Skip to main content



I. The Food-producing RevolutionRobert J. Braidwood


II. Animal DomesticationRobert H. Dyson, Jr.



The domestication of plants and animals marked the beginnings of effective food production by man, a stage in human sociocultural development that has frequently been called the Neolithic.

Usages of the word “Neolithic.” There have been a number of confusing usages of the word “Neolithic” (a term this author does not normally employ in his own writing), and it is clear that the confusion is not yet resolved.

Earliest usages. Neolithic has prehistoric archeological connotations: the word is a Neo-Grecism for “New Stone Age,” coined a century ago by Sir John Lubbock, along with “Paleolithic,” or “Old Stone Age.” The contrast between the two ages was seen to depend upon the fact that various inventories of archeological materials from western European ice-age contexts yielded stone tools with forms and cutting edges prepared only by chipping, whereas certain archeological inventories from early postglacial contexts also included stone tools whose outlines or cutting edges were prepared by grinding or polishing. The end of the “Neolithic” was seen as marked by the appearance of archeological inventories with at least some metal tools, usually of copper or bronze; hence, the “Bronze Age” followed the “Neolithic.” Moreover, it was soon sensed that “traits” other than ground-stone tools might be used to characterize the general range of “neolithic” inventories or assemblages. Traces of crude pottery vessels, weaving, architecture, and the bow, as well as traces of ground-stone artifacts other than cutting tools, came to be included as characteristic “traits” of the “Neolithic,” provided that items of metal or of other more sophisticated substances or manufacturing procedures did not appear in the same assemblage.

Both the nomenclature (i.e., “Paleolithic,” “Neolithic,” “Bronze Age,” and “Iron Age”) and its rationale reflect an early period of evidence collection and of scholarly thought about European prehistory, during which a kind of world-wide evolutionary chronological and cultural uniformitarianism was assumed to have been the ordering principle of things. During this early period in the development of prehistoric scholarship it was thought, for the most part, that at a given time in the past, generally similar cultures were producing generally similar types of artifacts. At first, the consequences of this assumption were not too serious, but as the twentieth century opened and more came to be learned of prehistory beyond the classic western European area and of ethnology in general, it became increasingly clear to perceptive prehistorians that the uniformitarian image was a vastly oversimplified one.

In the meantime, however, the word “Neolithic” has come to be used as an adjective or as a noun and may denote either (1) the chronological age, (2) the developmental level or stage, or (3) the typological appearance or description of an archeological site or of an artifact or assemblage of artifacts. Thus, in a given piece of writing, the author may hop at will between the chronological, developmental, and typological connotations, his lack of precision in meaning neatly camouflaged behind the learned-looking Neo-Grecism.

Techno—economic usage. V. Gordon Childe’s presidential address to the Prehistoric Society in 1935 marked the crystallization of a new meaning for “Neolithic” as “a self-sufficing food-producing economy” (Childe 1953, p. 193). It should be noted that Childe credited Elliot Smith, Harold J. E. Peake, and others with the original notion of “… the revolutionary contrast between food-gatherers and food-producers.” The importance of the achievement of food production was hardly a new idea, even to archeologists (e.g., Mortillet 1882, p. 576). What interests us here is Childe’s selection of a developmental factor—the techno—economic factor —as the most meaningful sense for “Neolithic,” if this was to remain a useful term for prehistorians and culture historians. Owing to the deservedly wide popularity of Childe’s general writings, his viewpoint that the “Neolithic” began with the appearance of effective (“self-sufficing”) food production is now usually followed, at least in western European prehistoric thought. This means that “neolithicness” commenced wherever and whenever effective food production was assured, regardless of the typological descriptions of the associated artifacts. In fact, Childe’s Huxley lecture (1944) shows his own firm grasp of the principle of homotaxis—that the same techno-economic stage may appear in the record of different regions at quite different times in a real chronological sense.

There is still no very new or clear thought on what marks the end of the “Neolithic” stage or era.

Usage relating to regions outside Europe. Probably the greatest confusion with the usage “Neolithic” has occurred in writings concerning the prehistory of regions other than those in Europe. Fortunately, the usage of “Neolithic” has not appealed to Americanist archeologists (Ehrich 1963), although effective food production certainly did appear in the prehistoric New World. It seems probable that, in the Old World, confusion increases as prehistorians deal with paleoenvironments different from those of Europe, especially if the prehistorians have had European training and if they retain a European image of the way things ought to have worked. However, we need not expect that the three factors in the important equation— chronology, developmental level, and typological description—were always the same everywhere in the world.

Thus, the exact timing of the sequences in extra-European regions may be quite different from those of Europe (factor of chronology). Food production appears to have reached Europe with the diffusion of a southwestern Asiatic complex of domesticated food-plants and animals and to have become effective in Europe with the acceptance of this complex by indigenous European peoples already at an intensified or “mesolithic” level of food collection. It is certainly not clear that what happened in Eu-rope was a universal pattern for the first appearance of food production (factor of developmental level). When we view artifacts and characteristic assemblages of artifacts as a manifestation of man’s cultural means of adaptation to environments and their natural resources, it is not surprising that both the artifacts themselves and also significant constellations of artifacts should look, and be, quite different in non-European paleo-environmental situations (factor of typological description).

