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Sheep in a winter snowstorm

Sheep in a winter snowstorm

This week has been bitterly, horribly cold. The other day I was cooking a hearty winter stew of mutton, barley, leeks, and turnips. The kitchen was cold, so I put on the wool socks, sweater, and hat which my mother made me (my parents operate a fancy yarn store on Market Street in Parkersburg, West Virginia, which means I always have knitted goods made of the most gorgeous yarn). When I put on my woolens I was suddenly warm, and the smell of boiling mutton pervaded the whole house. It forcefully stuck me that I should devote a week to blogging about sheep (Ovis aries) in order to celebrate the many gifts of wool, milk, and meat which these gentle artiodactyls have given us over the years.

Wild mouflon (Ovis aries orietalis) on Cyprus .

Wild mouflon (Ovis aries orietalis) on Cyprus .

And the years are not few. I wrote before that goats were the first domestic farm animals, but there are some who argue, fairly convincingly, that sheep were domesticated first [our beloved friends the dog (who were once our feared enemies the wolves) were really first, by thousands–or even tens of thousands–of years, but dogs are hardly farm creatures]. Sheep were first domesticated somewhere between 11000 and 9000 BC in Mesopotamia. The animals are ideal for herding. They are large enough to be useful, but small enough to be manageable. Their highly social herd nature makes them tractable. It is not difficult to imagine hunter gatherers who followed mouflon herds around at first, and then held onto a few orphaned lambs…and then helped the sheep avoid other predators…and then led the flocks into greener pastures, until one day the relationship between the two groups of organisms was completely different. I am saying “sheep”, but there are actually a number of species in the Genus Ovis—different beautiful wild sheep from around the world. There are argali, urials, bighorn sheep, Dall sheep, and snow sheep. There were once others–now gone from Earth. But we are writing about mouflon (Ovis aries orientalis) and their domestic descendants, (Ovis aries aries).

A herd of sheep

A herd of sheep

Since they played such a large role in the origin of farming, sheep are deeply enmeshed in human culture and play a central role in many religions. The Abrahamic faiths were created by ancient herders and there is certainly a strain of sheepherders’ absolutism woven into monotheism! Cowherds are occasionally crushed, goatherds and swineherds despair of their charges’ willful intelligence, but shepherds have complete dominance. Christian literature in particular emphasizes sheepherding (Christ, the resurrected deity, often goes by sobriquets like “the lamb of god” and “the shepherd of men”). The lovely myths of Greco-Roman polytheism, ancient Egypt, and predynastic China are likewise filled with stories of the golden fleece, the supreme god Amun Re, and celestial rams.

Jesus!

Jesus

Although more people worldwide have eaten goat meat, there are more sheep in existence and they are more important economically than their close cousins the goats. There are over a billion sheep on Earth belonging to upwards of 200 breeds. Each different breed was laboriously created by artificial selection across the long years to maximize meat, milk, hardiness, quick growth, tractability, or wool characteristics (or judicious combinations of these attributes). Just look at some of these breeds below. It is amazing they are the same animal, and yet they are obviously the same animal.

The Jacob sheep

The Jacob sheep

Schwarzbraunes Bergschaf

Schwarzbraunes Bergschaf

The Najdi Sheep (desert sheep of Arabia)

The Najdi Sheep (desert sheep of Arabia)

The vanrooy (photo by Denis Russell)

The vanrooy (photo by Denis Russell)

The heidschnucke sheep

The heidschnucke sheep

Manx Loaghtan

Manx Loaghtan

Merino ram

Merino ram

 

There are people who are very rich because of sheep. There are nations which depend on the wooly herds for their GDP. I have written much about sheep, but little about their milk, meat, and wool. Of these, perhaps sheep milk is least familiar to us in the industrialized west, since it is not easy to collect by mechanical means. Cheesemakers however still use it to make premium cheese. Some of the greatest and most delicious cheeses are sheep cheeses (sadly I have them infrequently, but they are indeed delicious. Sheep meat is known as lamb when it comes from young sheep and as mutton when it comes from older beasts. Prime cuts of lamb are more expensive than steaks–and arguably more delicious–but I like cooking mutton which can be boiled all day into soups and stews of surpassing flavor (although my urbane roommates sometimes wrinkle up their noses and look at me like I am a warlock dancing around a cauldron atop some ancient hill).

