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Symbiosis Between Animal and Humans – A great (R)evolutionary Transformation of Livestock Farming

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Taming and domestication is a story of a successful symbiosis between animal and humans which presumably started simply by recognizing advantages for both. The animal received regularly food and protection from humans, and humans benefited from easier access to the animal and its valuable meat, bones and skins without the need for hunting. Later animals were domesticated for milk, wool, draught power, warfare, sport and prestige. During this continuing ‘co-operation’ over thousands of years; both animals and humans changed their living habits and the animals in particular their phenotype, reproductive, growing and production abilities while losing some of their cognitive skills that were not required in captivity any more.

The first ever symbiosis was seen between dogs and humans as companions (more than 14000 to 12000 years ago). The first domestic food animal was between sheep and humans (11000 years ago).

For quite a long period of time, the relation between man and its environment, including plants and animals was a loose coexistence, which became more and more intensive when people settled and were able to increase plant production with increasing crop yield. Different from all other animals, humans did not adapt themselves purely to their environment, but started to ‘use’ the environment to their purposes. During the early times humans were a pure ‘food-gatherer’ (Palaeolithic period, approx. 14,000 to 12,000 years B.C.). This is the time when probably the dog became the first animal to live permanently with man helping with guarding, defence and hunting. Later (Mesolithic period, approx. 9,000 years B.C.) humans relied more and more on hunting, fishing and collecting shell-fish, grubs, fruit and wild vegetables. This time lasted for several thousand years again during which humans did not influence their natural environment to any noticeable degree. This changed in the Neolithic period (from about 8,000 to approx. 3,000 years B.C.) and definitively with the advent of the Bronze Age (starting between 3,500 and 2,500 years B.C.) when more systematic farming for food production was developed. These developments took many generations and long time-periods.


The earliest traces of farming are typically found in the Middle East region where ceramics could be dated back to more than 8,000 years B.C. The Bronze Age also started 500 to 1000 years earlier in the Middle East than in North Africa, followed by South, East and Middle Europe. These developments were probably also substantially influenced by the globally changing climate in the post-glacial times to Subboreal (approx. 3,800 to 500 B.C.) and Subatlantic (since about 500 B.C. till today) with moderate temperatures and sufficient rainfall allowing settlements to develop with plant and animal production. There are numerous practices known from ancient Egypt in taming and domesticating of various animal species including sheep, goat, cattle as the Egyptians left pictures of standard animal husbandry practices. Beef cattle were kept indoors with hand feeding and stalls were equipped with drainage for urine.

During the time of the Roman Iron Age and the migration period (1st to 6th century AD) food supply in Middle Europe and South Scandinavia was predominantly based on crop and animal production. Reports and archaeological findings indicate that the dominating farmed animal was cattle (56%) followed by pig (28%) and sheep/goat (16%). The distribution of species on the farms was dependent on region and living conditions. Benecke (1994) reports that unlike in the inland areas; sheep was dominating the Dutch coastal regions. His explanation is that sheep were protected by the salty and dry soil conditions from contracting sheep liver fluke because these conditions hampered significantly the development of Galba truncatula, the alternate host of sheep liver fluke, compared to the inland sweet water regions. Thus, sheep thrived in the coastal areas.

Domestication involves more than simply taming. Animals are considered to be domesticated when:

        they are kept for a distinct purpose

        humans control their breeding

        their survival depends on humans

        they develop traits that are not found in the wild

Domestication allowed humans to

         Contain animals with the right temperament

         Have a steady food supply

         Use animals for companionship, religious purposes and draft work

In return, the animals received protection and a constant food supply.

Selective breeding occurred as humans got rid of animals with undesirable traits, not allowing them to reproduce.

Which of these animals was domesticated first?

Sheep:  Domesticated 11,000-15,000 years ago

         Domesticated in the mountains of Southeast Europe and Central/Southwest Asia. These areas include the countries of: Greece, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Hungary, Uzbekistan, Syria, Yugoslavia, Turkmenistan, Iraq, Romania, Tajikistan Bulgaria, Afghanistan and Iran

         Favorable because of their wool and meat for which they are still used and bred today.

         Because of selective breeding for traits and other results of domestication, sheep are the only species of livestock that would be unable to return to the wild.

Cattle:  Domesticated 10,000-15,000 years ago

         Domesticated near the boundary of Europe and Asia and/or Southwest Asia

         This area includes the countries of: Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Syria, Moldavia, Turkmenistan, Iran, Iraq

         In the beginning, cattle were used mainly for meat, milk and labor but eventually were replaced by horses in most of the draft work.

Horses: Domesticated approx. 5,000 years ago

         Horses were domesticated in Eastern Europe and Western Asia. This area includes the countries of Mongolia and Siberia.

         Originally, horses were used for meat and milk, but eventually became useful as pack and draft animals.

Pigs: Domesticated 5,000 - 9,000 years ago

         Pigs were first domesticated in the Middle East (Mesopotamia) in countries such as Syria, Iraq and Turkey and then spread across Asia, Europe and Africa.

         Pigs were utilized more in settled farming communities than in nomadic groups because they are difficult to move for long distances.


         The goat was among the earliest animals to be domesticated, around 6000 - 7000 B.C. in Western Asia.

         The goat could easily revert to its wild state.


         Chickens were known in China more than 3,400 years ago and also in Southeast Asia (China, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Burma)



         The turkey is the only North American domestic animal and was domesticated in middle North America.

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