What's Bred in the Bone

By Josie Glausiusz
Jul 1, 2000 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:20 AM


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If the humble goat strikes you as an unlikely harbinger of human civilization, have a word with Melinda Zeder, an archaeologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. She believes goats were the first livestock animal to be domesticated. And she has now managed to pinpoint this landmark moment: 10,000 years ago in western Iran.

Determining when humans switched from hunting to herding is a toughie because there's no direct evidence. One clue stems from the sex of the animal remains people left behind. Herders generally favored females, raising a few males for mating and slaughtering the rest young, whereas hunters often aimed for large, adult males. The bones of male livestock animals are easy to spot because they are, as Zeder discovered, larger than bones of females at all ages. After investigating bone collections from ancient sites across the Middle East, she found a dearth of adult male goat bones—and an abundance of female and young male remains—from a 10,000-year-old settlement called Ganj Dareh, in Iran's Zagros Mountains. This provides the earliest evidence of domesticated livestock, Zeder says.

Ganj Dareh's occupants may have begun domesticating goats in response to a recurrence of cold climate after the Ice Age. The herding habit soon transformed the world for both man and beast. "By domesticating plants and animals, people gave a huge selective advantage to certain species. Farming and herding also wiped out indigenous species. It had a huge environmental impact," Zeder says. We are still feeling the reverberations.

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