6 Barnyard Animals and How They Came to Be
By Lucas Reilly, the mag
This story originally appeared in print in the December 2014 issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.
Nearly 10,000 years ago, roosters and hens were creatures to be feared. Wild junglefowl prowled the bamboo forests of Southeast Asia, and the birds were anything but chicken. They fought pythons, attacked wildcats and nested in canopies high above the ground. Then, around 5000 BCE, bored humans started nabbing the birds and brought them to villages for entertainment. The aves weren’t for eating, but instead for cockfighting and fortune-telling. (Cambodia’s Khmer people still use chickens as oracles today.) Over time, selective breeding fattened the birds and made them complacent, while a gene mutation caused them to start laying eggs all year long.
Every single one of the 1.5 billion cows on the planet descended from a small herd domesticated in Iran 10,500 years ago. These 80 Iranian cows were no ordinary livestock: They were aurochs, giant now-extinct cattle that ruled the continent for 2 million years. At nearly 7 feet tall, aurochs dwarfed today’s dairy cows. And they were incredibly aggressive. Every attempt to tame them failed until nomadic societies in the Levant settled down and somehow managed to get the beasts to help till the land. The last aurochs went extinct in the 1620s, but scientists from the Third Reich tried unsuccessfully to bring them back in the 1930s. (This was before people had learned the lessons of Jurassic Park 1–3).
Have you ever milked a horse? Your ancestors did. When horses were first being domesticated in the Eurasian Steppe 6,000 years ago, they were treated more like cattle—as a source of meat and milk. In Mongolia, fermented mare’s milk—called airag or kumis—is still a delicacy.
All it took to woo the Euroasian wild boar was the promise of leftovers. About 9,000 years ago in Iraq, villagers realized swine could be lured and then corralled by the scent of garbage. This proved much easier than hunting them in the wild. The four-legged trash cans cleaned up the community and provided meat in return. Not every culture was so enamored of bacon, though. In parts of India and China, domestic pigs were given the less glamorous job of cleaning up under latrines.
Ten thousand years ago, people in what is now Iran stopped hunting the bezoar ibex and started breeding it. Just like that, goats became the Swiss Army Knife of domestic animals. They were a regular source of meat and milk, their dung made excellent fuel, their sinews were handy for sewing, their hide was later stretched into parchment, and their bones were fitted into tools. Notably, the bezoar was also domesticated for its mystical qualities: the hard mass found in its stomach was supposedly an antidote for toxins (In Farsi, “bezoar” means “protect from poison.”) The ibex still exists, distinguishable from a regular goat by its super-long horns.
Humans kept sheep for nearly three millennia before anyone had the brilliant idea to use their wool. Nearly 11,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, they were bred from three different subspecies of the ramlike mouflon, but were only used for milk and mutton. Today, thanks to centuries of selective breeding, domestic sheep don’t shed annually like their wild cousins did. If they’re not sheared by a human, their fleece will grow forever. In fact, a New Zealand sheep named Shrek avoided shearing for six years by hiding in caves. When the walking marshmallow was finally trimmed, he produced enough wool to make 20 suits!
All images courtesy of iStock.