Humans have lived with animals for so long, it’s hard to imagine there was ever a time when we didn’t have furry or feathered companions to help us in one way or another. Although the number varies depending on how you define “domestication,” science has identified 30-40 species we’ve either outright domesticated or with whom we’ve at least forged connections for our mutual benefit. Whatever the criteria, domestication was by no means a simple or linear process. It happened in fits and starts over millennia, at different times and places across the globe.
But once domestication got rolling, we didn’t just change the animals we brought into our lives; they changed us, too. Humanity would look very different today — and possibly not have thrived to the extent that it has — without the assistance and support of domesticated animals to help us hunt, bear burdens, provide food and materials for clothing and tools, and so much more. Here’s a timeline of some of the most important creatures we’ve made part of our lives.
Dogs (14,000-40,000 years ago)
As this sweeping range of millennia implies, there’s plenty of debate about when humans first attempted to domesticate dogs (or their ancestor wolves). However, archaeozoologists and geneticists don’t dispute that “man’s best friend” was also our first friend from the animal kingdom. The relationship, which some describe as a coevolution between two species, began back in our days as nomadic hunter-gatherers, well before we started farming or building any kind of civilization. Handy for hunting, protection, pest control and companionship, dogs may even have given early humans a developmental edge that allowed them to outcompete Neanderthals.
Goats (10,000-11,000 years ago)
We’ve known them since they were kids! Seriously, goats and humans go way back. Some researchers regard goats as perhaps the first livestock species to be domesticated (sheep have also been put in contention for that role). It’s certainly true that the oldest known livestock DNA, found in Iran, belonged to a goat and dates to around 8200 B.C., just as humans were transitioning from hunter-gatherer to farmer-herder.
Rugged and well-suited to varied terrain, wild goats evolved from the bezoar ibex and proved amenable to early herding and breeding efforts. Unlike dogs, goats provided a ready source of food (milk and meat) and other useful materials, including hair, hide, bone and sinew for everything from clothes to tools. Even their droppings were handy — their dung was fuel for burning.
Cattle (10,000 years ago)
As humans settled down, hunted less and farmed more, we gradually enticed many of the beasts we collectively know as cattle into our control. Recent research has traced all cattle to a tiny herd domesticated from ox as much as 10,500 years ago. Cattle offered a level of food security we couldn’t have hoped to match as hunters. When they weren’t feeding us (or providing us leather), they could also plow our fields and cart our freight. Thus the beast of burden was born.
Horses (6,000 years ago)
If history had gone a little differently, or some early daredevil had second thoughts about jumping on the back of one, horses might today be considered mere cattle instead of the noblest of livestock. We know from cave art dating back 30,000 years that the earliest relationship between human and horse was one of predator and prey; wild horses were hunted for food. Early domestication efforts, typically credited to people living in the Western Eurasian Steppe, were bent to the same task, providing a ready supply of meat and milk for human caretakers. But evidence shows that humans also viewed horses as more than a source of nourishment or beast of burden.
Archaeological research has turned up signs that a thong bridle — a harness for rudimentary reins — was used on horses as early as 5,500 years ago, suggesting that the mighty equines were ridden. The horse’s strength and speed would eventually provide humanity with advantages that even the faithful dog couldn’t fetch us. Horses permitted exponentially expanded opportunities for transport, trade, communications and, unfortunately, warfare. When it comes to pivotal human-animal relationships, almost nothing matches the horse. Of course.
Cats (4,000 years ago)
It should come as no surprise to any cat owner that our feline friends would be last on this list to join humanity in domestic bliss. If it were possible to get one to go on the record, cats might well argue that they have never been domesticated. They certainly weren’t when we first met them, nor for centuries thereafter.
A DNA survey of the last 9,000-or-so years of cats (wild and tame) indicates that cats lived in proximity to humans for centuries without actually being domesticated. Instead, they enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with us. Wild cats would have been drawn to humans because our early agricultural efforts generated both resources and waste. Food and trash attract vermin, and vermin attracts cats. Eventually, we venerated them, took them traveling, and brought them into our homes for companionship. The earliest evidence that cats had become house cats comes from Egyptian art dating to 4,000 years ago.