Since most prehistorians’ impressions of the meaning of “Neolithic” seem to have been cast in a European image, one of two things appear to follow the farther we move from Europe. Either the word “Neolithic” is qualified with a bewildering variety of prefixes (e.g., “pre-Neolithic,” “proto-Neolithic,” “preceramic-Neolithic”) which have little or no bearing on the Childean usage (i.e., effective food production), or the Childean usage is implicitly (Arkell 1959, p. 237) or explicitly (Okladnikov 1962, p. 273) denied. In fact, Okladnikov believes that Childe’s “… so-called ’neolithic revolution’ in the Near East should be assigned to the mesolithic” and, on the basis of his own Siberian materials, holds “… to the older view that neolithic culture, in contradistinction to the mesolithic and paleolithic, is founded on the appearance of ground axes and pottery as well as of the bow and arrow tipped with a bifacially worked point.” Following Okladnikov, then, food production did not appear in Siberia until long after the beginning of the “Neolithic.”

In the opinion of the writer, the word “Neolithic” has completely outlived its usefulness. What follows is a brief consideration of present knowledge about the earliest levels of the stage of effective food production.

The earliest levels of the food-producing stage

The appearance of effective food production

Three trends in the over-all pattern of human biological and cultural evolution have been particularly notable: increasing group size, increasing sociocultural complexity, and increasing permanency of settlement. Little reflection is needed to realize the direct bearing that the availability of a stable food supply and the artifactual means of assuring it have on these trends. Except under highly specialized environmental circumstances, moreover, man has seldom been a very efficient food gatherer or even intensive collector. Also, except under such highly specialized (and hence, relatively rare) environmental circumstances, food gatherers or collectors have not achieved any degree of what are normally referred to as “higher” sociocultural forms. With the appearance of a produced food supply, based upon effective domestication of plants and sometimes of animals, the situation may be otherwise.

In fact, the record of man’s past is sufficiently clear to allow the generalization that human evolution (at least on its cultural side) may be divided into at least three grand technoeconomic stages: a very long food-gathering and collecting stage, a relatively recent food-producing stage, and the present-day industrial stage. (There is also some tendency to consider a dawning stage of nuclear energy.) Passage from the first to the second stage was achieved independently more than once in different parts of the world, but in neither of the two instances for which we now have any degree of understanding did the event take place before approximately 10,000 b.c.

The two instances of which we have some fair notion were centered in southwestern Asia and in Mesoamerica, and the independent appearances of food production in these two foci depended on the domestication of two quite peculiar and separate complexes of (1) plant-and-animal elements or (2) primarily plant elements, and upon the development of artifactual adaptations to a life based on these complexes. It is also completely evident that both the southwest Asian and the Mesoamerican foci of appearance of food production immediately served as centers of diffusion, from which the primary plant-and-animal or plant elements, and the respective artifactual responses to them, moved outward into regions still inhabited by food collectors. The exact cultural mechanics of these “movements” are not yet understood in either case, nor are the mechanics by which indigenous outlying food collectors accepted or rejected portions of the new way of life.

Without doubt, there was at least one or more other independent or semi-independent appearances of food production. Sub-Saharan Africa, southern or southeastern Asia, China, the Andean slopes, and Amazonia have all been named (cf. Braidwood & Willey 1962) as likely areas, but there is as yet far less surety of evidence or agreement among authorities in these cases.

It is also quite clear that there has been no achievement of an urban and civilized way of life, in any meaningful sense of these words, save upon the basis of an effective level of food production. The appearances of the known ancient urban civilizations each followed several thousand years after the earliest appearances of effective food production. In fact, it is quite impossible to conceive of the sociocultural dimensions of urban civilization based solely upon food-gathering or collection.

The background for food production

We are not concerned here with the over-all length of Pleistocene time and of man’s early appearance toward the beginning of this time. We need only note that by about 40,000 years ago, if not earlier, our fully modern single species, Homo sapiens, was spreading into all parts of the world where human inhabitation was possible. This spread depended largely upon man’s increasing capacity for culture, including the acceleration of a long trend toward increasing dependence upon artifactual (i.e., cultural) rather than immediately biological means of adapting to ever greater varieties of environmental circumstances. A probable concomitant of this trend seems often to have been an increasing tendency toward sedentism, or “in-settling,” and more experimentation with an increasing number of elements in the total resource spectrum of any given environmental niche (cf. Braidwood 1960a; 1960b).

Following about 15,000 b.c., the most spectacular known responses to this general trend—still within the general stage of food-gathering, but at a rather highly intensified level of specialized hunting and collecting—are those of the French Dordogne and of Franco-Cantabria. In these regions appeared the brilliant “upper paleolithic” cave art, one cultural manifestation of peoples whose ways of life were based upon their highly successful procedures for hunting the great gregarious animals of that particular paleoenvironment. Another type of adaptation had appeared at least as early in central eastern Europe and beyond, and involved open-air “in-settling” based on mammoth hunting (cf. Klima 1962).

