The Origin of Table Meat: Wildlife on the Dinner Plate

How wild animals turned into breakfast, lunch and dinner

  • Roger Di Silvestro
One place where most Americans are not likely to look for wildlife is the dinner table, but in fact the echo of the wilderness, of wildlife and of wildlife habitat, is right there in most meals. That beef steak?  That Thanksgiving turkey?  That leg of lamb and roasted chicken?  They 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.

Scientists who study the origin of domestic animals do so 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 that grew up in captivity 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? Hard to tell, which is why it is also hard to tell exactly when wild animals became our domestic partners. Nevertheless, through DNA analysis and other methods, scientists have begun to figure out quite a bit about the animals we eat. 
 Recent studies suggest that domestication of a wild species, which scientists traditionally have thought was a long process across many centuries, may in fact occur relatively fast. Researchers in Russia, for example, have found that by selecting only very tame individuals for breeding, captive wild silver foxes took on the look of domestication—which for canines means floppy ears, variable fur color, changes in breeding cycles, friendliness and tail wagging—in just 20 years.

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, though the domestic version does carry some genes from related birds, such as grey 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.

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 and took them back 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 bird 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 the West all the way into New England woods. 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.

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, but that later on, wild boars 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.

The sheep was one of the first animals to be domesticated, descended from the wild mouflon sheep of Mesopotamia—which looks like North America’s bighorn sheep—about 9,000 to 11,000 years ago. They were a good choice for early domestication because even in the wild they tend to follow leaders, and they 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. 

The origin of beefsteak and hamburger is murky. Evidence suggests that cattle from the Near East were domesticated about 8,000 years ago and 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.

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