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Today’s post takes us back to Namibia.  The vast empty desert nation is the home to beautiful cheetahs, the world’s fastest land animal.  In fact Namibia has the greatest number of cheetahs in the world.  Namibia is also (now) home to heavily armed sheep farmers who make their living by raising delicious delicious sheep in the cheetah-haunted arid scrublands.  This mixture has led to…um…misunderstandings of all kinds.

Cheetah, Namibia

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) on dune with desert landscape in back ground. Namibia.

There is no need to dwell on just what the hell German sheep farmers are doing in a vast African desert anyway (or whether their forbears committed terrible genocidal acts in 1894 to obtain their lands).  History is rife with…misunderstandings.  What is important is where we stand now.  Because of habitat destruction, disease, and hunting, cheetahs are fading from the world.  And here is where the heroic Anatolian shepherd comes in.


Anatolian shepherds are huge powerful dogs which trace their heritage to Turkey at the dawn of civilization.  The first herdsman faced similar problems to today’s Namibian sheep farmers (namely unreformed wolves, lions, and leopards brazenly preying on their livestock).  These early farmers responded by breeding big bold dogs to bodily confront large predators.  However, as civilization moved onward, the nature and appearance of herding dogs changed too.


An Anatolian Shepherd with a border collie

Most modern shepherd dogs are smaller than cheetahs.  German shepherds, collies, corgis, et cetera tend to have long coats for cold climates. They also react to threats by herding their flocks toward safety. This was not working in Namibia, as it triggered cheetah’s hardwired chasing instincts which lead to even further carnage misunderstanding.


With short pale hair, ideal for the desert heat, Anatolian shepherds stand 69 to 74 centimeters tall and weigh as much as the largest cheetahs.  They are less “shepherds” who move flocks around and more “guards” who directly confront predators. This triggers the cheetah’s hardwired running away instincts.  As misunderstanding decrease, the cheetah population in the world’s most populous country (for cheetahs) is stabilizing.  Happy news for beleaguered cheetahs and farmers…and good news for the Anatolian shepherd too a big beautiful dog with a new (old) job.


Etruscan Ladies Performing a Dance (painting from a tomb ca. 500 BC)

Etruscan Ladies Performing a Dance (painting from a tomb ca. 500 BC)

This week is Etruscan week here at Ferrebeekeeper—a week dedicated to blogging about the ancient people who lived in Tuscany, Umbria, and Latium from 800 BC until the rise of the Romans in 300 BC (indeed, the Romans may have been Etruscan descendants). Happy Etruscan Week! The Etruscans were known for their sophisticated civilization which produced advanced art, architecture, and engineering. In an age of war and empires, they were, by necessity, gifted warriors who fought with the Greeks, Carthaginians, and Gauls. They won wars, captured slaves, and built important fortified cities on top of hills. The Etruscan league burgeoned for a while until Etruria was weakened by a series of setbacks in warfare which occurred from the fifth century BC onward until eventually the entire society was swallowed by Rome.

A Map of Etruscan Culture through time

A Map of Etruscan Culture through time


Despite the fact that the Etruscans were the most important pre-Roman civilization of Italy (which left a cultural stamp on almost all Roman institutions) they remain surprisingly enigmatic. Although Greek and Roman authors speculated about the Etruscans, such writings tend to be…fanciful. The Greek historian Herodotus (alternately known as “the father of history” or “the father of lies” wrote that the Etruscans originated from Lydia (which was on the Western coast of Anatolia), but he certainly provides no evidence.  Etruscan government was initially based around tribal units but the Etruscan states eventually evolved into theocratic republics–much like the later Roman Republic. The Etruscans worshipped a large pantheon of strange pantheistic gods. The Etruscans produced extremely magnificent tombs which were used by seceding generations of families.


Etruscan "Tomb of the Lioness" (ca.520 BC)

Etruscan “Tomb of the Lioness” (ca.520 BC)

It is through their tombs that we have truly come to know about the real Etruscans. The burial complexes are repositories of art and artifacts which reveal the day-to-day life of the people (well, at least the noble ones who could afford sumptuous tombs). Perhaps, more importantly, the actual Etruscans are also there, albeit in a somewhat deteriorated and passive state. With the advent of advanced genetic knowledge and tests, scientists and anthropologists have been able to conduct mitochondrial DNA studies on Etruscan remains. Such studies suggest that the Etruscans were from…Tuscany, Umbria, and Latium. They were most likely descendents of the Villanovan people—an early Iron Age people of Italy who in turn descended from the Urnfield culture.


A sample of the Etruscan Language

A sample of the Etruscan Language

This idea tends to conform with what linguists believe concerning the language of the Etruscans—which turns out to be a non-Indo-European isolate with no close language relations. Etruscan was initially an oral language only and it was only after cultural interchange with the Greeks that it acquired a written form (based around a derivation of the Greek alphabet). A few Roman scholars knew Etruscan (among them the emperor Claudius) but knowledge of the language was lost during the early days of the Empire. Today only a handful of inscriptions, epitaphs, and one untranslated book survive. We are left with a people who had unparalleled influence on Rome, yet are only known through inconclusive Greco-Roman accounts and through a tremendous heritage of art and artifacts. These latter are immensely beautiful and precious and form the basis of our knowledge of these mysterious early Italians.

Etruscan vessel in the shape of a bent leg (ca. 550-500BC)

Etruscan vessel in the shape of a bent leg (ca. 550-500BC)

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.*

Wild Goats, Capra aegagrus

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).

Capra aegagrus range

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!

Um, just run over and grab him, I guess… I’m sure he won’t mind.

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).

Domesticated goat, Capra hircus

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.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

June 2023