On the same time horizon, however, we may select for contrast the far less spectacular assemblages from the Zagros mountain flanks in southwestern Asia. The animals hunted here were far smaller and more elusive than those pictorialized in the Franco-Cantabrian art: they included wild sheep, goat, and pig, all species that were potentially domesticable. Although the animals were undoubtedly still wild following about 15,000 b.c. and were clearly the objects of hunting pursuits alone, the archeological sites indicate a considerable increase in the proportions of the bones of these particular animals (in contrast to those of deer, bear, onager, and other available, but persistently wild, forms). Moreover, from what the immediately following phases show in several sub-regions of southwestern Asia, it would appear that certain wild cereal grains must also have been attracting men’s (or women’s?) attentions at this time.

Natural habitat zones

We appear to be dealing with the following situation. Certain regions of the world seem to have served as “natural habitat zones” for certain clusters of potentially domesti-cable plant-and-animal or primarily plant forms while these were still in their wild states. It is certainly possible that more such “natural habitat zones” existed than man took advantage of. To become an effective “natural habitat zone” for our purposes, the “potential domesticates” of a region would have had to be domesticated. This did happen in southwestern Asia and quite separately in Mesoamerica and, as noted above, may also have happened independently or semi-independently in several other regions.

It has always been exasperatingly difficult, archeologically, to point to the very beginnings of food production. The moment of beginning—of the first manipulation of a plant or animal form in a direction that would lead specifically to domestication—would hardly be apparent to us either in the morphologies of the plant or animal forms (if by great fortune traces of these should be recovered), or by an artifactual response to domestication. Also, unfortunately, beginning artifactual “responses” are seldom exclusive or specific; a hoe-like tool was easy to devise, but might it not have been devised for collecting edible roots rather than for conscious planting? A very efficient flint blade for a sickle was easily knapped, but was it necessarily used on plants that were consciously planted and cultivated, or simply on wild ones?

The level of incipience

Following an explicit suggestion made by Julian Steward (1949), the notion of a level of incipient cultivation and domestication has come into some use and is seen as the first level or phase of the food-producing stage (Braidwood 1960a). It is not supposed that this level resulted in “self-sufficiency” based on produced food; in fact, the great bulk of the diet of people living at this level must have resulted from intensified hunting and collecting. The idea of a level of incipient cultivation and domestication has been applied in considerations of both the southwest Asian and Mesoamerican evidence, as well as of the bits of evidence that are available from other natural habitat zones. It is maintained (Braidwood & Willey 1962, especially pp. 342 ff.) that the presently available evidence suggests that:

(1) The important natural habitat zones seem to have been in semiarid regions (of temperate to tropical latitudes) of some subregional diversity and without an overabundance of collectible foods. However, the possibility that there were independent or semi-independent beginnings of tropical forest “vegeculture” is not ruled out.

(2) There is no binding reason to see the incipience of food production as the result of marked degrees of climatic or environmental change.

(3) The incipient level of food production was probably bound to the environment of its particular natural habitat zone, with neither its domesticates nor the preliminary artifactual responses to them seen as viable elements for extrazonal diffusion.

(4) Incipience seems to have appeared within a context of some degree of pre-existing “in-settling.”

(5) The trend from generalized food-collecting to incipient cultivation and domestication appears to have been a slow process.

(6) Incipience does not seem to have been attended by sudden or marked changes in culture.

Diversity within the natural habitat zones

As field work progresses, it is probable that the matter of subregional diversity within a given natural habitat zone will be seen as increasing in importance. Braidwood’s (1952) older notion of the “hilly flanks of the Crescent,” as a unitary locale of the natural habitat zone in southwestern Asia, has needed revision and expansion (Braidwood 1962), and the desiccation and oasis-riverine propinquity theory of the origins of food production (cf. Childe 1936, p. 86; Toynbee [1934–1939] 1947, p. 69) is now suspect. The sheep-goat-pig, emmer-einkorn wheat, two-row barley complex in the Zagros flanks subregion was certainly present long before approximately 7000 b.c., when we first know it from archeological context. There is a suggestion that sheep may have been domesticated two thousand years earlier, although claims for cultivated cereals on the basis of a restricted pollen count (Solecki 1963) are not so widely accepted. The Natufian culture of Palestine, which on arti-factual grounds “looks as if” it ought to have been based upon incipient food production, has as yet yielded no primary evidence of domesticated plant or animal elements, and Perrot rejects his earlier claims (1962) that they should have been there. The domesticated goat is only questionably evidenced in the so-called “Pre-Pottery Neolithic B” of Tell es Sultan (Jericho), but despite the size and artifactual complexity of this site, there is an opinion (Zeuner 1958) that cultivation did not yet obtain in its earliest levels.

It is likewise becoming clear that consideration will have to be given to subregional diversities in Mesoamerica. Willey’s (1962, p. 88) useful résumé of the long development of incipient cultivation following about 7000 b.c. in Tamaulipas must now be supplemented with MacNeish’s report of work in the Tehuacan valley (Phillips Academy 1962). In Tamaulipas plant-food collection was gradually replaced by increasing dependence on domesticated pumpkin, pepper, and beans, with a small type of maize (similar to that from Bat Cave, New Mexico), appearing about 2000 b.c. In Tehuacán, a more primitive variety of maize seems to have appeared almost two thousand years earlier in a complex that already included squash and pepper, gourds, amaranth, and possibly beans. MacNeish is of the opinion that full-time agriculture with semipermanent village settlements was present in Tehuacán after 3000 b.c.