Mutton leek soup

Mutton leek soup

Sheep’s wool is the most common animal fiber in use. It is so familiar that it comes as a shock to read about its virtues with a fresh eye. Wool has a distinctive microscopic crimp which allows it to be spun into threads and yarns which do not unwind themselves (the sad fate of my otherwise excellent llama sweater). Wool can also be hammered or compressed–which causes microscopic barbs to attach to each other and form felt. It is an excellent insulator even when wet and it also absorbs sound. Wool is surprisingly fire resistant—much more so than other fibers. If it becomes hot enough to catch fire, wool does not melt or release toxic gases but forms a self-extinguishing char which still retains insulating properties. In airlines, where every other amenity has been removed or replaced, there are still wool carpets and dividers because of its excellence in fires (although no doubt right now some soul-eating MBA with a spreadsheet is working to make things less elegant and less safe). Wool is also extremely durable—although different varieties of wool last in different ways, and it can be dyed.

Why are you not in bed?

Why are you not in bed?

Of course to the jaded modern human, milk, amazing fiber, and meat are of little concern. Today’s city dwellers care even less about an animal’s docile nature or its ability to graze, reproduce, or stand off predators (which sheep do by forming together as a dense barrier wall!). Perhaps we are outgrowing sheep. However, they kept us alive for 10 hard millennia! As the arctic winds howl outside through Brooklyn’s empty streets and I sit at my computer in my wool socks and hat my eyes wearily trace to my bed where my little cat is curled up on the red trapper’s blanket. I certainly haven’t outgrown my dependence on sheep. Join Ferrebeekeeper in saluting our ovine friends during the coming week!

sheepgraduating

 

chinese_dog

The first animal to be domesticated was the wolf (modern humans call domesticated wolves “dogs”).  This happened thousands (or tens of thousands) of years before any other plants or animals were domesticated.  In fact some social scientists have speculated that the dogs actually domesticated humans.  Whatever the case, our dual partnership changed both species immensely.  It was the first and most important of many changes which swept humanity away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and into the agricultural world.

A Han Dynasty Terracotta Statue of a Dog

A Han Dynasty Terracotta Statue of a Dog

Today’s post isn’t really about the actual prehistory behind the agricultural revolution though.  Instead we are looking at an ancient Chinese myth about how humans changed from hunters into farmers.  Appropriately, even in the myth it was dogs who brought about the change.  There are two versions of the story.  In the version told by the Miao people of southern China, the dog once had nine tails.  Seeing the famine which regularly afflicted people (because of seasonal hunting fluctuations) a loyal dog ran into heaven to solve the problem.  The celestial guardians shot off eight of the dog’s tails, but the brave mutt managed to roll in the granaries of heaven and return with precious rice and wheat seeds caught in his fur.  Ever since, in memory of their heroism, dogs have one bushy tail (like a ripe head of wheat) and they are fed first when people are done eating.

dog

A second version of the tale is less heroic, but also revolves around actual canine behavior.  In the golden age, after Nüwa created humans, grain was so plentiful that people wasted it shamefully and squandered the bounty of the Earth.  In anger, the Jade Emperor came down to Earth to repossess all grains and crops.  After the chief heavenly god had gathered all of the world’s cereals, the dog ran up to him and clung piteously to his leg whining and begging.  The creature’s crying moved the god to leave a few grains of each plant stuck to the animal’s fur.  These grains became the basis of all subsequent agriculture.

Han Terracotta in the form of a dog

Han Terracotta in the form of a dog

Even in folklore, we owe our agrarian civilization to the dogs, our first and best friends.

killer_2Dbee

One of the ongoing horror stories from when I was in middle school was the invasion of the Africanized killer bees.  In retrospect, it all sounds like a xenophobic horror movie from the 1950s, but people were truly alarmed back in the 80s.  There were sensationalist news stories featuring the death of children and animated maps of the killer bees spreading unstoppably across America.  The narrative was that mad scientists in South America had hybridized super-aggressive African bees with European bees in an attempt to create superbees (better able to survive in the tropics and produce more honey).  These “Africanized” bees then escaped and started heading north, killing innocent humans and devastating local hives as they invaded.

