Domestication refers to the process of making some species of wild animals and plants more suitable for human use. By domesticating plants and animals, some human societies began to change from hunter-gatherer groups, which relied on a changing environment for daily food, to farming, which asserted more control on the environment. This is sometimes called the Agricultural Revolution. Domestication began one of the most dramatic revolutions in how people ate, moved, and lived.
Domestication started around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, which includes parts of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. Einkorn wheat, barley, chickpeas, lentils, and flax were some of the earliest domesticated species. Some archaeologists, like National Geographic Explorer Melinda A. Zeder, use genetic testing to study plants and bones found in ancient sites to learn more about this early domestication.
Domestication happened in North America with maize, and in Asia with rice, between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago. Domesticated plants and animals spread across Europe, Africa, Asia, North America, and South America over the next 2,000 years.
The domestication process began when people chose wild plants that would be useful for eating or making clothing, harvested their seeds, and deliberately planted them. Over time, people took seeds from farmed plants, which had desirable qualities like taste or size, and used these seeds to grow the next year’s crop. Slowly, these plants provide increasingly more of the traits desired by humans and becoming very different from the wild plants they came from.
Animals were chosen for their human-valued products like fur, meat, and milk, or for their abilities to help humans with their labors. The animals were bred selectively with other members of their species to ensure that offspring would possess only the most useful traits for humans. Domestication represents a species-wide genetic change from wild animals, rather than just the taming of individual animals. A tiger cub raised by humans is not domesticated, because it still has the genetics of a wild animal. However, a house cat is domesticated because the species cannot survive without human help, and has been genetically affected by human actions.
Domesticated plants and animals are often seen as part of a sedentary farming society, where members remain in a single location. However, hunter-gatherers also domesticate animals. Dogs and horses are useful for hunting and transportation in tribes that travel across vast expanses. Goats, sheep, and cattle are also domesticated by nomadic people.
In many ways, domestication made life easier for human societies. Plant domestication meant there would be an abundant and reliable source of food for farmers. Animal domestication meant less hunting, and different foods, like milk, were available. Plants like cotton and flax, and animals like sheep and cows, could be used to make clothing. Horses, cows, and camels transported people, while dogs and cats served as companions and performed household tasks, such as killing rodents.
Not every society began farming after learning of domesticated plants, for reasons like an unsuitable environment or cultural practices. However, the domestication of plants and animals was an extraordinary tool, which had a profound impact on human development.