The primary village-farming community level

Unfortunately, it is not yet possible to point to a clear and uninterrupted sequence, on a single site, in which a progression from the developing phases of incipience into those of “self-sufficing” food production may be seen. In this sense, Mesoamerica (on present archeological evidence) appears to have proceeded somewhat more slowly and evenly than did southwestern Asia. In both regions, however, with a modest degree of typological extrapolation from one generalized assemblage to a next succeeding one, we arrive at a broad picture of a second level of early food production. Direct and ample evidence of the plant-and-animal or primarily plant domesticates is associated with an increasingly impressive inventory of artifacts, which reasonably imply means and procedures adapted to producing food.

It would be within the development of successive phases of this primary village—farming community level that we sense quite new sociocultural dimensions. With a more stable food supply, population growth is indicated by architectural evidence of further increase in size and number of sedentary communities. Specialized artifacts, indicating efforts at carpentry, boatbuilding, housebuilding, weaving, and the pyrotechnics of pottery production, hint at (1) the gradual rise of specialized crafts, (2) some increasing degree of division of labor, and (3) freedom of some of the community from the immediate activities of the quest for food. A gradual shift in religious focus is implied by items reasonably interpreted as having some role in assuring, among other things, the increase of fertility. It would be impossible, however, in the present state of our knowledge, to generalize on the details of the expanding sociocultural complexity of the level, but it is also quite apparent that a marked expansion must have obtained.

The spread of primary food production

There is ample evidence to indicate that the advancing phases of the primary food-production level served as viable planes from which extraregional diffusion might take place. It may be that a critical factor here was the appearance of mutant forms of the plant-and-animal or primarily plant domesticates that would tolerate new environmental circumstances. As noted above, the exact mechanics of such diffusion of either the primary plant and/or animal domesticates, and of the artifacts and procedures necessary to make them effective, are not yet fully understood. Childe’s (1953) account of the spread of food production into Europe may be supplemented by the accounts given by several authors in the Courses Toward Urban Life symposium (Braidwood & Willey 1962). The latter also contains résumés of present knowledge regarding domestication in sub-Saharan Africa, India, China, and the New World.

It would probably be fair to say that by about 4000 b.c. on the alluvial plain of classic southern Mesopotamia, and perhaps by about 1000 b.c. in Mesoamerica, the primary level of food production was superseded by a further level of at least incipient urbanization. On the other hand, a few remote groups of even present-day peoples in their pristine conditions, such as the Eskimo or the Kalahari Bushmen, have not yet entered the level of primary food production. It is anticipated that future re- search on the origins and early development of food production will expand its concerns to include the other possibilities of independent or semi-independent achievement of the stage. Further, what were the mechanics of cultural diffusion, mixing, and change, and of acceptance and rejection, as the stage proceeded? Only through archeological means can problems bearing on long-range socio-cultural development and change be approached.

Robert J. Braidwood


Arkell, A. J. 1959 The Editor of Rush. Rush: Journal of the Sudan Antiquities Service 7:237–238. → A letter to the editor.

Braidwood, Robert J. 1952 The Near East and the Foundations for Civilization: An Essay in Appraisal of the General Evidence. Eugene: Oregon State System for Higher Education.

Braidwood, Robert J. 1960a Levels in Prehistory: A Model for the Consideration of the Evidence. Pages 143–151 in Sol Tax (editor), The Evolution of Man: Man, Culture, and Society. Volume 2: Evolution After Darwin. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Braidwood, Robert J. 1960b Prelude to Civilization. Pages 297–313 in Symposium on Urbanization and Cultural Development in the Ancient Near East, University of Chicago, 1958, City Invincible. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Braidwood, Robert J. 1962 The Earliest Village Communities of Southwestern Asia Reconsidered. International Congress of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences, Proceedings 1:115–126.

Braidwood, Robert J.; and WILLEY, GORDON R. (editors) 1962 Courses Toward Urban Life: Archeological Considerations of Some Cultural Alternates. Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology, Vol. 32. Chicago: Aldine.

Childe, V. Gordon (1925) 1958 The Dawn of European Civilization. 6th ed., rev. & enl. New York: Knopf.

Childe, V. Gordon (1936) 1965 Man Makes Himself. 4th ed. London: Watts.

Childe, V. Gordon 1944 Archaeological Ages as Technological Stages. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 74:4–24.

Childe, V. Gordon 1953 Old World Prehistory: Neolithic. Pages 193–210 in International Symposium on Anthropology, New York, 1952, Anthropology Today: An Encyclopedic Inventory. Edited by A. L. Kroeber. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Ehrich, Robert W. 1963 Further Reflections on archeological Interpretation. American Anthropologist New Series 65:16–31.

Helbaek, Hans 1963 Textiles From Çatal Hüyük. Archaeology 16:39–46.

Klima, Bohuslav 1962 The First Ground-plan of an Upper Paleolithic Loess Settlement in Middle Europe and Its Meaning. Pages 193–210 in Robert J. Braid-wood and Gordon R. Willey (editors), Courses Toward Urban Life. Chicago: Aldine.

