More than ten thousand years ago, in the rolling uplands that flank the Fertile Crescent, humans began a long-term partnership with two animal species, the red sheep (Ovis orientalis) and the Bezoar goat (Capra aegargus), that continues to shape both the natural and cultural landscape of southwest Asia to the present day. With the final retreat of the great northern ice sheets at the end of the Pleistocene era, this region experienced a shift to a milder climate that brought with it the replacement of tree-less steppe with deciduous oak forests. An accompanying expansion of grasslands, comprised largely of wild varieties of wheat and barley, encouraged, in turn, the proliferation of smaller hoofed species of animals, such as wild sheep and goats, as well as gazelle and deer. Found throughout the entire arc of the Fertile Crescent, wild goat were especially well represented in its eastern half, particularly in the Zagros Mountains. Although wild sheep were also quite common in lower elevations of the Zagros, they seem to have been more abundant at the apex of the Fertile Crescent, in northern Mesopotamia and southeastern Anatolia. They may have been absent altogether, or at least very rare, in the Levant. It is in these central and eastern portions of the region that the shift can be traced from an initial heavy dependence on wild sheep and goats as primary prey species (as evidenced at such late Paleolithic sites as Yafteh cave, Palegawra, and Shanidar in Iran) to the management of these animals as primary domestic resources (at such Epipaleolithic and early Neolithic sites as Ganj Dareh in Iran, Ali Kosh, Cafer Höyük, Çayönü, and Tell Abu Hureyra). Goats were probably first domesticated in the Zagros Mountains in about 7,500–7,000 BCE and sheep, apparently sometime later, in the more lowland areas to the north and west.

Human control over breeding effectively eliminated pressures that in the wild selected for larger, horned, aggressive males. It also restricted the size and diversity of the breeding population, which, along with changes in nutrition, resulted in marked change in the bodies and behavior of these animals. Reduction in size and changes in horn shape (and in sheep a remarkable replacement of the stiff hairy outercoat by the wooly undercoat) distinguish domestic forms of sheep (Ovis aries) and goat (Capra hircus) from their wild progenitors. As a result, these new species expanded in number and range beyond what was possible in the wild, vastly increasing their genetic fitness over that of their ancestors, who were progressively forced into more remote, marginal territories.

When coupled with the cultivation of cereal grasses (which probably had its origin in the Levant), the herding of domestic sheep and goats afforded these new food-producing economies a high level of security and predictability. [See Cereals.] By the mid-seventh millennium BCE, sedentary village communities throughout the Fertile Crescent were growing wheat and barley and herding flocks of sheep and goat. This new economic focus was likely accompanied by a significant restructuring of social organization, gender relations, notions of property, as well as belief systems needed to mediate relationships between members of larger permanent communities reliant on fixed territories for the supply of essential subsistence resources.

The clearing of natural vegetation to create new cropland, the overgrazing of areas that once supported wild herds, and the use of irreplaceable forest resources for fuel had a profound impact on local landscapes. In the area around the Neolithic site of ῾Ain Ghazal in Jordan, in the southern Levant, the sudden collapse of an initially highly successful agricultural system offers an early object lesson on the consequences of farming and herding in fragile arid environments. On the other hand, new evidence from the middle Khabur in present-day northeastern Syria suggests that the decimation of indigenous herds of wild gazelle, equids, and cattle did not begin until some time after the expansion of urban-based agricultural economies, more than three thousand years after the introduction of domesticates into the region.

Sheep and goat continued to play a central role in the highly specialized economies of the urban societies that dominated southwest Asia from the mid-fourth millennium onward. Control over the distribution of sheep and goat products, especially to city dwellers far removed from rural food production, has been shown, in textual sources and in archaeological faunal assemblages, to have been of major concern to urban administrators. Textile production and the management of special breeds of wool-bearing sheep were primarily pillars of state-level economies in otherwise resource-poor lowland Mesopotamia. The growth of specialized economies encouraged the development of specialist pastoralists who supplied meat, wool, and dairy products in exchange for agricultural products and craft goods. Although they were an essential component of these expanding regional economies, specialist pastoralists needed to maintain a high degree of mobility to assure optimal pasturage for flocks, often venturing great distances from the seats of urban authority. This mobility afforded pastoralists a greater degree of independence from urban control than experienced by other sedentary, more centrally located farmers and craft specialists. By at least the mid-second millennium, as evidenced by the Mari archives, pastoral nomads had become an important and frequently disruptive force in the political stability of urban society in southwest Asia. Indeed, much of the subsequent history of this region is marked by cycles of centralization and collapse in which pastoralists and their flocks play an ongoing and enduring role.


