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When I went to Washington every summer as a child, I always visited the National Museum of Natural History, an organization which I still wholeheartedly love. Every year I was fascinated by the tableau above, a (real) human skeleton struggling with a recalcitrant skeletal goat. This curious sculpture commemorates the domestication of the first farm animals. According to the best available archaeological and genetic evidence the first creature to fall under human agricultural sway was indeed Capra aegagrus hircus, the goat.*
To quote K. Kris Hirst, “Archaeological data suggest two distinct places of domestication: the Euphrates river valley at Nevali Çori, Turkey (11,000 bp), and the Zagros Mountains of Iran at Ganj Dareh (10,000).” Genetic evidence has confirmed that modern domestic goats descend from the Anatolian bezoar ibex, Capra aegagrus. The bezoar ibex, or wild goat, lives in flocks of 50 or so individuals (although flocks can become much larger and range up to 500 if conditions are right). It ranges in size from 150 to 300 pounds and can live up to 25 years on just about any sort of vegetation. It goes without saying that wild goats are clever, strong, and nimble (and have long sharp horns jutting from their thick skulls).
Mesolithic hunter/gatherers were nomads who followed wild game and gathered seasonally available berries, seeds, and nuts. It seems likely that the first herders already lived in tandem with goats before becoming herders. I wonder how the hunter gatherers came to realize that they could take over the flocks and make the animals go where they wanted. Whatever provoked the epiphany, these original animal farmers must have had plenty of hard-headed stubbornness in order to subordinate the unruly wild bezoar goats!
By domesticating the goat, they acquired most of the benefits of domesticated animals all at one go. Goat’s milk is delightfully potable and can be made into cheese and yogurt. Goat meat is delicious (and is still the meat most often consumed by a majority the world’s human population). The renewable hair of goats can be woven or spun into textiles, while its hide makes soft and durable leather. The horns and bones of goats are admirable for tool making and decorative arts while its hooves can be made into gelatin or glue. Even dried goat dung can be burned as fuel. The goat also can be trained for draft work and made to pull a sledge, cart, or plough (although this probably wasn’t terribly obvious in a world which lacked grain farming and the wheel).
Although they were the first animals to fall under human agricultural sway, goats have not fallen so deeply under our thrall as most other farm animals. Goat herding remains goat herding—the animals do much better when they have pastures to graze in. To quote Wikipedia, “stall-fed goat rearing involves extensive upkeep and is seldom commercially viable”. So goats are not raised in factory farms like cows, sheep, and poultry. Additionally domestic goats, like their wild forbears, are clever animals with a natural gift for climbing, jumping, and escaping. Feral goats revert quickly to type and can thrive in most environments. There are wild goat populations dotted around the world in places such as Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean Islands, Hawaii, Ireland, Great Britain, California, Indonesia, and the Galapagos (among others).
*I’m not counting dogs: wolves joined up with us many millennia before we domesticated anything else. Our best friends have been with us since the remote depths of the ice age when we were nobodies. They’ll be with us when we blast off for the stars or fall down dead in the toxic dust.
North Sentinel Island is a small island in the Bay of Bengal. It consists of 72 km2 of dense tropical forest surrounded on all sides by a coral reef. It is part of the Andaman Island chain—a group of islands held by India. North Sentinel Island’s legal status is complicated but general consensus holds that it is a sovereign entity under Indian protection. Although North Sentinel Island is inhabited by humans, we only know a handful of things about the Sentinelese because their contact with the modern world has been extremely minimal. The indigenous people do not like outsiders and they have never talked or otherwise communicated with anyone from the modern world. So far the only way they have interacted with visitors is by shooting arrows at them (and once by copulating en masse in front a shocked ethnographic expedition which had become stranded on the reef flats).
Agriculture is completely unknown on North Sentinel Island. The Sentinelese are hunter-gatherers, subsisting on fruits, seeds, tubers, fish, shellfish, honey, feral pigs, and the eggs of turtles and seabirds. The inhabitants go naked except during hunting expeditions when they wear belts/loincloths. The language, religion, and customs of the Sentinelese are unknown (although they are presumed to speak a language in the Andamanese family).
The tips of their weapons are steel and iron which have been scavenged and shaped through cold-smithing (in the late 1980s two international container ships ran aground on the island’s external coral reefs). The islanders manufacture baskets, pounding stones, nets, and adzes. They also build canoes–however they have not been known to venture beyond the reefs of their island.
For a time the outside world attempted to initiate contact with the Sentinelese by presenting gifts such as coconuts, buckets, dolls, pigs and metal pots before (quickly!) retreating to a distance out of arrowshot. The pigs and dolls were shot and buried. The pots and coconuts were eagerly accepted. The Sentinelese took the red buckets but left the green ones behind. Despite these overtures, the Sentinelese maintained their skepticism towards visitors (“skepticism” in this context means “aggressively shooting arrows at”), and such attempts to communicate have since been curtailed. In 2006 the islanders killed two trespassers who were poaching fish from the island reef and these bodies have not been recovered. That incident marks the last time anyone had any dealings with the islanders. The modern world seems content to leave the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island alone and that seems to be exactly what they want.