Mortillet, Gabriel de 1882 Le préhistorique, antiquité de l’homme. Paris: Reinwald.

Okladnikov, A. P. 1962 The Temperate Zone of Continental Asia. Pages 267–287 in Robert J. Braidwood and Gordon R. Willey (editors), Courses Toward Urban Life. Chicago: Aldine.

Perrot, Jean 1962 Palestine–Syria–Cilicia. Pages 147–164 in Robert J. Braidwood and Gordon R. Willey (editors), Courses Toward Urban Life. Chicago: Aldine.

Phillips Academy, Robert S. Peabody Foundation for Archaeology 1962 Tehuacán Archaeological–Botanical Project, Second Annual Report, by Richard S. MacNeish. Andover, Mass.: The Foundation.

Solecki, Ralph S. 1963 Prehistory in Shanidar Valley, Northern Iraq. Science 139:179–193.

Steward, Julian H. 1949 Cultural Causality and Law: A Trial Formulation of the Development of Early Civilization. American Anthropologist New Series 51: 1–27, 669–671.

Toynbee, Arnold J. (1934–1939) 1947 A Study of History. Abridgment of Vols. 1–6 by D. C. Somervell. Issued under the auspices of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Willey, Gordon R. 1962 Mesoamerica. Pages 84–105 in Robert J. Braidwood and Gordon R. Willey (editors), Courses Toward Urban Life. Chicago: Aldine.

Zeuner, F. E. 1958 Dog and Cat in the Neolithic [Levels of the Tell] of Jericho. Palestine Exploration Quarterly [1958]: Jan.-June, 52–55.


The term “domestication” as applied to the animal kingdom is commonly defined as that condition in which animals of one species continue to breed freely under conditions of captivity by another. Domestication involves the establishment of a symbiotic relationship from which both species derive some benefit. As practiced by man domestication profoundly affects the ecology and social habits of the animal species as well as man’s own cultural patterns.

From a zoological viewpoint, domestication by Homo sapiens is viewed as “that condition wherein the breeding, care and feeding of animals are, to some degree, subject to continuous control by man” (Hale 1962, p. 21). Such control, whether loosely or intensively exercised, induces changes in the morphology, physiology, and behavior of the animals concerned. The nature of these changes has been the subject of study since the time of Darwin in the middle nineteenth century, with an emphasis first on skeletal morphology and, more recently, on behavior (Hafez 1962). Such studies make it clear that the cumulative changes brought about by domestication “serve to shift the species to a new adaptive peak, characterized by the domestic habitat, and make it unsuitable for independent existence in nature” (Hale 1962, p. 50). Reed concludes that “in a very important sense, then, domestic animals (as well as plants) are a type of human artifact, since they exist in a form changed by man” (1959, p. 1638, note 7).

On the other hand, from the viewpoint of social science, the establishment and practice of domestication are significant for human society. The successful performance of the activities of domestication imposes requirements upon a society which affect both its social and economic structure and its system of symbols and values. At the same time the impact of the community upon the landscape is greatly intensified through the destruction of natural vegetation by grazing, through the opening up of new areas for pastoral exploitation, and because of the increased ability to travel and transport goods. Maintenance of human control over an animal species for several generations usually leads to dependence upon the animals for cultural well-being. The animals frequently become an integral part of the human habitation area, at least for part of the time. Such intimate accommodation and control are justified by the fact that the animals fulfill one or more roles in the cultural pattern. Most commonly these roles include serving as a source of food, fuel, power, or raw materials. Equally important, however, are the roles the animals play as symbols of wealth, prestige, or religious belief, as sources of aesthetic pleasure, and as a means of aggression and defense. Dependent upon the specific role or roles a given species plays in a particular society are multiple secondary effects concerning settlement pattern, architecture, and equipment, as well as the value placed on the animals and the elaboration of rules governing property rights concerning them. In addition, there is the important role that animals play in the verbal symbolism expressed in myths, songs, and the vocabulary of the society possessing them.

In spite of the fundamental importance of animal domestication to societies based upon food-producing economies, the study of the initial stages of domestication has lagged. During the early twentieth century the problem was discussed more or less independently by zoologists studying morphology without benefit of population genetics and by ethnologists working largely without supporting archeological data. The latter tried to reconstruct prehistoric events from observation of contemporary nonliterate peoples. The best known of these efforts is probably the Hirtenkulturkreis hypothesis formulated by Wilhelm Schmidt of the Vienna school. According to this hypothesis domestication of the horse and reindeer preceded that of other animals, thus permitting pastoral nomads to provide the organizational impetus leading to the higher civilizations. With more intensive archeological field work and the growth of genetic studies in zoology, these earlier theoretical formulations have been largely discredited. Since 1950 there has been a reassessment of the available evidence and the initiation by archeologists and zoologists of cooperative research aimed at the recovery of evidence specifically relating to the question of early domestication (Fürer-Haimendorf 1955; Hale 1962; Reed I960; Zeuner 1963).

