Sheep & the Rise of Homosapiens

Sheep have been ingrained into a wide array of cultures, religions, stories, parables and metaphors that represent what it means to be human. They leap through the minds of insomniacs, mindlessly follow others, are the future of cloning, appear on stained glass windows and sometimes hang out with lions in ill-advised relationships.

They descended from roaming wild mouflon with mighty horns, in what we now call the Middle East, including modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, east Syria and south-east Turkey.

Early Mesopotamian civilisations (Between 11,000 and 9000 BC) found out that it was to their advantage to only hunt adult rams and old or sick sheep, sparing fertile females and young lambs in order to preserve the long-term vitality of the herd. Then, as the mouflon became a more established part of their diets, humans started actively trying to protect their new food source from wild animals (and other hunting groups).

Researchers looking into the human shift from hunter gatherer to agricultural societies have long had their eyes on a site: Aşıklı Höyük, located on the banks of the Melendiz River in central Turkey—a land of idyllic streams and dramatic volcanic formations. This region, with fertile soils ideal for crop farming, tempted early farmers to settle down and establish a permanent village. Humans began to selectively breed cereal grasses like barley and wheat, spending the vast amount of their days growing, watering, and taking care of their crops.

Meat was such an important part of their diet, that people had to find a better (and faster) way to access it; day-long hunts were no longer an option. The “scheduling conflict” between hunting and farming was best solved by bringing the sheep to the village rather than villagers going out to find the sheep.

Bones and dung deposits found at the site, suggest by about 9500 years ago, sheep represented nearly 90% of all animals there. Moreover, the researchers say that the age and sex pattern of the bones indicate active management, or herding of the sheep.

Other than being a delicious (and nutritious) part of a diet, the secondary advantages of sheep domestication became even more clear as time passed. Sheep provided dung for crop manure, bone for the creation of needles and arrows, fat for tallow candles, milk for dairy consumption, and wool for clothing.

Selection based on environmental tolerance, behavioural, and commercial traits has led to the development of more than 1,400 breeds of sheep. A few of which have formed the lamb at Always Grazing (Swaledales, Leicester Bluefaces and Beltexs).

Sheep have been alongside us every step of the way in our growth to the modern humans we are today. We can continue to learn from their community-based survival mechanism of sticking together in a flock. Their strength is much greater in numbers and their comfort and survival is enhanced as a group rather than as individuals.