The taming of wild animals to live and work with people dramatically increased the amount of energy available to humans. As many societies transitioned from hunting and gathering to settlement and agriculture, a wide variety of animals were domesticated for human use. Goats and sheep were tamed and raised for food, while oxen, donkeys and horses were used as draft animals. The results, in short, were revolutionary.
The domestication of animals was a process rather than an event, and occurred slowly over a period of thousands of years in different regions of the world. Archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest domestication of animals occurred in western Asia around 8,000 BCE as humans increasingly turned to farming for their food supply. Goats and sheep were tamed and raised for their meat, milk and hides (in the case of sheep, wool). By 6,000 BCE, humans had started to tame the wild ox, or aurochs, an animal that lived throughout much of Asia and Europe. Domesticated cattle proved to be much more versatile than goats or sheep: in addition to providing food, milk, and hides, cattle could be harnessed to till fields using early versions of the plow. The muscle power of cattle, and later donkeys and horses, dramatically increased the efficiency of farming, allowing for greater crop yields that supported larger populations and ultimately contributed to the rise of cities.
In addition to having economic and social impacts, the domestication of animals was a process that had profound social
consequences. The centrality of cattle, in particular, in the mythologies and religious beliefs of many early societies reveals the extent to which the importance of the animal was quickly embedded into their cultures. Prehistoric cave paintings in France and Spain, some as old as 30,000 BCE, include many scenes depicting aurochs, suggesting the animal was culturally significant long before it was domesticated. Cattle are sacred in the Hindu tradition and prominent in the religion’s ancient sacred texts. Archaeological excavations on the Greek island of Crete suggest the bull was central to the religious ceremonies of the ancient Minoan people; this was also reflected in Greek mythology, as the labyrinth on Crete was believed to be the home of the Minotaur, a monstrous creature that was half-man, half bull. Finally, the greatest epic in Celtic mythology, the “Cattle Raid of Cooley,” tells the story of a long and terrible war between two Irish kingdoms over possession of an awesome, magical beast, the great Brown Bull. Indeed, cattle were so important in Ireland, they were used as currency until the arrival of minted coins in the ninth century.
The domestication of animals represents one of the most important turning points in human history. The ability to harness the energy of animals to help in the production of food was a revolutionary development that had social, economic and cultural consequences that can be seen to this day.