An animated map of the spread of killer bees (uploaded to Wikipedia by uploaded by Huw Powell)

An animated map of the spread of killer bees (uploaded to Wikipedia by uploaded by Huw Powell)

The amazing thing about this story is that it is all true.  In the 1950s a biologist named Warwick E. Kerr imported 26 queen bees (of subspecies Apis mellifera scutellata) from the Great Lakes area of Africa to Brazil.  A replacement beekeeper allowed the queens to escape in 1957 and they began to interbreed with local bees (of the European subspecies Apis mellifera ligustica and Apis mellifera iberiensis).  The resulting hybridized bees were indeed better able to survive the tropics and quicker to reproduce, but they were also more defensive of their hives, more inclined to sting, and more likely to swarm (i.e. get together in a big angry cloud and fly off somewhere else when they felt unhappy).   The killer bees (for want of a better term) could more readily live like wild bees in ground cavities and hollow trees.  The hybrid bees out-competed local honeybees and spread across the continent.  Sometimes aggressive queens would enter domestic hives and kill the old queen and take over!

Don't make her angry!

Don’t make her angry!

Although Ancient Egypt may have been an early adapter of apiculture, Sub Saharan African societies did not practice beekeeping but hewed to the ancient tradition of bee-robbing.   The African subspecies of honeybees came from a more challenging environment than the European subspecies.  Forced to contend with deep droughts and fiendish predators (like the infamously stubborn honey badger), the bees are more defensive and more mobile than their northern counterparts.  Apis mellifera scutellata is famous for not backing down from raiders but instead stinging them with dogged determination until the intruder flees far from their hive.  This has led to unfortunate instances of children, infirm adults, and people with bee allergies falling down and being stung to death (which sounds like a really bad end) by the American hybrid.  The sting of an Africanized bee is no more puissant than that of a European honeybee (and it also results in the death of the bee) but dozens—or hundreds—of stings can add up to kill a healthy adult.

(largely) satiric

(largely) satiric

The entire Africanized bee event was really a case of anti-domestication.  Imagine if everyone’s dogs were suddenly replaced by wolves or if placid white-and-black cows were supplanted by ravening aurochs.   If you follow that bizarre thought to its logical conclusion, you will anticipate what actually happened.  Although initially dismayed, Brazilian beekeepers began to discover more placid strains of Africanized bees and started to redomesticate them.  The hybrid bees do indeed produce more honey, survive droughts better, and it is believed they have a greater resistance to the dreaded colony collapse sweeping through honey bee population.  Perhaps in the fullness of time we will learn to love the infamous killer bees.

Africanized "friend" bees?

Africanized “friend” bee?

Musa acuminata flower

Musa acuminata is a species of herbaceous plant from Southeast Asia.  Actually it is a very remarkable herbaceous plant because (along with certain other members of the Musa genus), it is the largest herbaceous plant living today.  They are so large that some people call them trees—although they are not properly trees.  The plant’s aspect is disturbing—almost like something out of a horror movie.  A giant pseudostem sprouts rapidly from a fleshy underground corm embedded within the jungle earth. This pseudostem is a towering appendage made up of layer after layer of horny leaf sheaths. Giant leafs grow out from the top of it—some of them as long as a man.

Diagram of Musa acuminata

At the very top of the pseudostem sits the elaborate reproductive apparatus of the plant, a grotesque inflorescence made up of alternating rows of flowers and petal-like bracts.  The strange mass droops down from the tree and a wizened inferior ovary dangles at the bottom.  As the female flowers are fertilized they form a hanging cluster of distinctive fingerlike fruits.  These bulbous “fingers” are grouped in tiers and they angle upward giving the whole stem an alien look. The fruit of Musa acuminata is radioactive because it contains a large amount of potassium (including potassium-40).  Botanists have described the fruit as “leathery berries” (although, to my eye, the elongated fruits suggest something other than berries).

Musa acumniata inflorescence

Although the fruits have a stiff waxy covering and contain a great deal of potassium, they are sweet–so jungle animals carry the pods around, eat them, and distribute the seeds (although the plant also produces asexually by suckering off clonal buds).  Some animals are especially drawn to the fruits and scientists speculate about whether Musa acuminate evolved symbiotically with the primates of Southeast Asia.