See also Animal Husbandry; Paleozoology



  • Flannery, Kent V. “The Animal Remains.” In Prehistory and Human Ecology on the Deh Luran Plain: An Early Village Sequence from Khuzistan, Iran, edited by Frank A. Hole et al, pp. 262–331. University of Michigan, Memoirs of the Museum of Anthropology, no. 1. Ann Arbor, 1969.
    With Hesse (1978), one of the few complete final reports on an early Neolithic faunal assemblage in southwest Asia; lacks the finds of the last two decades but remains a blueprint for publishing data of archaeological animal bones and their interpretation
  • Hesse, Brian. “Evidence for Husbandry from the Early Neolithic Site of Ganj Dareh in Western Iran.” Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1978.
    Comprehensive and innovative study of the large faunal assemblage from an Epipaleolithic/Early Neolithic site in highland Iran, documenting the transition from hunting to herding goats. Available from Ann Arbor: University Microfilms
  • Jacobsen, Thorkild. “On the Textile Industry at Ur under Ibbi-Sin.” In Studia Orientalia: Ioanni Pedersen septuagenario, pp. 12–187. Helsinki, 1953.
    Classic work on the organization of the textile industry in second-millennium southern Mesopotamia
  • Jones, Tom B., and J. W. Snyder. Sumerian Economic Texts from the Third Ur Dynasty: A Catalogue and Discussion of Documents from Various Collections. Minneapolis, 1961.
    Landmark presentation of textual information from the state-run animal distribution center at Tell Drehem (ancient Puzrish Dagan) in southern Mesopotamia, which includes a detailed and insightful reconstruction of the center's bureaucratic structure, highlighting the importance of animal resources in the Ur III economy
  • Köhler-Rollefson, Ilse. “A Model for the Development of Nomadic Pastoralism on the Transjordanian Plateau.” In Pastoralism in the Levant: Archaeological Materials in Anthropological Perspectives, edited by Ofer Bar-Yosef and Anatoly Khazanov, pp. 11–18. Madison, Wis., 1992.
    Provocative parable about the consequences of herding and farming in arid environments that makes a strong argument for the role of farming and grazing, and ensuing environmental degradation, in the collapse of Late Neolithic societies in the eastern Levant
  • Matthews, Victor H. Pastoral Nomadism in the Mari Kingdom, ca. 1830–1760 B.C. American Schools of Oriental Research, Dissertation Series, 3. Cambridge, Mass., 1978.
    Careful consideration of the place pastoral nomads held in the Mari kingdom in northern Mesopotamia, weaving textual sources with modern ethnographic literature
  • Smith, B. D. The Emergence of Agriculture. New York, 1994.
    The most up-to-date summary on agricultural origins worldwide currently available. Chapter on Fertile Crescent presents a cogent and comprehensive account of the domestication of sheep and goats and their place in the emerging agricultural communities of the ancient Near East
  • Wright, H. E. “Climatic Change in the Zagros Mountains—Revisited.” In Prehistoric Archeology along the Zagros Flanks, edited by Linda S. Braidwood et al, pp. 505–510. University of Chicago, Oriental Institute, Publications, vol. 105. Chicago, 1983.
    Review of more than twenty years of paleoclimatic research in the Zagros Mountains
  • Zeder, Melinda A. Feeding Cities: Specialized Animal Economy in the Ancient Near East. Washington, D.C., 1991.
    Examination of the large corpus of animal remains from Bronze Age Tal-e Malyan (ancient Anshan), documenting the controlled distribution of meat resources to urban dwellers no longer producing food for their own consumption
  • Zeder, Melinda A. “After the Revolution: Post-Neolithic Subsistence in Northern Mesopotamia.” American Anthropologist 96 (1994): 97–126.
    Presents new data on post-Neolithic subsistence in the middle Khabur drainage in northeastern Syria, demonstrating the persistence of hunting as a major element in the subsistence economy of marginal environmental zones from the sixth millennium until the period of urban origins in the mid-third millennium BCE

Melinda A. Zeder