Back in a time before humans had even discovered the benefits of a sedentary life, the world was far more wild, unaltered and diverse than it is today. During the First Agricultural Revolution which took place roughly 10,000 years ago, early man was just beginning to transform the environment around him to better suit his own needs. But in order for this to happen, first agriculture and animal husbandry needed to be invented.
By capturing and growing the animals themselves, our ancestors realized that this way of doing things was far more rewarding and convenient than hunting the beasts in the wild. This led mankind down a road on which only Mother Nature and Father Time were previously on. Selective breeding and the lack of any more natural predators, made these animals go through some drastic changes in terms of their capacity to produce more milk, wool or meat on their bones, all the while becoming more and more docile.
10. The Fighting Cock
Chickens, and all other birds for that matter, are the direct descendants of dinosaurs who roamed the Earth millions of years ago. Archaeopteryx is the best candidate we know of so far that can act as a link between today’s birds and the dinosaurs of old. This “middle man” which lived 150 million years ago, had features that resembled dinosaurs, in terms that it had claws on both its legs and wings and it also had teeth instead of a beak. From what we can deduce by examining the fossils discovered, is that the Archaeopteryx could fly, but it wasn’t an expert at it, rather it was more of a glider, like some species of squirrel we know today. Nevertheless, it had feathers and is the best candidate to fill the position of intermediary between birds’ past and present.
Fast-forward to more recent times and we come to the Red Jungle Fowl. Native to SE Asia, this bird species was believed by Charles Darwin to be the ancestor of the modern chicken. Some further DNA evidence points out that, even if he was right, the Red Jungle Fowl is not the only one to have contributed to the creation of our flying friend. It was rather the interbreeding between it and the the Gray Jungle Fowl (from which chickens have their yellow legs).
Both historical and archeological data indicate that these birds were domesticated as early as 4000 BC. They also show that these Jungle Fowls had a different purpose other than providing people with food. They were raised for sport and more exactly, for cockfighting. First in Persia, the tradition then moved to the Indus Valley and spread by soldiers and merchants, it reached Greece. The Greeks were also the ones who introduced it into Roman culture. The sport was even passed on into the Americas with the arrival of the Europeans on the continents. Abraham Lincoln earned his nickname “Honest Abe” thanks to his reputation for being fair when refereeing cockfight matches. We also know that only with the technological advancements brought on by the 20th century, the chicken became an important source of meat for people around the globe since before it was negligible compared to other livestock.
9. The Miracle Cow
Around 10,500 years ago man managed to domesticate the Aurochs. Now extinct, this mighty beast was huge compared to modern-day cattle. The bull was larger than its female counterpart, it had a dark-brown coat and large horns pointed forwards. It roamed over large parts of Europe and Asia, but was hunted to extinction, with the last of them dying in Poland in 1627. The Aurochs is also the central piece making up the coat of arms to the historic region of Moldova in Eastern Europe.
What’s so interesting about the domestication of this animal is that, compared to all others, its origins can be traced back to only one specific place on the map and to only about 80 initial individuals. This is fascinating even by today’s standards and can be classified as “almost impossible” for 8500 BC. DNA evidence gives credit to the “Dja´de” and “Çayönü” tribes in northern Syria and eastern Turkey near the Taurus Mountains for the existence of cows.
Since the Aurochs was so large and fierce, it is a miracle that these Neolithic tribes managed to tame it, even if it took them more than a thousand years to do so. Like no other domesticated animal, the cow has played a critical role in human evolution and even if those tribes hadn’t managed to tame the beasts so early on, chances are that someone else would have done it at some point, regardless.
8. Survivor Swine
The history of the pig is a relative straight forward one. Native to the Old World, the wild boar could be found in Europe, Asia and Northern Africa. Its domestication took place roughly at the same time and place the cow did, but multiple sites around both Europe and Asia can take credit for its “creation.” Only with the arrival of the Europeans to the Americas in the 1500s did the pig reach these continents, being first introduced by the Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto on the southeast coast of the US.
Ever since, the wild hog has spread like wildfire throughout most of the Mexican Gulf states like Texas, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana and Georgia. California is also struggling with their containment since these boars are an invasive species and considered a pest. Today the pig/hog is present on all continents with the exception of Antarctica, being capable of adapting almost anywhere.
It can do so because it’s an omnivorous opportunist, eating pretty much anything. It’s also because the pig can acclimate itself very quickly. If one or several domesticated pigs manage to escape into the wild, a literal metamorphosis takes place. Those same pigs will begin to have longer snouts and thicker fur, preparing them for a more “independent” lifestyle. Their offspring will resemble wild boars to the point where you couldn’t distinguish between them with the naked eye. The opposite is also possible, but on a fairly slower rate.
