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Man's First Four-Legged Friend Was the Undiscerning Goat, Research Shows

 

 

19 February 2001

 

 

Man's first four-legged friend may have been the goat. It joined forces with humans about 10,000 years ago in the upland region of Iran and is, so far, the front-runner in the domestication stakes, according to Melinda Zeder of the Smithsonian Institution.

 

The goat had several attributes which made it an ideal candidate for domestication by tribes of hunter-gatherers in the Fertile Crescent that stretches from Turkey through the Lebanon and Syria to Iraq and Iran, said Dr Zeder, who sifted the archaeological evidence to arrive at the earliest date for goatherding so far.

 

Unlike the gazelle - auditioned by human hunters as a possible domestic animal at around the same time - the goat did not run away at great speed. Goats did not panic, she told the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and they did not mind living in a crowd. They had a social structure - a tendency to follow a dominant leader - that humans could use.

 

They would eat anything, and were not too choosy about sexual partners either. And there was something in it for the goats too, she said.

 

Humans chose the most docile billygoats to breed from, which meant that for the first time in their lives the weediest ones got all the females, rather than their aggressive, high-testosterone companions in the wild. "It's sort of like the revenge of the nerds," she said. Domestication tended to suit the interests of both humans and the creatures they tamed.

"What animals and plants get out of colluding with humans is the ability to outcompete wild competitors that don't enter this relationship and also to spread their distributions way beyond what they could do on their own," she said.

 

She analysed a huge collection of goat bones from Iran and Iraq, sorting the skeletal material according to age of death and sex. "That allows us to distinguish between hunters killing animals and herders raising animals," she said.

 

The birth of agriculture is a mystery slowly being solved by both genetic research and archaeology. As crops became domesticated, seeds got bigger and seed coats thinned, signs that plants were being tended rather than simply picked. Goat horns changed shape and became smaller, a sign that mating was decided by humans rather than by herd aggression.

 

Wheat and barley were first sown in the Fertile Crescent about 10,000 years ago. In the New World, the first crop was probably squash, 10,000 years ago, with maize being sown about 6,300 years ago.

 

Cattle were probably first domesticated in both the Fertile Crescent and in the Indus Valley, sheep in the Fertile Crescent and the Indo-Pakistan region and the pig in China.

 

The goat so far emerges as the first animal to be bred and used by humans. The dog however remains a candidate for the first companion, said Dr Zeder.

 

"It's not a livestock animal, it's more of a collaboration between dogs that hunt in packs and humans that hunt in packs," she said.

Tim Radford

 

Source: Guardian

 
 

 

 

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