Archeological evidence

Archeological data concerning domestication have been limited and difficult to interpret. The evidence is both direct and indirect, consisting of animal bones and artifacts. Of the latter, representational art is a major category of information and has been studied in the Near East and north Africa. Such art is often difficult to date, and its conventionalized style often makes specific identification of the animals portrayed almost impossible. There is also the question of whether the animal depicted is wild or domestic. Indirect evidence—such as harnesses, bits, rein rings, or similar kinds of equipment, and refuse such as animal dung and straw used in plaster or to temper pottery, and ash from dung fires—may occasionally shed light on the question of domestication.

Animal bones themselves, with their altered morphology, provide a better source of evidence. But the use of this evidence raises complicated problems of identification and interpretation. First and foremost is the problem posed by the lack of adequate comparative collections of bones of the wild ancestors. Second, there is the mass of poorly documented and misidentified materials from older archeological excavations. This mass has been critically reviewed for the Near East (Reed 1960) and reduced to a small residue of reliable identifications. In most instances these latter materials date from several thousand years after domestication must have taken place and after extensive morphological changes had had time to establish themselves. Such changes often have not occurred to any extent in the earliest remains, and the study of morphology alone is unable therefore to establish the fact of domestication. Before an interpretation can be made for these earliest periods, a combination of morphological and statistical evidence (such as the relative abundance of species, the relative number of animals of different age groups within a species, and the degree of variability between populations) must be taken into account, along with stratigraphic position and general cultural level. This approach attempts to establish the presence of domestication by demonstrating a statistical shift from a general paleolithic hunting pattern, exhibiting a random killing of individuals of various ages in a variety of species, to patterns of selective killing of yearlings within one or two species. It is inferred that the ability to select a single age group from a single species, almost to the exclusion of other animals, reflects sufficient human control over the animal population to warrant use of the term “domestication” (Reed 1962). Preliminary application of this approach to materials from several sites in the Near East suggests that the final results will prove highly significant.


Theoretical considerations dealing with the problem of how domestication began have focused on the environment (Childe 1928), conscious human behavior (Sauer 1952), or unconscious human behavior and animal behavior (Zeuner 1963) as the major factors. The environmental argument has sometimes been called the “riverine–oasis” or “propinquity” theory. It presupposes a continuous period of desiccation in southwest Asia and northern Africa from the end of the Pleistocene to the present. According to this theory, human and animal inhabitants of these areas were gradually forced together in river valleys and oases, the end result being domestication. The theory may be discounted on both ecological and paleoclimatological grounds. Recent studies by geologists in the Near East show that snow lines and floral zones, depressed during the height of the last glaciation, have gradually shifted upward to their present locations. Since animals occupy specific habitat niches, they either move where those habitats move or they become extinct; they do not cross over into other niches and crowd together. In Africa, where desiccation has occurred, many of these niches undoubtedly became extinct, along with the animals which occupied them, but there is no evidence that they ever crowded into oases. It should be noted that desiccation in Africa was interrupted by periods of wetter conditions and was not a single event. According to present evidence the appearance of domestic animals in the area seems to have occurred during one of these wet rather than dry phases.

Arguments purporting to identify a human motive for domestication are more difficult to deal with, since they are largely logical inferences which are not susceptible to scientific proof. They remain, therefore, always in the realm of speculation. It seems probable that domestication occurs as a result of human and animal behavioral interaction. It is apparent that all hunting-and-gathering peoples of the present day possess extensive knowledge of the habits of wild animals as a necessity for, as well as a by-product of, their hunting activities. It is reasonable to infer that similar knowledge was available to late paleolithic hunters. Given this knowledge, there is general agreement between ethnologists and zoologists that, whether or not it was consciously aimed at domestication, the act of taming (that is, the elimination of the tendency to flee from man) must have been the initial mechanism by which animals were brought into the human cultural environment. Since taming can be achieved most effectively with young animals during their critical periods of socialization or imprinting, it is thought that the raising of such young animals by human beings produced domesticated adults. In some instances it is possible that certain wild adults with short flight distances relative to man may have become partially self-domesticated when tolerated in the area by human beings. Otherwise it would have been necessary to feed infant animals. The custom of using a human wet nurse, observed among some contemporary nonliterate groups, suggests itself as a possible method. Sauer (1952) has suggested a religious motivation involving totemic animals in this process, but there is no agreement that such is the case and no evidence either for or against such an assertion. Aside from arguments attributing domestication to religious or other purposeful behavior on the part of man, there is a widely shared belief that agriculture was a necessary precondition to domestication (Childe 1951; Reed 1959; Sauer 1952; Zeuner 1963). The idea has long been suggested in relation to cattle and is accepted in that context by Zeuner (1963). Reed (1959) extends the thesis to cover all four of the basic food animals—sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle—pointing out that they occur only in the context of more or less settled agricultural villages. His point is that such villages would have reached a level of organization complex enough to meet the requirements imposed by the keeping of animals. It must be stressed, however, that it was still uncertain in the mid-1960s that the very earliest context proposed for domestic sheep, Zawi Chemi Shanidar in northern Iraq, was in fact an agricultural settlement.

