Musings about Man, Sheep and Wool
Little Children know:
Mary had a little lamb,
His fleece was white as snow,
But white fleecy sheep are a fairly recent development in the grand scheme of things. Man has been cultivating sheep only since the 9th millennium BC (about 10,500 years). But Mary would not recognise those early sheep. They were hairy brown and black animals much closer to today’s Ovis Orientalis and the Argali sheep of Asia.
Men started by hunting sheep and at some point about 10,500 years ago man made the realization that sheep could be caught and preserved alive rather than just dead as meat. Think of the first attempts at domestication as a primitive alternative to refrigeration. Obviously living sheep are less prone to spoilage.
On the question of early domestication I am drawn to an observation by Pliny the Elder on the character of Spanish and particularly the Corsican Musimons (Wild sheep like the big horned sheep).
|Ovis Ammon Nigrimontana AKA the Argali sheep of Asia.|
“Of all living creatures those that bear wool are the most foolish; for if one of them be drawn by the horn all the rest will follow, though otherwise they were afraid to go that way.” Pliny's Natural History. Book VIII, Chapter XLIX, Of the Musmon.
This is particularly pertinent since the latest genetic research indicates that all domestic sheep (Ovis Aries) descend from a mix of two clades most closely related to today’s Ovis Orientalis and Ovis Ammon Nigrimontana AKA the Argali sheep of Asia.
See Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences Journal ListProc Biol Sciv.269(1494); 2002 May 7 “Molecular analysis of wild and domestic sheep questions current nomenclature and provides evidence for domestication from two different subspecies.” Stefan Hiendleder, Bernhard Kaupe, Rudolf Wassmuth, and Axel Janke.
What Pliny the Elder observed fits perfectly with what we know today as the “Judas Goat” phenomena. Certain animals particularly sheep but even cattle will follow another animal even to their own detriment. This explains why outside of the dog sheep are believed to be the first animals domesticated by man.
I remember years ago when I met the venerable EJW Barber professor of archaeology and linguistics at Occidental College in Los Angeles and witnessed a fascinating and vigorus discussion between Barber and the noted author John Wertime.
This was at Barber’s address to the International Hajji Baba Society in Washington DC. in the late 1990s. In the question and answer period John wanted to link the earliest wool weaving to the Mediterranean region or at least to the Fertile Crescent of South West Asia. Barber was quite adamant that the earliest wool weaving was to the East. She insisted that the older the evidence the further east the evidence was found. Could this mean that the Argali clade held the vital docility wool gene. Perhaps.
We can tell man’s relationship to sheep through archeological records. The process is by bone distribution analysis. Without getting overly technical by recording the age and sex of the sheep by the bone distribution in prehistoric encampments archeologists can tell the relationship between man and the sheep. In the oldest encampments the sheep bones indicate that they were hunted. Then they were captured and harvested. In the first efforts to domesticated sheep we see more young lambs growing older then would be expected then with sheep hunted in the wild.
Over time we see a shift which represents early mans realization that sheep could be used as dairy animals. Again shifts in the bones as female sheep were preserved not only to have more lambs but also preserved for the milk, butter and cheese that they could produce. In a dairy flock only enough rams are preserved to deal with the requirements to perpetuate the flock. Male sheep are harvested before female sheep since the females have a greater value due to the dairy considerations. Wethers or castrated male sheep have no values and males are not only available but preferable to be harvested as meat. Only later when wool was a factor was their an impetus to castrate the wethers so by analysing the bones discarded at an encampment the archeologists can tell us how the flock was managed and used.
If we divide the stages of man and sheep we have four distinct stages:
- Captivation for Meat
- Meat and Dairy
- Meat, Dairy and Wool
Well into the third stage Meat and Dairy sheep were primarily hairy. Their coats were straight hair both long and short with a hard bristle mixed in which is called kemp. This kemp is stiff and rather similar to boar bristle such as we see used in hair brushes. Small amounts of wool usually white or lighter toned grew around the base of these fibers as an insulating fiber. Sheep had their heaviest wool in their winter coats. These early sheep molted losing their winter coat in the spring time.
An interesting phenomenon occurred as a result of the domestication. The wildest and most difficult sheep were culled from the herd. The reason is simple, docile sheep were more desirable. That being so the impetus is to eat the least desirable sheep first. This effectively created selective breeding of the most docile sheep. The gene that deals with docility is also the gene that affects the growth of wool. The more docile the sheep became the thicker the wool grew.
So with domestication beginning by the 9th millennium BC significant wool is seen by the 6th millennium BC and definite wooly sheep by the 4th millennium. We are now at a point where the most highly bred sheep such as the so-called Merino sheep have extremely fine wool with fibers of as little as 10 microns although most is 14.6 microns plus. For comparison Harris Tweed fibers are 25 – 30 microns and Carpet Wool is 35-45 Microns with wool from some tribal breeds in Afghanistan exceeding 45 microns. Keep in mind normal Caucasian human hair is about 60 microns for comparison.
Just a small note on the initial capture and cultivation of sheep. Sheep are often considered the second animal to be cultivated by man. The first is of course is the dog. Once man took unto himself the first dog hunting would follow as surely as day follows night. The first sheep captured alive was most probably boxed in by dogs and then confined by man. Earlier I speculated that steep sided gullies were the first pens. Let me add that I feel that the first sheep in those gullies were chased in by man and dog. Probably not long afterwards man trained sheep to lead other sheep into captivity.
Barber and Felt
At some point by at least 6,000 years ago man discovered that wool was useful and had a value in and of itself. Barber makes a fascinating conclusion in Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze ... By E. J. W. Barber page 24. Barber following Zeuner assumes that early sheep breeders would have either spun molted wool from the sheep’s winter coat because they knew how to spin a bast fiber such as flax or would have made it into felt with the gigantic assumption that they would have known how to make felt before they would have made wool felt. One can only wonder just what they would have felted in a stage before wool. Other scaled fibers will felt but the idea that there was knowledge of felt making before there was wool felt is unsupported by fact,
These ideas assume innovation and action on the part of the human sheep breeder. I will grant that Barber is following and did cite Zeuner on felt (A History of Domesticated Animals. By F. E. Zeuner D.Sc., Ph.D. Hutchinson, London, 1963.) But I have serious doubt.Let me propose another possibility that I feel may offer a greater probability. I call it the spontaneous unintended occurrence of felt. What I mean by this is sometimes felt just happens. The earliest animal pens for sheep were most likely narrow steep sided gullies. The animals would have been led or stampeded in and then a bush barricade would close off the opening. Before a use for the molted fibers was established it is likely that particularly in spring there would be an accumulation of wool, hair and kemp in that confined area from the molt. All it takes for felt is heat, agitation, pressure and moisture so left to their own devices it is likely that the sheep breeders would find clumps of felt in the enclosure. Finding the randomly occurring felt would then cause the breeders to find uses for it. The Barber/Zeuner idea that they knew how to spin or make felt and only then discovered wool strikes me as improbable. I note that Barber muddles felt and felted textiles in together. I see them as distinct and separate but I do note that she does make reference to unintended felting of textiles. But f course no one is suggesting that woven textiles preceded felt. Of course I do not want to seem critical of Barber since I really admire her work.