Animal Husbandry

Definition

by
published on 27 July 2010
Roman Mosaic Floor ()

Animal Husbandry is a branch of agriculture concerned with the domestication of, care for and breeding of animals such as dogs, cattle, horses, sheep, goats, pigs and other like creatures. Animal husbandry began in the so-called Neolithic ('new stone’) Revolution around 10,000 years ago but may have begun much earlier. It has been speculated that human beings used fire to cook food 1.5 million years ago but the only archaeological evidence obtained thus far sets the date of the use of fire for cooking at 12,500 years ago as indicated by the discovery of clay cooking pots in East Asia and Mesopotamia.


Shortly after this date, evidence of domesticated animal bones left over from human social gatherings such as dinners emerges; said bones having been discovered in excavations of fire pits in ancient kitchens. Though domestication of animals was probably common earlier, it is certain that goats and sheep were domesticated throughout Asia by 8000 BCE. Wheat was domesticated and in wide use in Mesopotamia by 7700 BCE, goats by 7000 BCE, sheep by 6700 BCE, and pigs by 6500 BCE. By the time of the settlement  of the first Mesopotamian city of Eridu in 5400 BCE, animal husbandry was widely practiced and domesticated animals used in the work force (such as in ploughing) as pets, and as a food source. Horses were tamed by 4000 BCE and, in time, became an important component in warfare in drawing the great chariots of the various nation-states. Eventually, elephants, tigers, and lions were employed on the battlefield; particularly in the latter cases of the Persian campaigns, the Indian resistance to Alexander the Great, and, most famously, by Hannibal of Carthage against the Romans.


Domestication of animals produced a dramatic change in the way people lived. Civilizations which had relied on hunting and gathering as a means of subsistence now built permanent settlements and engaged in a pastoral existence relying on their cattle and crops. Once people realized that animals could be tamed, the creatures became incorporated into the most basic and widespread rituals of the culture.  Worship of animals in Egypt is well known (most notably their reverence for the cat who symbolized the goddess of the hearth and home, Bastet) but many ancient cultures incorporated animal imagery into their religious icons and practices. Wild animals came to represent untamed forces in the universe (such as the lions of the goddess Inanna in Mesopotamia) while domesticated creatures symbolized comfort and security (for example, the dog in Greece and Rome). In India, according to the historian Durant, “There was no real gap between animals and men; animals as well as men had souls and souls were perpetually passing from men into animals and back again; all these species were woven into one infinite web of karma and reincarnation. The elephant, for example, became the god Ganesha, and was recognized as Shiva’s son; he personified man’s animal nature and, at the same time, his image served as a charm against evil fortune” (509). The domesticated animals came to symbolize order as opposed to the chaos of the untamed world.

Excavations of refuse dumps outside of the towns and cities in the region of Mesopotamia show a gradual decline in the number of wild gazelle bones after 7000 BCE (which, it has been suggested, shows a depletion of wild game) while the number of domesticated sheep and goat bones grows in number after the same year. This same basic pattern has been determined in China, India, and Egypt. Scholars have determined that these sheep and goats were domesticated, and not wild, based upon the condition of the bones and, of course, the writings and art work of the cultures. It is thought likely that wild sheep and goats came to graze around human settlements in an attempt to escape from natural predators who would have avoided contact with humans. In time, these animals grew increasingly tame and became an easily accessible source of food. This same process of the gradual taming of a wild animal by close association with human beings is also thought to have been the means by which dogs were domesticated and, initially, cats as well.

Animal husbandry reached its height, in the ancient world, in Egypt where cats and dogs were cared for as though they were part of the human family in which they lived. Mummies of cats and dogs have been discovered in tombs in Egypt and so deeply did the Egyptians feel for their cats, Herodotus tells us, that they would shave their eyebrows and form a funeral procession of mourning upon the death of one of these pets. A more dramatic illustration of the importance of cats, especially, but of other animals as well, is the famous battle of Pelusium in 525 BCE in which Cambyses II of Persia defeated the forces of Egypt by having his soldiers paint the image of the great cat goddess Bastet on their shields and, further, by driving the animals loved by the Egyptians before their front lines. The Egyptians, afraid of offending their gods by hurting the animals, surrendered their position and fled in a rout, during which most were massacred. In this way Cambyses II of Persia conquered Egypt and was so contemptuous of the Egyptians for preferring the safety of animals to their own freedom that he hurled cats into the faces of the Egyptians during his triumphal march after the battle.


Recent studies suggest that animal husbandry may have begun in Europe, rather than Asia or the Near East, through the domestication of “dog-like creatures” in the region now known as Germany. These studies, however, fail to take into account the evidence from the earlier regions and seem focused solely on domestication of wolves or, more vaguely, a non-wolf canine which was not directly related to the dog. Evidence of wide-spread domestication in Mesopotamia, China, and India, however, argues for those regions as among the first to practice animal husbandry with Europe following the practice later. However it first began, the care for and breeding of animals continued on, of course, and is still an important part of every culture in the world in the present day.



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Timeline

Visual Timeline
  • 12000 BCE
    Domestication of dogs and cats.
  • 7700 BCE
    First domesticated wheats in the Fertile Crescent.
  • 7000 BCE
    Domestication of goats.
  • 7000 BCE
    A decline in the finds of gazelle bones suggest that domesticated animals were eaten more frequently due to a depletion of wild game.
  • 6700 BCE
    Domestication of sheep.
  • 6500 BCE
    Domestication of pigs.

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