Biological considerations

Certain biological factors have been stressed as fundamental to the establishment of domestication. Only those animals exhibiting characteristics favorable to domestication were potentially adaptable. These factors include patterns of sexual behavior, social structure, parent–young interaction, response to man, and characteristic foods and habitat. Ability to satisfy dietary needs while in man’s environment, or to live on the by-products of his agriculture, was essential to complete domestication. Domestication became possible only because the animals involved were already preadapted socially and psychologically to being tamed without loss of reproductive ability. Observable changes in the behavior of animals that have become domesticated are nevertheless profound. Reed (1959) points out that while conscious selection probably occurred rather late, unconscious selection must have previously led to the establishment of desirable characteristics, such as submissiveness.

Since the domestication of animals can have taken place only in those areas in which the ancestors of the domesticated animals lived, large areas of the earth’s surface are automatically eliminated from consideration. Thus, large areas of southern Africa, northern Asia, Australia, and Oceania are ruled out. Significantly, the major centers of domestication seem to correspond to the more important centers of agriculture: the Near East and Egypt (seed cultivation—domestication of dogs, sheep, goats, pigs, cattle); southeast Asia (vegetative planting—chickens, ducks, geese, dogs, pigs, certain types of cattle); Peru (vegetative planting —llamas, alpacas, guinea pigs, muscovy ducks); Mexico (seed cultivation—turkeys). The failure to domesticate any of the herd animals of North America may have been due to the lateness of the development of agriculture in that area. In no world area is there evidence of the domestication of any animal before the end of the Pleistocene around 10,000 b.c. It is important to bear in mind that while we are able to discuss the domestication of specific animals in the Near East at a very early date, this fact does not rule out the probability that animals of the same or related species were domesticated at different times in other areas. Zeuner is of the opinion that wherever socially preadapted animals lived near a human society that had reached a certain degree of cultural complexity, domestication would have followed “almost automatically.” In no case, however, is it thought that any purposeful behavior by primitive man occurred with the aim of domesticating an animal, except in very late times, where the idea was copied from existing practices—as perhaps in the case of the reindeer. Least of all would such action have been taken to obtain products such as wool or fat, which are largely secondary products of domestication itself.

Zeuner hypothesizes a progressive order through feeding, taming, and domestication. In the Near East, where the record is most clear, archeological evidence suggests that the scavenger dog was the first to be domesticated; second, the nomadic sheep and goat; third, the scavenger pig; and fourth and finally, cattle, domesticated only when culture was effectively established. The position of the dog at the head of the list is based largely on theory, since its earliest-known remains are in fact found only in the seventh millennium b.c. in pre-pottery neolithic Jericho (the Natufian dog having been identified as a wolf) and in the Maglemosian culture of northern Europe at about the same time.

History of domestication

The oldest animal of a domestic status for which there is actual evidence seems to be the domestic sheep, which is descended from the wild sheep, Ovis orientalis, found in the mountains of Turkey and Iran. Perkins (Reed 1962), on the basis of statistics, thinks it probable that the sheep was already domesticated around 9000 b.c. at Zawi Chemi Shanidar in northern Iraq. At this site roughly 60 per cent of the sheep bones were from yearlings, and the majority of bones found were of sheep; this is in contrast to nearby Shanidar Cave in which, in the late paleolithic levels, the bones of yearling sheep made up only about 25 per cent of the total number of sheep bones, which in turn made up only about 33 per cent of the total number of animal bones. Thus a dramatic shift occurred with the settlement of the open-air site of Zawi Chemi Shanidar, a shift which suggests an early stage of domestication. Somewhat later, around 6500 b.c., domestic goats descended from the wild Capra hircus aegagrus, found in the same general area, make their appearance. Bones of the domestic goat, identified as such largely by the flattened medial surface of the horn cores, have been found at Jericho (Jordan), Jarmo (Iraq), and Guran and Ali Kosh (Iran) from about this time. The goat seems to have been the first domestic food animal to have become widespread, moving from the highlands into the lowlands of Mesopotamia and Egypt and on into Africa, Asia, and Europe. Several centuries later, perhaps around 6000 b.c., the domestic pig was introduced to Jarmo from some as yet unidentified area. The domestic status of the pig has been established through the morphology of its teeth, which differ from those of wild species presently in the area. While the pigs of southeast Asia generally are descendants of Susvittatus, the native wild pig of those areas, the Near Eastern and European animals appear to be descended from Sus scrofa, the local wild boar. The appearance of domestic cattle, on present evidence, occurs somewhat later, around 5500 b.c., at Tepe Sabz in southwestern Iran (Hole et al. 1965) and at Halafian sites such as Banahilk in Iraq. It is perhaps significant that these sites occur in the Assyrian steppe zone bordering the Fertile Crescent. It may be noted that at this period ox horns were in general use at Çatal Hüyük (south-central Turkey) in religious shrines, but as yet there is no evidence that they were obtained from domestic animals. At an even later date in Mesopotamia an attempt was made to domesticate the local wild onager (as documented in bones found at Tell Asmar); but by 2000 b.c., when the true horse was introduced from southern Russia, this attempt had been given up. The horse appears to have been domesticated in Russia about a millennium earlier. Fragmentary evidence suggests that it was at about this time that the dromedary camel was domesticated in Arabia. The ass or donkey, previously the main beast of burden, appears to have originated in Egypt in predynastic times.

