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How and When Sheep were First Domesticated

Sheep (Ovis aries) History


European Mouflon sheep (Ovis gmelini)

European Mouflon sheep (Ovis gmelini)

Ken Billington
Baby Mouflon sheep (Ovis gmelini)

Baby Mouflon sheep (Ovis gmelini)

Tambako the Jaguar
Soay Sheep, Scotland

Soay Sheep, Scotland

Beth Loft

Sheep (Ovis aries) were probably first domesticated at least three separate times in the Fertile Crescent of western Iran and Turkey, Syria and Iraq. This occurred approximately 10,500 years ago, and involved at least three different subspecies of the wild mouflon (Ovis gmelini). Sheep were the first "meat" animals domesticated. Hans-Peter Uerpmann poses a scenario leading to domestication, that hunters might have brought orphaned animals back to their homes. Because mouflon are docile and cute as babies, they might have been kept at households long enough to reach sexual maturity and begin breeding. Sheep, course, were not simply bred for meat, but also provide milk and milk products, hide for leather, and later, wool.

Morphological changes in sheep that are recognized as signs of domestication include reduction in body size, female sheep lacking horns, and demographic profiles that include large percentages of young animals.

Sheep History and DNA

Prior to DNA and mtDNA studies, several different species (urial, mouflon, argali) were hypothesized as the ancestor of modern goats look a lot alike.

Parallel DNA and mtDNA studies of European, African and Asian domestic sheep suggest that there are three major and distinct lineages. These lineages are called Type A or Asian, Type B or European, and Type C, which has been identified in modern sheep from Turkey and China. All three types are believed to have been descended from different wild ancestor species of mouflon (Ovis gmelini spp), someplace in the Fertile Crescent. A Bronze Age sheep in China was found to belong to Type B, and is thought to have been introduced into China perhaps as early as 5000 BC.

African Sheep

Domestic sheep probably entered Africa in several waves through northeastern Africa and the Horn of Africa, the earliest beginning about 7700  BP. Four types of sheep are known in Africa today: thin-tailed with hair, thin-tailed with wool, fat-tailed and fat-rumped. North Africa has a wild form of sheep, the wild Barbary sheep (Ammotragus lervia), but they don't appear to have been domesticated or made up part of any domesticated variety today. The earliest evidence of domestic sheep in Africa is from Nabta Playa, beginning about 7700 BP; sheep are illustrated on Early Dynastic and Middle Kingdom murals and they appear in eastern Africa about 4500 BP (see Horsburgh and Rhines).

Considerable recent scholarship has been focused on the history of sheep in southern Africa. Sheep first appear in the archaeological record of southern Africa by ca. 2270 RCYBP, and examples of fat-tailed sheep are found on undated rock art in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Several  lineages of domestic sheep are found in modern herds in South Africa today, all sharing a common material ancestry,  probably from O. orientalis, and probably represent a single domestication event (see Muguai and Hanotte).

Sheep History and Archaeology

Archaeological sites with early evidence for sheep domestication include:


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Animal Domestications, and the Dictionary of Archaeology. See page two for a list of sources.

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