Domestication is the process of adapting wild plants and animals for human use. Domestic species are raised for food, work, clothing, medicine, and many other uses. Domesticated plants and animals must be raised and cared for by humans. Domesticated species are not wild.

Plant Domestication

People first domesticated plants about 10,000 years ago, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia (which includes the modern countries of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria). People collected and planted the seeds of wild plants. They made sure the plants had as much water as they needed to grow, and planted them in areas with the right amount of sun. Weeks or months later, when the plants blossomed, people harvested the food crops.

The first domesticated plants in Mesopotamia were wheat, barley, lentils, and types of peas. People in other parts of the world, including eastern Asia, parts of Africa, and parts of North and South America, also domesticated plants. Other plants that were cultivated by early civilizations included rice (in Asia) and potatoes (in South America).

Plants have not only been domesticated for food. Cotton plants were domesticated for fiber, which is used in cloth. Some flowers, such as tulips, were domesticated for ornamental, or decorative, reasons.

Animal Domestication

About the same time they domesticated plants, people in Mesopotamia began to tame animals for meat, milk, and hides. Hides, or the skins of animals, were used for clothing, storage, and to build tent shelters.

Goats were probably the first animals to be domesticated, followed closely by sheep. In Southeast Asia, chickens also were domesticated about 10,000 years ago. Later, people began domesticating larger animals, such as oxen or horses, for plowing and transportation. These are known as beasts of burden.

Domesticating animals can be difficult work. The easiest animals to domesticate are herbivores that graze on vegetation, because they are easiest to feed: They do not need humans to kill other animals to feed them, or to grow special crops. Cows, for instance, are easily domesticated. Herbivores that eat grains are more difficult to domesticate than herbivores that graze because grains are valuable and also need to be domesticated. Chickens are herbivores that eat seeds and grain.

Some animals domesticated for one purpose no longer serve that purpose. Some dogs were domesticated to assist people in hunting, for instance. There are hundreds of domestic dog species today. Many of them are still excellent hunters, but most are pets.

Throughout history, people have bred domesticated animals to promote certain traits. Domestic animals are chosen for their ability to breed in captivity and for their calm temperament. Their ability to resist disease and survive in difficult climates is also valuable.

Over time, these traits make domestic animals different from their wild ancestors. Dogs were probably domesticated from gray wolves. Today, dogs are a distinct species from gray wolves.

Domesticated animals can look very different from their wild ancestors. For example, early wild chickens weighed about two pounds. But over thousands of years of domestication, they have been bred to be larger. Larger chickens yield more meat. Today, domestic chickens weigh as much as 17 pounds. Wild chickens only hatched a small number of eggs once a year, while domestic chickens commonly lay 200 or more eggs each year.

Effects on Humans

Domesticating plants marked a major turning point for humans: the beginning of an agricultural way of life and more permanent civilizations. Humans no longer had to wander to hunt animals and gather plants for their food supplies.

Agriculture—the cultivating of domestic plants—allowed fewer people to provide more food. The stability that came with regular, predictable food production led to increased population density. People were able to do more than hunt for each day’s food—they could travel, trade, and communicate. The world's first villages and cities were built near fields of domesticated plants.

Plant domestication also led to advances in tool production. The earliest farming tools were hand tools made from stone. People later developed metal farming tools, and eventually used plows pulled by domesticated animals to work fields.

domestication
Only domesticated animals wear hats.

Dogs and Wolves
Though today's dogs were likely domesticated from gray wolves, they are now a distinct species. Dogs' scientific name is canis lupus familiaris, while the scientific name for gray wolves is canis lupus.

Wild Horses
The process of domestication continues. Cowboys and other horse experts train horses. Sometimes, this is called "breaking" a horse. Training a horse to allow a saddle and rider requires an enormous amount of physical work, training, and patience. Horses that are born on ranches or in stables still need to be trained, although training a young horse is easier than domesticating a horse caught in the wild.

adapt
Verb

to adjust to new surroundings or a new situation.

Noun

the art and science of cultivating land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).

ancestor
Noun

organism from whom one is descended.

animal
Noun

organisms that have a well-defined shape and limited growth, can move voluntarily, acquire food and digest it internally, and can respond rapidly to stimuli.

barley
Noun

grass cultivated as a grain.

beast of burden
Noun

animal used for carrying or pulling heavy loads.

break
Verb

to tame a horse, or make it comfortable with a saddle and rider.

breed
Verb

to produce offspring.

chicken
Noun

domestic bird cultivated for meat, eggs, and feathers.

city
Noun

large settlement with a high population density.

Noun

complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.

Noun

all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

communicate
Verb

to exchange knowledge, thoughts, or feelings.

cotton
Noun

cloth made from fibers of the cotton plant.

cow
Noun

large, domesticated mammal used for milk and meat.

cowboy
Noun

person who herds cattle on a ranch, usually on a horse.

Noun

agricultural produce.

dog
Noun

domestic animal related to the wolf.

Noun

the process of adapting wild plants or animals for human use.

enormous
Adjective

very large.

fiber
Noun

long, thin, threadlike material produced by plants that aids digestive motion when consumed.

goat
Noun

hoofed mammal domesticated for its milk, coat, and flesh.

Noun

harvested seed of such grasses as wheat, oats, and rice.

graze
Verb

to feed on grass, usually over a wide pasture.

grey wolf
Noun

mammal related to the dog.

harvest
Noun

the gathering and collection of crops, including both plants and animals.

Noun

organism that eats mainly plants and other producers.

hide
Noun

leather skin of an animal.

horse
Noun

type of domesticated mammal used for riding and hauling.

hunt
Verb

to pursue and kill an animal, usually for food.

lentil
Noun

plant with small, flat seeds, native to Asia.

Mesopotamia
Noun

ancient region between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, today lying mostly in Iraq.

metal
Noun

category of elements that are usually solid and shiny at room temperature.

ornamental
Adjective

decorative or presented for beauty.

patience
Noun

ability to deal with pain, misfortune, or annoyance without complaint.

pea
Noun

plant with a pod bearing small, round seeds.

permanent
Adjective

constant or lasting forever.

plant
Noun

organism that produces its own food through photosynthesis and whose cells have walls.

plow
noun, verb

tool used for cutting, lifting, and turning the soil in preparation for planting.

population density
Noun

the number of people living in a set area, such as a square mile.

potato
Noun

plant native to the Americas.

predictable
Adjective

regular or able to be forecasted.

process
Noun

natural or human actions that create and change the Earths features.

ranch
Noun

large farm on which livestock are raised.

resist
Verb

to oppose or confront.

rice
Noun

grass cultivated for its seeds.

saddle
Noun

seat for a rider on a horse.

seed
Noun

part of a plant from which a new plant grows.

sheep
Noun

type of mammal with thick, strong wool used for cloth.

shelter
Noun

structure that protects people or other organisms from weather and other dangers.

stable
Adjective

steady and reliable.

stable
Noun

building where horses or other animals are kept.

storage
Noun

space for keeping materials for use at a later time.

tame
Verb

to domesticate or make useful for humans.

temperament
Noun

traits or personality of an individual.

tool
Noun

instrument used to help in the performance of a task.

trade
Noun

buying, selling, or exchanging of goods and services.

trait
Noun

characteristic or aspect.

transportation
Noun

movement of people or goods from one place to another.

travel
Noun

movement from one place to another.

tulip
Noun

colorful, cup-shaped flower native to Asia.

Noun

small human settlement usually found in a rural setting.

wheat
Noun

most widely grown cereal in the world.

wild
Adjective

living in nature, not tame.