In fact 10,000 years ago an invasive species of African primate which had somehow made it to Papua began to select varieties of Musa acuminate trees which suited their taste while destroying (or at least not propagating) the other varieties.  Soon the fruit began to change into something which fit the primates’ hands and suited the beings’ color palate.

Musa acuminata was hybridized with other Musa species (particularly Musa balbisiana) in order to create different varieties of fruits. Parthenocarpic varieties of bananas were discovered and the virgin plants were carefully nurtured and cloned. Ten thousand years of selective breeding has produced a big yellow glowing seedless fruit, far different from the little stunted green fruit. Archaeologists believe that the banana might have been the first domesticated fruit (the only other contender is the ancient fig—which did, in fact, evolve alongside African primates).  Today they live throughout the tropics and subtropics.  Banana plants are additionally used to make fiber and as ornamental plants, but their importance as a foodstuff for humankind is difficult to overstate.  Not only are the yellow “Cavendish” fruits eaten in immense quantities, but starchy plantains are consumed with savory meals, and banana wine is the dominant spirit of large swaths of Africa.  Bananas are the most popular fruit in the world and our fourth most abundant crop overall.

Cuban bananas wash ashore along a Dutch island off the North Sea after a shipping mishap

 

…they say that Bacchus discovered honey.
He was travelling from sandy Hebrus, accompanied
By Satyrs, (my tale contains a not-unpleasant jest)
And he’d come to Mount Rhodope, and flowering Pangaeus:
With the cymbals clashing in his companions’ hands.
Behold unknown winged things gather to the jangling,
Bees, that follow after the echoing bronze.
Liber gathered the swarm and shut it in a hollow tree,
And was rewarded with the prize of discovering honey.
Once the Satyrs, and old bald-headed Silenus, had tasted it,
They searched for the yellow combs in every tree.
(Excerpt from “The Fasti” by Publius Ovidius Naso, known as Ovid)

As you have probably apprehended, there is a theme to my posts this week about the ambiguous line between the wild and the domestic–a tension which forever pulses within all human thought and endeavor.  Humans are animals. We came from nature and can never ever leave it.  We continuously long for the natural world in our aesthetic and moral tastes—our very idea of paradise is a garden of plants and animals.  Yet the social and technological forms humans create often seem entirely at odds with the natural world.  Our fishing fleets destroy the life within the oceans as they provide us with the wild fish we long for.  Our cities poison and strangle the beautiful estuaries where we build them. As our hands reach toward the divine and the celestial, our feet break apart the earth we sprang from.

The Discovery of Honey bu Bacchus (Piero de Cosimo, ca. 1499, oil on panel)

I’ll write further about that point (indeed I don’t believe I have ever left off examining it), but for right now I would like to discuss The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus, a painting which symbolically explores the juxtaposition between wild and domestic. The work was created by that consummate oddball visionary, Piero de Cosimo, who disliked wielding fire and refused to clip the trees in his orchard because he felt that doing so contravened the will of nature.  Vasari relates that de Cosimo would sometimes abandon himself to the wilderness and was more beast than man (also the artist seems to have suffered from emotional illness). Yet, within this painting de Cosimo presents that moment when bees were first gathered from the wild and kept for the purpose of honey production.  It was a step away from an imagined era of wildness towards an agricultural era when sweetness and plenty became available to all.

In The Discovery of Honey, a group of satyrs have found a hive of bees swarming within a strangely human stump. Together with Silenus, a bumptious fertility god, they are beating eccentric implements to gather the swarm so it can be collected. On the right side of the painting Bacchus and his coterie stand amidst forests and ravines beneath a glowering monadnock. A satyr carries a woman away into the wild while savage beast-men tear apart a carcass and climb off into the trees. On the left side of the painting, people and fauns bearing iron and pottery march towards the stump from a surprisingly sophisticated town with an elegant campanile.  In the center the bees swarm into a knot as a human-hybrid child pops out of the yonic rift within the torso shaped stump.

The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus (Detail)

What is going on here?  This painting has remained an enigma to scholars since its creation.  Many critics have opined that the right side of the work represents wilderness and the works of the gods while the right side represents society and the works of humans.  Wilderness and civilization meet at the point where the bees are captured and honey is discovered. This interpretation is undercut by the half-human status of the characters on both sides.  Another interpretation holds that the painting represents the symbolic discovery of fertility—metaphorically represented by honey.  The painting’s composition certainly supports this concept: the nursing faun, the baby satyr in the center of the painting, and the satyr spontaneously offering onions (a fertility offering of Greco-Roman society) are all fertility symbols, as our numerous other more overt figures within the painting!