The four major food animals, together with wheat and barley, formed the basic economic complex underlying the higher civilizations of the Near East. From here various selected elements of this complex diffused to cultural groups in adjacent temperate grassland regions. Adoption of the techniques of domestication meant the constant cross-breeding of animal stock with local wild relatives of the same species, and with the occasional substitution of other local species. In general, before domestication of the horse facilitated the development of full pastoral nomadism, these cultural groups probably practiced a mixed economy with a few upland districts specializing in local animal herding. In the first millennium b.c. there is some evidence that the practice of domestication may have been borrowed from sheep and cattle raisers and applied to reindeer in the Minusinsk and Altai highlands. Thus, transport animals appear to have been domesticated generally later than food animals, and animals in marginal nonagricultural areas later still.

A number of other animals have been domesticated for special uses, such as the elephant, the ferret, etc., but little is known about them archeologically. Zeuner (1963) gives the best summary in English with an extensive bibliography.

Robert H. Dyson, Jr.

[See alsoPastoralism.]


Angress, Shimon; and Reed, Charles A. 1962 An Annotated Bibliography on the Origin and Descent of Domestic Mammals: 1900–1955. Chicago Natural History Museum, Fieldiana: Anthropology 54, no. 1.

Childe, V. Gordon 1928 The Most Ancient East. London: Routledge. → A revised edition was published in 1934 as New Light on the Most Ancient East. A fourth edition of the revised work was published in 1952.

Childe, V. Gordon 1951 Social Evolution. New York: Schumann.

Dyson, Robert H. Jr. 1953 Archaeology and the Domestication of Animals in the Old World. American Anthropologist New Series 55:661–673.

FÜrer-Haimendorf, C. von 1955 Culture History and Cultural Development. Pages 149–168 in Yearbook of Anthropology, 1955. Edited by W. L. Thomas, Jr. New York: Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.

Hafez, E. S. (editor) 1962 The Behaviour of Domestic Animals. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.

Hale, E. B. 1962 Domestication and the Evolution of Behaviour. Pages 21–53 in E. S. Hafez (editor), The Behaviour of Domestic Animals. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.

HanČar, Franz 1955 Das Pferd in prähistorischer und früher historischer Zeit. Vienna: Herold.

Hole, Frank; Flannery, Kent; and Neely, James 1965 Early Agriculture and Animal Husbandry in Deh Luran, Iran. Current Anthropology 6, no. 1:105–106.

Jettmar, Karl 1954 Les plus anciennes civilisations d’éleveurs des steppes d’Asie Centrale. Cahiers d’histoire mondiale 1, no. 4:760–782.

Pohlhausen, H. 1954 Das Wanderhirtentum und seine Vorstufen. Brunswick (Germany): Limbach.

Reed, Charles A. 1959 Animal Domestication in the Prehistoric Near East. Science 130:1629–1639.

Reed, Charles A. 1960 A Review of the Archaeological Evidence on Animal Domestication in the Prehistoric Near East. Pages 119–145 in Robert J. Braidwood and Bruce Howe, Prehistoric Investigations in Iraqi Kurdistan. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Reed, Charles A. 1962 Osteological Evidences for Prehistoric Domestication in Southwestern Asia. Zeitschrift für Tierziichtung und Züchtungsbiologie 76, no. 1:31–38.

Sauer, Carl O. 1952 Agricultural Origins and Dispersals. New York: American Geographical Society.

Schmidt, Wilhelm; and Koppers, Wilhelm 1924 Völker und Kulturen. Regensburg (Germany): Habbel.

Zeuner, Frederick E. 1963 A History of Domesticated Animals. New York: Harper.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Domestication." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 26 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Domestication." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (April 26, 2017).

"Domestication." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved April 26, 2017 from


domestication The selective breeding by humans of plant and animal species in order to accommodate human needs. Domestication also requires considerable modification of natural ecosystems to ensure the survival of, and optimum production from, the domesticated species (e.g. the removal of competing weed species when growing cereal crops).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"domestication." A Dictionary of Ecology. . 26 Apr. 2017 <>.

"domestication." A Dictionary of Ecology. . (April 26, 2017).

"domestication." A Dictionary of Ecology. . Retrieved April 26, 2017 from


domestication The selective breeding by humans of plant and animal species in order to accommodate human needs. Domestication also requires considerable modification of natural ecosystems to ensure the survival of, and optimum production from, the domesticated species (e.g. the removal or competing weed species when growing cereal crops).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"domestication." A Dictionary of Plant Sciences. . 26 Apr. 2017 <>.

"domestication." A Dictionary of Plant Sciences. . (April 26, 2017).

"domestication." A Dictionary of Plant Sciences. . Retrieved April 26, 2017 from


domestication The selective breeding of species by humans in order to accommodate human needs. Domestication also requires considerable modification of natural ecosystems to ensure the survival of, and optimum production from, the domesticated species.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"domestication." A Dictionary of Zoology. . 26 Apr. 2017 <>.

"domestication." A Dictionary of Zoology. . (April 26, 2017).

"domestication." A Dictionary of Zoology. . Retrieved April 26, 2017 from