seems, every single breed of dog is descended from wolves.
For a species to become domesticated, it must be willing to breed in man’s company. ‘Breed in captivity’, the more usual phrase, implies a simple case of exploitation. The reality is more complex. In terms of survival, those species which have developed a relationship with man have far outstripped their wild cousins.
The most numerous large mammals, apart from humans, are cows, sheep, goats, pigs, horses and dogs. Domestic cats easily outnumber their wild equivalents, as do chickens and turkeys. The domestication of animals is based on an ancient contract, with benefits on both sides, between man and the ancestors of the breeds familiar to us today.
Dogs: from 12,000 years ago
The earliest known evidence of a domesticated dog is a jawbone found in a cave in Iraq and dated to about 12,000 years ago. It differs from a wolf in that it has been bred to have a smaller jaw and teeth. Selective breeding affects a species quite rapidly, and is a natural process for man to initiate – probably at first by accident rather than intention. A particular puppy in a litter is favoured because it has an attractive coat, barks well, is unusually friendly or obedient, noticeably large or small.
This is the dog which is kept and in its turn has puppies. Its desirable characteristics become perpetuated.
Images in Egyptian paintings, Assyrian sculptures and Roman mosaics reveal that by the time of these civilizations there are many different shapes and sizes of dog. To use the word ‘breed’ may be anachronistic, though there is evidence that a dog very like the present-day Pekingese (almost as far as one can get from a wolf) exists in China by the 1st century AD.
By that time Roman ladies also have lap dogs; their warmth is believed to be a cure for stomach ache. A Roman writer of the period gives similarly practical reasons for selecting the colour of a dog: shepherds’ dogs should be white (to distinguish them from wolves in the dark) but a farmyard dog should have a black coat (to frighten thieves).
Sheep and goats, cattle and pigs: 9000-7000 BC
The first animals known to have been domesticated as a source of food are sheep in the Middle East. The proof is the high proportion of bones of one-year-old sheep discarded in a settlement at Shanidar, in what is now northern Iraq. Goats follow soon after, and these two become the standard animals of the nomadic pastoralists – tribes which move all year long with their flocks, guided by the availability of fresh grass.
Cattle and pigs, associated more with settled communities, are domesticated slightly later – but probably not long after 7000 BC. The ox may first have been bred by humans in western Asia. The pig is probably first domesticated in China.
The first reason for herding sheep and goats, or keeping cattle and pigs in the village, is to secure a regular supply of fresh meat. The hunter is dependent on the luck of the chase; if more animals are killed than can be immediately consumed, meals from the surplus will be increasingly unpleasant as the days go by. The herdsman, by contrast, has a living larder always to hand and a supply of dairy products as well.
These animals also provide for almost every other need of neolithic man. While they are alive, they produce dung to manure the crops. When they are dead, leather and wool for garments; horn and bone for sharp points, of needles or arrows; fat for tallow candles; hooves for glue.
Draught animals: from 4000 BC
Of the four basic farm animals, cattle represent the most significant development in village life. Not only does the cow provide much more milk than its own offspring require, but the brute strength of the ox is an unprecedented addition to man’s muscle power.
From about 4000 BC oxen are harnessed and put to work. They drag sledges and, somewhat later, ploughs and wheeled wagons (an almost simultaneous innovation in the Middle East and in Europe). The plough immeasurably increases the crop of wheat or rice. The wagon enables it to be brought home from more distant fields.
India and southeast Asia use another version of the domesticated ox, well adapted to hot wet conditions – the water buffalo. Whether dragging a plough-like tool through a flooded field or hauling a cart on a dry track, the buffalo is ideally suited to the role of a farm animal in rice-growing areas. Like other members of the ox family, it also provides a good supply of milk.
The buffalo is first domesticated somewhere in the near-tropical regions of Asia. Precisely where or when is not known, but buffaloes feature as domestic animals on the seals of the Indus civilization.
Cats: from before 3000 BC
Apart from dogs, cats are the only domesticated animals to dwell indoors with humans. It is also the only one which is solitary in the wild, as opposed to living in packs, herds or flocks. As a result the cat has been able to take what it wants from man (food, shelter, play) and to pay its dues in return (pest control) without losing contact with its original identity.
Cats have remained closer than other domesticated animals to their wild cousins, partly because it is so difficult to control their breeding. And they are more able than any other to fend for themselves, in the country or even in a city, if human support is withdrawn.
It is not known when cats are first domesticated. But by the time of the earliest civilization they have already acquired in the human mind a characteristic which they have never lost – the quality of mystery.
In the temples of Egypt cats are sacred animals, and are mummified in their millions. In folk stories of all nations a cat is the natural companion for people who possess an alarming second sight, such as witches.
Horses: 3000 BC
Humans acquire their most important single ally from the animal kingdom when they domesticate the horse, in about 3000 BC.
Wild horses of various kinds have spread throughout most of the world by the time human history begins. Their bones feature among the remains of early human meals, and they appear in cave paintings with other animals of the chase. Some of their earliest fossil remains have been found in America, but after arriving across the Bering Land Bridge they become extinct in that continent. They are reintroduced by European colonists in the 16th century.
A natural habitat of the wild horse is the steppes of central Asia. Here, with its ability to move fast and far, it can gallop out of harm’s way and make the most of scarce grazing. And here, some 5000 years ago, humans first capture, tame and breed the horse. The original purpose, as with cattle, is to acquire a reliable source of meat and subseqently milk. But then, in a crucial development, tribesmen discover that they have at their disposal a means of transport.
With a horse beneath him, man’s ability to move is improved out of all recognition. The next comparable moment in the story of human speed does not arrive for another 5000 years – with steam trains.
The first domesticated horses are of a size which we would describe as ponies. Horses of this kind were still living in the wild in Mongolia until quite recent times. Discovered there in the 1870s, and named Przewalski’s horse, they survive now only in zoos.
The entire range of horses known to us, from the mighty carthorse down to the smallest ponies, is the result of human breeding. Other wild breeds, now extinct, have been added to the stock. One such example is the tarpan, which was the native breed in Europe.
Asses: 3000 BC
At much the same time as the wild horse is being domesticated in the region of the Black Sea and the Caspian, its cousin the ass or donkey (a member of the same equus family) is tamed in Egypt. At this time the donkey appears to have roamed wild in northeast Africa and up through the Fertile Crescent into Mesopotamia.
So both horse and the ass, from north and from south, become available to two of the earliest civilizations – in Mesopotamia and Egypt.