Importance of domestic animals

January 1, 2017

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DomesticationThe process of hereditary reorganization of wild animals and plants into domestic and cultivated forms according to the interests of people. In its strictest sense, it refers to the initial stage of human mastery of wild animals and plants. The fundamental distinction of domesticated animals and plants from their wild ancestors is that they are created by human labour to meet specific requirements or whims and are adapted to the conditions of continuous care and solicitude people maintain for them.

Domestication has played an enormous part in the development of humankind and material culture. It has resulted in the appearance of agriculture as a special form of animal and plant production. It is precisely those animals and plants that became objects of agricultural activity that have undergone the greatest changes when compared with their wild ancestors.

Origins of domestication

The first attempts at domestication of animals and plants apparently were made in the Old World during the Mesolithic Period. Dogs were first domesticated in Central Asia by at least 15, 000 years ago by people who engaged in hunting and gathering wild edible plants. The first successful domestication of plants, as well as goats, cattle, and other animals—which heralded the onset of the Neolithic Period—occurred sometime before 9500 bce. It was not until the , however, that primitive agriculture appeared as a form of social activity, and domestication was well under way. (The Neolithic Period occurred at different times around the world but is generally thought to have begun sometime between 10, 000 and 8, 000 bce.) Although the great majority of domesticated animals and plants that still serve humans were selected and developed during the Neolithic Period, a few notable examples appeared later. The rabbit, for example, was not domesticated until the Middle Ages; the sugar beet came under cultivation as a sugar-yielding agricultural plant only in the 19th century; and mint became an object of agricultural production as recently as the 20th century. Also in the 20th century, a new branch of animal breeding was developed to obtain high-quality fur.

Domestication of vegetatively reproducing plants, such as those with tubers, probably preceded domestication of the seed plants—cereals, legumes, and other vegetables. Some plants were domesticated for the strong fibres in their stalks, which were used for such purposes as making fishing nets. Hemp, one of the most ancient plants domesticated in India, is an example of a multipurpose plant: oil is obtained from its seeds, fibres from its stalk, and the narcotic hashish from its flowers and leaves.

Some plants were domesticated especially for the production of narcotics; such a plant is tobacco, which was probably first used by American Indian tribes for the preparation of a narcotic drink and only later for smoking. The opium poppy is another example of a plant domesticated solely for a narcotic. Beverage plants of many kinds were discovered and cultivated, including tea, coffee, and cola. Only when humans reached a sufficiently high level of culture did they begin to domesticate to fulfill aesthetic requirements for the beautiful and the bizarre in both plants and animals.

Domestication of animals

The specific economic application of domesticated animals did not appear at once. probably accompanied hunters and helped them hunt wild animals; they probably also guarded human settlements and warned the inhabitants of possible danger. At the same time, they were eaten by humans, which was probably their main importance during the first stages of domestication. Sheep and were also eaten in the initial stages of domestication but later became valuable for producing the commodities of milk and wool.

The principal aim of breeding in ancient times was to obtain meat and skin and to produce work animals, which greatly contributed to the development of agriculture. Cattle, at the initial stages of domestication, produced a small amount of , sufficient only to rear their calves. The development of high milk yield in cows with their breeding especially for milk production is a later event in the history of domestication.

The first domesticated horses were also used for meat and skin. Later the horse played an enormous role in the waging of war. Peoples inhabiting the Middle East in the 2nd millennium bce used horses in chariot battles. With time the horse began to be used as transportation. In the 1st millennium bce carts appeared, and the horses were harnessed to them; other riding equipment, including the saddle and the bit, seems to have appeared in later centuries.

The donkey and the camel were used only for load transport and as means of conveyance; their unpalatability ruled out their use as a preferred food.

The first domesticated hens perhaps were used for sport. Cockfighting was instrumental in bringing about the selection of these birds for larger size. Cocks later acquired religious significance. In Zoroastrianism the cock was associated with protection of good against evil and was a symbol of light. In ancient Greece it was also an object of sacrifice to gods. It is probable that egg production of the first domesticated hens was no more than five to ten eggs a year; high egg yield and improved meat qualities of hens developed at later stages of domestication.

Early domestication of the cat was probably the result of the pleasure experienced from keeping this animal. The cat’s ability to catch mice and rats was surely another reason that impelled people to keep cats at home. In ancient Egypt the cat was considered a sacred animal.

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