The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus (detail)

Both of those interpretations are right, but there is more to the painting than that.  The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus represents de Cosimo’s homage to the animal spirit within humankind.  Artists paint themselves–and most of the characters in this work are part animal!  Such is our dichotomy. We are animals exploiting other animals and yet we have too a touch of the divine–Bacchus and the wild Arcadian gods are taking part. The urge to capture and recreate wild organisms is part of human nature.  We may have domesticated bees (along with grains, cattle, turkeys, pistachios, and catfish) but we ourselves are not fully domesticated.  The church, the nobles, the city—they never fully civilized Piero de Cosimo, crazy Renaissance artist, who was at his best—his most divine–when living as a beast.  As you watch the diners walking through a strip mall eating honey-glazed turkey sandwiches it may be hard to recognize the same faun-like aspect to them, but look closely in a mirror and you will see another wild beast-person–undomesticated, troubled, rudely great…

Aurochs Fighting Wolves (Heinrich Harder)

About 8,000 years ago, Neolithic people in India, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa first domesticated cattle. Although the domestication of goats and swine occurred earlier, cattle have a more central role in human history—they were sacred to many of the first civilizations in a way which goats and pigs were not.  Cows and cattle are still highly esteemed today.  In India cows are sacrosanct and not to be harmed, but, in herding societies like Texas or Argentina, the creatures are arguably even more important. There are estimated to be 1.3 billion head of cattle grazing the green earth today.  They collectively outweigh all of the humans on the planet.  Of that immense herd, what percentage would you guess are actual wild cattle–forest dwelling primogenitors from which the domestic cattle descended?

Domestic Cattle

That number would be none.  The aurochs, (Bos primigenius primigenius) the ancestral cow, went extinct in Poland in 1627. It was the second recorded extinction of an animal (after the hapless dodo).  The aurochs were not defenseless dodos: the animals were magnificently muscled giants with wickedly sharp lyre-shaped horns.  An adult male aurochs would have stood nearly 2 meters (six feet) tall at the withers and weighed over a ton.  Living in swampy and wet wooded areas which they grazed for grass and the occasional fruit, aurochs shared some of their range with the wisent, the Eurasian bison. Aurochs were domesticated in various different parts of the world around the approximate same time.  Unfortunately for the wild species, they soon found themselves competing for land and resources with domesticated cattle while still being hunted by human hunters.

Aurochs Cave Painting (ca. 15000 BC)

Julius Caesar evocatively described aurochs and their hunters in the 6th chapter of The Gallic Wars writing “These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied. These the Germans take with much pains in pits and kill them. The young men harden themselves with this exercise, and practice themselves in this sort of hunting, and those who have slain the greatest number of them, having produced the horns in public, to serve as evidence, receive great praise.” Aurochs feature in some of humankind’s most stirring early artworks showing up in cave paintings throughout Europe and on the Ishtar gate of Babylon (where they share company with ceramic lions and dragons).  For all the respect that people had for aurochs, the herds began to fail fast, and populations winked out one by one in the wild redoubts of Asia, Africa, and Europe as civilization and agriculture spread.

Aurochs Mosaic on the Ishtar Gate of Babylon (ca. 575 BC)

The last aurochs lived in Poland, which was remarkable for the remote and untouched wildness of some of its forests and for the game loving policies of certain Polish kings, who tried to keep aurochs and wisents alive in order have formidable trophies to hunt.  Unfortunately disease and parasites from domestic cattle had weakened the last herd beyond saving.  Even with the royal threat of a death sentence for anyone killing an aurochs and with gamekeepers to look after the last individuals, the last female slipped away from natural causes in the mid-17th century.  Her remains were reverentially kept by the royal house but they were stolen by Swedes during the havoc of the Swedish deluge.  In one respect it was a sad end to a mighty animal.  In a more real respect, cattle, the direct descendants of aurochs are everywhere and are doing great!  They outweigh any other single species on the planet except perhaps for krill.

RIP Aurochs

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.

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