7. The Highly-Prized Sheep
Like many other tamed animals, the sheep was domesticated during the First Agricultural Revolution some 10,000 years ago and in the region of the Levant (the Near East). Its ancestor is believed to be the Oriental mouflon or a combination of it with other species which are now extinct. Initially the European mouflon was believed to be the forefather of modern sheep, but further evidence has shown that it’s actually the other way around and the mouflon is the result of stray sheep lost in the wild on the European continent.
When in the wild, sheep prefer wide open spaces since they have excellent vision capable of seeing predators one kilometer away and within a 300° panoramic view. Different species of sheep have adapted depending on the environment and climate they lives in. For example some breeds living in the Middle East and Turkey can store fat close to their tails like camels do with their humps. Others living in colder climates were bred to produce large amounts of wool which grows all year round unlike the Soay breed which sheds its wool once a year and was first introduced in Britain some 6000 years ago.
They were also the reason for many conflicts throughout history, being a strong catalyst for starting the American Revolution War when Britain banned wool trade within the colonies. Anyone caught trading it would risk having their right hand cut off. Another such conflict was the “Highland Clearance” in Scotland when most of the feudal land tenure system was replaced with the rearing of sheep, displacing many people in the process. Or the American range wars between cattle and sheep herders fighting over good grazing lands.
6. Our good Old Faithful Dog
Dogs are a perfect example of humans genetically engineering animals since before the dawn of civilization. From the tiny, always shivering little devils known as Chihuahuas to the huge and slobbering St. Bernards, all dogs can trace their roots to the wolf. This is not that surprising since both species kind of look alike. What is surprising though is when some of these wolves went from a predator to man’s best friend.
It is believed that the dog appeared in several places at once, even before people discovered agriculture and a sedentary way of life. The oldest remains of a canid were found in the Altai Mountains (Russia) and Goyet Cave (Belgium) dating back 33 and 36,000 years, respectively. DNA testing has shown that these remains are more closely related to modern dogs than wolves even if the transition hadn’t taken place that much earlier. This puts the dog in the lead compared to other domesticated animals by at least 15 or 20,000 years, making it also man’s oldest friend.
In South America’s Peru the first Europeans encountered a local species of dog now called “The Peruvian Inca Orchid” which was almost hunted to extinction following their arrival. This strange looking dog is almost entirely naked with dark skin and an orange Mohawk on its head. Today it’s bred and sold internationally as a luxury dog. In Australia on the other hand, the native Dingo is believed to have arrived on the continent anywhere between 4800 and 18,300 years ago possibly during trade between pre-Neolithic tribes. What’s certain is that the breed originated in southern China and is now part of the Australian fauna.
5. The Horse (Made in America)
The domestication of the horse is fairly difficult to pinpoint to a specific place and time. We suspect it began somewhere in the Eurasian steppe (modern-day Ukraine, SW Russia or western Kazakhstan). It is so hard to say precisely since the horse’s gene pool was constantly supplied with new material from mares captured in the wild. Archeological evidence shows us clear evidence of domesticated horses dating back to 3000 BC, but there’s a strong chance it could have happened sooner.
Initially, the purpose of taming these animals was similar to that of cattle in providing humans with meat and milk. Once people realized that they could be ridden, the domesticated horse spread like wildfire throughout the two continents. It was only replaced as the main means of transportation with the arrival of the steam engine some 5000 years later.
Horses back then were a lot smaller, similar to ponies of today. One of it ancestors, “Przewalski’s horse” was discovered by Nikolai Mikhailovich Przewalski in 1875 near the Altai Mountains in Mongolia. This stocky looking fella has a reddish coat and white muzzle, but it’s now extinct in the wild and only lives in zoos. The donkey was also tamed roughly in the same period but in Egypt.
In the Americas, the horse was introduced with the arrival of the Europeans. Because of some stray specimens who escaped into the wilderness, the Mustang breed emerged. What is fascinating here is that, based on fossil records, the genus “Equus” of which modern horses, zebras and donkeys belong to, first originated on the North American continent some 4 million years ago. They then crossed the Bering land-bridge into Asia and died out in America roughly 12,000 years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene era. So basically the horse is actually native to America and not an invasive species like it is classified today.
4. The Diligent Honeybee
Most certain than not, hunter-gatherer people of the prehistoric era were willing to raid beehives and suffer a couple of nasty stings for the delicious goodness inside. Historical evidence however, points out that the “domestication” of the bee took place somewhere around 1000 BC in Egypt. Here, pictograms dating to the Old Kingdom show beekeepers in action. Wielding smoke to fend off these small insects, the Egyptians would gather the honey and place it into clay jars for storage.
To indicate the importance honeybees played in that society, titles like “Sealer of the Honey” were given. The pharaoh was called “the Bee King” and the sanctuary of Osiris was called “Hwt bjt” or “the Mansion of the Bee.” Lower Egypt was so full of bees and beekeepers that the country’s symbol was in fact, a bee.
