Episode 12: Domestication on the Hoof in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic

After we had a look last week at how we went from gathering to farming plants, this week we are finishing off the change from getting our food in the wild to growing it at home by looking at the process of animal domestication in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN) of the Near East.

As with plants, there are several things that we can look at to figure out if a particular animal species is domesticated, and how we can see the domestication process happening. Unlike with plants, where a lot of different species were domesticated in the PPN of the Near East, for animals we only have four species that were domesticated here – sheep, goats, cattle and pigs. As domesticates go, these have been pretty successful, and form a large part of people’s diets all over the world today.

When we look at whether or not an animal is domesticated, or if it is in the process of being domesticated, or if it is arriving into a new area having been domesticated somewhere else, there are a few things that we look for. One of these – as with plants, is the species turning up in new areas where it was not found in the wild. A good example of this is the southern Levant, or southern Mesopotamia.

In the southern Levant, we have a lot of studies of what animals people were eating in the Epipalaeolithic and the PPNA, and it was mostly gazelle. During the course of the PPNB, however, we see sheep and goats turning up as well, and over time these become more and more common, eventually replacing gazelle as the main food animals eaten at archaeological sites.

Another clue that an animal is getting domesticated is that for each of these four species the domesticated versions are smaller than the wild ones. When we look at sites during the PPNB, we see sheep and goats reaching a smaller size by about 7500 or as early as 8000 cal BCE and cattle and pigs reaching a smaller size by about 7000 or as early as 7500 cal BCE. These smaller animals are what we call “morphologically domestic”, meaning domestic in size and shape. This isn’t the end of the story, though.

Changes in the size and appearance of wild and domestic sheep. While not exactly to scale, this picture is pretty close, although note that the wild sheep here are males and the domestic sheep are females.

For sheep and goats – which are more common on Epipalaeolithic and PPNA sites in the Taurus and Zagros mountains – we see differences in the age and sex of the animals eaten between these periods before domestication started and during the early parts of the PPNB when people started to domesticate them. What we see at this early point is animals that are still wild in size and shape (what we call “proto-domestic”) but which are being controlled by people. We know that they are being controlled by people because we people made choices in which animals to eat. What we see is a larger number of animals being killed before 18 months to 2 years of age, compared with the Epipalaeolithic. Most interestingly, based on the measurements most of these animals being eaten young were males, and the females were left alive for a few extra years. This allowed the females to have several babies each to keep the herd growing, but gt rid of the excess males before they got old enough to try to fight to breed with the females. You don’t need very many adult male sheep or goats in order to keep getting new generations, and the males can be more aggressive and difficult to control when they reach adulthood – so they got the chop before (or when) they became difficult. We start to see this pattern of management happening about 8300 cal BCE, so several hundred years before the animals got smaller.

We know that cattle and pigs got smaller also when they were domesticated, and we are pretty sure that they must also have had a period of being “proto-domestic” before this happened. The difficulty with cattle and pigs is that their wild relatives turn up all over the Near East, as well as all over Europe and a lot of Asia. We know from genetic studies that they came from the Near Eastern populations of these wild relatives (at least for taurine cattle – Bos taurus, cattle were also domesticated independently in India from Indian populations of wild cattle to become what is now zebu cattle, Bos indicus). Figuring out exactly where in the Near East their domestication started is harder, because neither wild cattle nor wild pigs were ever the main hunted animal in the Epipalaeolithic or the PPNA. So we don’t have any hints as to areas where they might have started to be herded differently, and because they don’t turn up in huge numbers at Epipalaeolithic or Pre-Pottery Neolithic sites it is hard to tell if any site or region from the Near East was doing proto-domestic herd management like we see with sheep and goats.

The size of a male wild cattle (aurochs, or Bos primigenius) compared against people. While the females were smaller, they would still have stood at about head-height compared with most humans today. Image from here.

We have similar problems with dogs. We know that by the Late Epipalaeolithic in the Near East we have domestic dogs. We have some dogs in burials from this time but that is not the only clue. The difficulty is that all of the things that we use to look at domestication in sheep, goats, cattle and pigs do not work with dogs. Dogs do not get smaller when they were first domesticated – small dogs do not come along until after the Neolithic, so thousands of years later. Also, we were not keeping dogs as food sources the way that we were with the other animals, so there was no reason to kill them off based on their age or sex. What we do know, is that all domestic dogs are descended from eurasian grey wolves. And I do mean ALL domestic dogs – including the ones from pre-contact North and South America. The only way that this could have happened is if dogs were already domesticated before people moved into the Americas from Asia, bringing their dogs along with them. Thus, we know that dogs must have been domesticated before this happened, or before the start of the Late Epipalaeolithic in the Near East.

Episode Bibliography:

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Arbuckle, B.S., Price, M.D., Hongo, H. and Öksüz, B. 2016. Documenting the initial appearance of domestic cattle in the Eastern Fertile Crescent (northern Iraq and western Iran). Journal of Archaeological Science 72 1-9.

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Price, M.D. and Arbuckle. B.S. 2015. Early Pig Management in the Zagros Flanks: Reanalysis of the Fauna from Neolithic Jarmo, Northern Iraq. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 25: 441-453.

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