Home for the Holidays: The Wild Origins of Table Meat

from Wildlife Promise

Most Americans are not likely to look for wildlife on their dinner tables, but in fact the echo of the wilderness—of wildlife and of wildlife habitat—is right there in most meals. That beef steak?  That Christmas ham?  That leg of lamb and roast chicken? All had to come from somewhere, and that somewhere wasn’t originally a grocery story. Via the byways of domestication—the process that turns wild animals into barnyard creatures—the meat on our dinner tables came from plains, forest and even jungle.

Longhorn by Nathan E. Woodward

Longhorn cattle descended from livestock brought to Mexico and Texas by earlier Spanish stockgrowers reverted to half-wild behavior and could be dangerous to a person on foot.

Domestication

Scientists study the origin of domestic animals by looking at bones dug up at sites of early human settlements. The main problem: Telling a wild animal from an early domestic one isn’t easy. True, in the confines of captivity, animals change. They may become less robust; for example, their teeth may become smaller. But when looking at a 10,000-year-old Middle Eastern farm site, archaeologists may find the bones of wild species so early in the domestication process that they had not yet changed into the currently recognized domestic forms. So, are the bones of wild sheep found at an early farming site the remains of animals killed in the wild and eaten at home, or are they early domestics born and raised in a corral?

Despite this difficulty, scientists have used DNA analysis and other methods to begin figuring out quite a bit about domestic animals. Recent studies suggest domestication may occur relatively fast. For example, researchers in Russia who selectively bred formerly wild silver foxes in captivity found that by choosing only naturally tame animals, the little canines took on the look of doggy domestication in just 20 years, including such traits a floppy ears, variable fur color, changes in breeding cycles, friendliness and tail wagging.

Now let’s look at the origins of creatures we might think of as table domestics.

Chicken

Colonel Sanders’ fried bird of choice is descended from Asia’s red jungle fowl, a colorful wild chicken that looks much like some barnyard hens or roosters. In fact, the domestic chicken is considered the same species as the red jungle fowl. The domestic chicken is likely descended from wild birds in Thailand and nearby regions. Domestication in Vietnam can be traced back 10,000 years. Travelers carried the domestic chicken to China by 6000 B.C. and to India and eastern Europe by 3000 B.C. Egypt had them by 1400 B.C. but used them mainly for cockfighting. However, in Greece the tradition of eating them was well established by 400 B.C. Today, some 50 billion chickens are produced yearly worldwide, making the chicken the most numerous bird on the planet.

Wild turkey by Steven Akre

A wild tom (male) turkey struts his stuff, showing what he's made of in an effort to catch a hen's eye.

Turkey

Here’s an all-American bird, first domesticated about 2,000 years ago in southern Mexico and in what today is the U.S. Southwest. Spanish explorers in the 1500s found the big birds—they can weigh upwards of 20 pounds in the wild—being kept by the Aztecs in what is now Mexico City. The Spaniards took turkeys to Europe, where they were raised in captivity and became a popular food. These domestic birds were later brought back to the eastern United States by colonists. Though the turkey did well as a domestic, it fared poorly in the wild. In the era of uncontrolled hunting, it was shot nearly to extinction throughout much of its original range, which ran from New England woods all the way into the Far West. Restoration programs by state wildlife agencies, beginning in the 1920s, saved the bird, which is now common in many areas where it had been exterminated.

Red river hog by Nicola J. Williscroft

A red river sow and piglet take a nap.

Pigs

Archeological finds indicate that pigs were domesticated at several times at several places in Europe and Asia. Some evidence suggests that domestic pigs were first brought to Europe from the Middle East. Later, however, wild hogs native to Europe were domesticated and became the ancestors of today’s European domestic pigs. Domestic hogs number about 2 billion worldwide, making them the most numerous of the world’s 13 pig species. Interesting facts: Pigs lack sweat glands and so seek water to keep cool; they also use a coating of mud to prevent sunburn.

Sheep

The sheep was one of the first domesticated animals, dating to between 9,000 and 11,000 years ago and descended from Mesopotamia’s wild mouflon sheep, which looks like North America’s bighorn sheep. Mouflon were a good choice for early domestication because even in the wild they tend to follow leaders and are not aggressive. These two factors made them easy to tame and control. Domestic sheep number about 1 billion today, far more than all five wild sheep species combined. 

Hereford cow by Belle Connor

A Hereford cow in North Carolina. Meat breeds like the Hereford are descended from wild European cattle.

Cattle

The origin of beefsteak and hamburger is murky. Evidence suggests that farmers in the Near East domesticated cattle about 8,000 years ago. These animals later reached Europe and Africa, where people crossbred them with native wild species to give rise to European and African domestic cattle breeds. Domestication of yet another species of wild cattle in Asia more than 7,000 years ago produced the humped species of that region, collectively called zebu and seen in rodeos as Brahma bulls.