This tradition was passed down to the Greeks who designed a nest made out of wood, similar to an upside-down basket which was used throughout most of Europe up until the 19th century when an American clergyman by the name of L.L. Langstroth came up with the exact spacing needed between the removable frames to be extracted and the entire design changed.
Originally bees have evolved from hunting wasps and go back some 74 to 146 million years. It is estimated that their evolution coincides with the appearance of flowering plants in the Cretaceous period on the once mighty continent of Gondwana. After its separation into multiple landmasses, the bee evolved into several species, but the most commonly known is the “Apis mellifera” or the European Honeybee. This species was spread out throughout most of the world during the colonization period and is now under threat by a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). This could have dire consequences to the economy since bees pollinize a third of the human food supply.
3. The Arctic Camel defying the Bible
When talking about camels we tend to think about barren deserts and windswept sand dunes, but the camel actually originated on the North American continent some 45 million years ago. Like the horse, it crossed the Bering Strait into present day Russia some 4 million years and from there it found its way to the Gobi Desert the Arabian Peninsula. These ancient camels looked very similar to present day ones, but were about a third larger.
Fossilized remains were discovered in the northern most reaches of the Canadian archipelagos. What makes the present day camel so well suited for an arid climate also helped its ancestor survive the Arctic. Their wide, flat feet which are good for walking on sand also assisted the camels on snow. The humps on their backs, which basically are a reserve of fat, can keep a camel going for long periods without food or water in both the desert and a snowy wasteland. And again, their huge eyes which are adapted to see in low light, were especially “made” for six months of complete darkness in the far North.
On the Asian continent the Arctic Camel changed into the dromedary (the single hump camel) and the Bactrian camel (two humps). Some recent publications by Tel Aviv University (TAU) archaeologists Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen suggest that the Arabian camel (dromedary) wasn’t domesticated in the Near East region until around 1000 BC. This fact puts the Bible at odds with archeological and carbon dating evidence, since the camel is mentioned in the book of Genesis alone at least 20 times and centuries before it was actually domesticated.
The first of the camel species to be domesticated however, were the distant relatives from South America, the llama and the alpaca, some more than 5000 years ago. Valued for their wool (alpaca) and as a beast of burden (llama), these animals were probably saved from extinction by the natives. Since neither has the capability to pull a cart or plow a field, the Native Americans had a serious disadvantage compared to the rest of the world.
2. The Fancy Rabbit
Looking back at the history of the rabbit and we can trace its lineage to the disappearance of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. The “Gomphos elkema” was a rabbit-like creature that most likely hopped on its elongated hind legs. Fast forward to more recent times and the rabbit is first discovered by the Phoenicians sailing along the Iberian coast around 1200 BC. Mistaking it with the Rock Hyrax native to their homeland, they named the place “i-shepan-ham” (land or island of hyraxes). This is the origin that some say, gave Spain its name.
The Romans were the first to semi-domesticate these critters for their fur and meat and were also the ones who introduced them to Britain. Emperor Servius Sulpicius Galba (5 BC – AD 69), issued a coin on which “Spain” is depicted with a rabbit at her feet. Some Catholic monks are believed to have fully domesticated the hare during the 5th century in the Champagne region of France. In 600 AD, Pope Gregory I classified rabbit meat as fish in order for the monks to have something to eat during Lent.
Over the coming centuries, selective breeding has produced a wide variety of rabbit races, differing in size, fur thickness and color, so much so that by the 1820s rabbits were bred for exhibition purposes. Interestingly enough, there are a fairly large number of rabbits living today on many islands around the globe, put there by sailors and acting as a living food supply for passing ships.
1. Defenseless Silkworms
The silkworm is native to mainland China where people have been harvesting silk for over 5000 years. During this time the insect has become fully domesticated, meaning that there are no specimens living in the wild and the adults have lost their ability to fly and look for food. This makes the silkworm fully dependent on humans for its survival. During its larval state, the silkworm has a veracious appetite growing 10,000 times in size after only 6 weeks of eating solely mulberry leaves. The adults have very small or completely absent mouths, so during their extremely short lives of only 2 or 3 days, they don’t eat but only procreate.
A single cocoon produces one continuous thread, one kilometer long. For the production of one pound of raw silk there’s a need for around 2 to 3000 cocoons. The entire world production equals roughly around 70 billion miles of silk, which is equal to 300 round trips to the sun. In both Chinese and Korean cuisine we can find silkworm pupae, either boiled or roasted.
Even if silk represents only 0.2% of the global textile market, the material is highly valued throughout the world, exactly like in the old times during the Silk Road period. Today’s silk is much stronger, tougher and elastic that the older version, since scientists were able to splice the silkworm’s genes with those of spiders.