Origin and Spread of Goat Pastoralism


Goats were the first wild herbivores to be domesticated in the Near East around 11 000 years ago at the beginning of the revolutionary transition from hunter‐gatherer to agriculture‐based societies. Ever since that time, goats have fulfilled a vital economic, cultural and religious role in many human civilisations. A collaborative research effort that integrates genetics and archaeology has vastly expanded our ability not only to detect the context, locations and timing of initial goat domestication but also to trace the migratory trajectories used by humans to spread this farm animal worldwide. The successful geographical diffusion and exponential growth of goat populations around the world clearly demonstrate the remarkable adaptability of this ruminant species to extreme climates and difficult terrains and offer an excellent opportunity to assess the rise and fall of human migratory and commercial networks during historical times.

Key Concepts:

  • Animal domestication was one of the most important events in human history.

  • Goats (Capra hircus) were probably first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent region of the Near East around 11 000 years ago from the bezoar goat (Capra aegagrus).

  • Studies of archaeological assemblages suggest that the transition from the hunting to the herding of goats was a long‐term process.

  • Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is the most widely used genetic tool in the study of goat populations.

  • The domestication of goats involved multiple maternal lineages carrying considerable pre‐existing mtDNA diversity.

  • Goats were taken to nearly every corner of the world alongside humans in migratory movements.

  • Goats are the most adaptable and geographically widespread livestock species.

Keywords: Capra; domestic goat; domestication; neolithic; pastoralism; migrations; animal genetics; mitochondrial DNA; Y‐chromosome; zooarchaeology

Figure 1.

Photos illustrating the capacity of domestic goats to survive in areas where water is scarce and food sources are limited in their quantity and quality. Some goats are capable of climbing trees in search of leaves or fresh buds (top; photos from a Moroccan goat population). Two representatives of domestic goat breeds from Portugal and Morocco (bottom left and right, respectively). Photo courtesy of Fouad Nejmeddine, Faiq Abdellatif and collaborators from the veterinary service of Taroudannt (Morocco).

Figure 2.

The origin and dispersal of domestic goats worldwide. Approximate dates (years before present) for the first appearance of domestic goats in a specific region and the main routes of their initial diffusion are indicated. The shaded area in Southwest Asia indicates the western portion of the current distribution of bezoar goats (Capra aegagrus). Adapted from Mason , Smith , Bogucki , Shackleton and Zeder .

Figure 3.

Median‐joining network for mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) haplogroups based on 22 reference sequences selected according to Naderi et al.. The mtDNA control region sequences (453 base pairs) were aligned using Muscle v3.6 (http://www.drive5.com/muscle/) and the network was constructed with Network (http://www.fluxus‐technology.com/) using default parameters.

Figure 4.

Dates and events associated with the origin and diffusion of goat pastoralism worldwide.



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Further Reading

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Pereira, Filipe, and Amorim, António(Sep 2010) Origin and Spread of Goat Pastoralism. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0022864]