Our Relationship with Animals: It’s Complicated – Part II

Check out Part I, where we talk about the origins of the teddy bear, and how our view of animals as “beasts” have changed in the last century.

For this part, let us have a glimpse back to the very beginning of this interaction.

The dog is most likely to be the first animal to be domesticated, around 11,000 B.C. They were descendants from wolves and were presumably used for hunting wild animals. Nevertheless, we’re not going to particularly talk about dogs in this post, for they are worthy of their own later.

In this part, we’re going back to the very beginning of a more “settled” relationship, and more specifically, to the Mesopotamian region around 8,000 B.C. to the cradle of human civilization, where the first accounts of husbandry (the care, cultivation, and breeding of crops and animals) are recorded.

Mesopotamia was the home to many –once independent– tribes of people who came together to establish great civilizations: Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Persians, among others. The peoples of most of these civilizations were polytheistic (the belief in or worship of more than one god).

Many of the old civilizations worshipped heavenly bodies, like the sun and the moon. They tracked the positions and aspects of stars and planets, and believed that they have mystical influences over mundane events. Astrology and the zodiac evolved from these beliefs and were later adopted by many different cultures, including the Babylonians, Egyptians, Hindus, and early Chinese. The majority of the early zodiac constellations were represented by animals. The word zodiac is derived from the Greek phrase zodion kuklos, which means circle of little animals.


A section of ancient zodiacal constellations.

For many peoples of ancient civilizations also worshipped animals as gods, viewed them as embodiments of their gods, or key sacrifices for them.

The Sumerians, for instance, believed that examining the internal organs of sheep and goats could provide them with the power to infer their gods’ wishes. Livestock animals were often slaughtered in sacrificial rituals in attempts to appease the gods and goddesses, or to receive favors from them. This practice was common in other major cultures and religions.

Fun Fact: Sheep were so prevalent in the Sumerian economy that the Sumerians had over 200 words describing different kinds of them!

Another food source came into the seen around 7,000-6,000 B.C. in the form of cattle. At the time, these were still aurochs wandering about – the wild type of cattle, but were unfortunately soon hunted to extinction. Despite the wide domestication of cattle for food and hides, the peoples of Mesopotamia overlooked the value of milk and its dairy products until around 4,000 B.C. Oxen were also used in plowing farming lands, hauling wagons and chariots, and dragging boats against the river current.

Around 6,000 B.C., the donkey was domesticated in Northeast Africa, and helped the oxen with the heavy lifting, but also for riding.

Fun Fact: War chariots were pulled by donkeys in Ancient Sumeria.

Another animal, the horse, was arguably tamed between 5,500 and 4,000 B.C. quite a distance to the east, to nowadays southern Russia, somewhere between Mongolia and Kazakhstan. It was first domesticated for meat (no surprise here), but soon enough people taught themselves how to ride it, as they did its cousin the donkey hundreds of years before.

To the kings of Sumer however, the horse was initially seen as inferior to the donkey, but it soon became vital to the Assyrians in pulling chariots around 1,500 B.C. Not long after that, c. 1,000 B.C., the Assyrians had their first cavalry unit ready for battle, with two men riding a bareback horse (as no saddle have been invented yet), a horse guide and an archer on the back.

A new animal was introduced to the region from the Arabian peninsula around 2,000 – 1,000 B.C. The camel was used for riding and as a packing animal.

Wild animals were quite valuable as well to the Mesopotamian culture. There were failed attempts to domesticate the gazelle, but the hunting of this animal continued as a food source. Lions were also tracked down and killed, chiefly as a ritual of the king to show strength and legitimate power granted to him as a favor from the gods.

In conclusion, we touched upon some of the early domestication of animals, which alleviated the ancient Mesopotamian society. This is evident all throughout the history and culture of the peoples who inhabited this area, from the early farmers, to the fall of New Babylon, to the rise of the Persians in 539 B.C.

To be continued…

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