The First Domesticated Animals Weren't What You'd Expect

Heard of the Darwin Awards? Given, sort of, to people who behave ... perhaps less intelligently than we might all hope from our neighbors, and do so to such an extent that they sort of, well, remove themselves from the gene pool, so to speak. Some would call it natural selection, after Charles Darwin's observation that nature tends to reward the best and brightest with the best trophy of all: survival. There's also the scientific observation of artificial selection, as the National Academy of Sciences tells us: "selection of advantageous natural variation for human ends," what's often referred to as domesticating something, plant or animal (though in the case of one cat we know, the line is kind of blurred).

Lack of photographic evidence aside, we know that human beings have been bending other creatures to our will for quite some time now. Plants have been domesticated since around 10,000 years ago, in Mesopotamia, as National Geographic reports. (Mesopotamia was an ancient empire in Western Asia, centered around the Tigris-Euphrates river system — roughly present-day Iraq, Turkey, Kuwait, and Syria, says History.) Plants were first grown intentionally around 9500 BCE, says Encyclopedia Britannica. That's around the same time that animals were being domesticated for agricultural use, says National Geographic and others.

Goats and sheep lead the parade

Agricultural livestock weren't the first domesticated animals, as just about everyone agrees. Dogs were first, as the American Museum of Natural History tells us — about 15,000 years ago, in Asia, though some estimates range from 13,000-30,000 years ago, says Slate. Dogs would have been helpful in hunting, protection, as living early-warning systems of predators.

Livestock, however, came later — beasts of burden, and animals raised for their productivity, like milk, or meat, or hides. Again, we turn to Mesopotamia for the evidence; from what we've gathered through archaeological research, the Mesopotamians started domesticating animals as livestock — artificial selection — around the same time as they were creating domesticated plants — more artificial selection — about 10,000 years ago. Which came first? It seems to be a close race in the Middle East between goats and sheep, says National Geographic. Cattle and pigs joined the farm about 8,000 years ago, and horses in Central Asia about 6,000 years ago. Llamas were domesticated in Peru about 4,500 years ago.

You're probably wondering about cats. They became part of the team relatively recently, in Egypt, about 4,000 years ago. There are those who would suggest that cats have never actually been domesticated; instead, they've domesticated us. It's early yet.