The domestication of plants and animals was one of the most important events in human history, but rarely have archaeologists been able to catch the process in the act. Now, research at an 11,000-year-old settlement in Turkey shows that some early farmers kept wild sheep penned up in the middle of their village—thus setting the stage for the dramatic changes that led to today’s domesticated animals.
Archaeologists studying the origins of farming have hundreds of sites to choose from across the Middle East, but few of them tell the full story. That requires a spot that spans the transition between a hunting and gathering lifestyle and a farming lifestyle, a period from about 10,500 to 9500 years ago. Researchers have long had their eyes on just such a site: Aşıklı Höyük, located on the banks of the Melendiz River in central Turkey—a land of idyllic streams and dramatic volcanic formations popular with tourists.
Earlier work had suggested that Aşıklı Höyük might be a center of the earliest stages of animal domestication. The new study, led by zooarchaeologist Mary Stiner of the University of Arizona in Tucson, confirms this. The team looked at an archaeological layer radiocarbon dated to between 10,400 and 10,100 years ago. The botanical remains from this level show intensive cultivation of cereals, lentils, and nuts, meaning that crop farming was already under way; but the spectrum of animal bones in the earliest parts of this layer reflects the hunting of a wide variety of wild animals including hares, tortoises, and fish, along with larger animals such as goats, wild cattle, deer, and sheep. The most abundant large animal was sheep, although they represented less than half of the total animals.
Moreover, the sheep bones from these early levels were clearly those of wild animals, which can be distinguished from domesticated animals by their larger size and the distribution of ages and sexes: Wild herds, left alone by humans, tend to include more older animals and a roughly equal number of males and females.
Beginning about 10,200 years ago, however, the proportions of wild animals in this layer began to change, as the team reports online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The hunting of smaller animals appears to fall off to insignificant numbers, while the percentage of sheep—which outnumber goats by three to one—steadily increases. By about 9500 years ago, sheep represented nearly 90% of all animals at the site. Moreover, the researchers say that the age and sex pattern of the bones indicate active management, or herding, of the sheep: Only about 11% of the females died before the age of 6 to 7 months, whereas 58% of the males did, a typical pattern that reflects farmers’ desire to preserve females for breeding."
I remember teaching some basics in Ag I Animal Science class, but this goes into more detail than we did in the Stockman's Handbook. When I hear the word sheep, I think of Sunday School, my daughter winning champion lamb at the county fair and New Zealand.
When we were driving around the countryside, that is Sable the German Shepherd and I, we might pass the Achor Farm east of us. They keep 300 ewes and their lambs or so. I would cry out sheeeeep like baaaahhhh and Sable would about jump out of the truck. Herding is her natural instinct.
I never was a sheep man but livestock was very important to me the first 18 years of life or so. That's what my dad did for his livelihood.