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Animals In Ancient Mesopotamian Life
Animals were very important to the people of Ancient Mesopotamia. This essay takes a look at some of the different kinds of animals used by these peoples, and the ways in which they used them.
Likely the first animal to be domesticated, in around 11,000 B.C., was the dog. Dogs descended from wolves, and were probably used for hunting wild animals. The Saluki, a lean sighthound (a hunting dog that uses its sight) seems to have originated in Mesopotamia around 7,000-6,000 B.C., and stone carvings from this era depict these greyhound-like dogs.
Sources vary on the date of the domestication of sheep, however, it seems that it was sometime between 11,000 and 8,000 B.C. In Mesopotamia both the sheep and the goat, which was first domesticated around 10,000 B.C. in the Zagros Mountains in Iraq, were important, for food, and also milk, hides, and fleece. The formed a large part of the Sumerian economy, and, in fact, they were so prevalent that they had over 200 words describing different kinds of sheep!
Another food source came in the form of cattle, domesticated around 7,000-6,000 B.C. Their wild versions, aurochs, were unfortunately soon hunted to extinction. Despite the use of cattle as food and for hides, the Mesopotamians did not discover the usefulness of milk for drinking and in the making of dairy products until around 4,000 B.C. Oxen were also used to pull plows, haul wagons, and drag boats against the river current.
Around 6,000 B.C., the donkey was domesticated in Northeast Africa. Donkeys were used to pull chariots, carry heavy loads, and also for riding. Ancient reliefs show donkeys pulling war chariots as well.
In southern Russia, somewhere around Mongolia, or possibly Kazakhstan, another animal was being tamed; the horse. The debate continues as to its date of domestication, but sources say somewhere between 5,500 and 4,000 B.C. At first, it was simply used for meat, but soon people learned to ride it and harness it, as they did its cousin the donkey. The horse was, initially, seen as inferior to the donkey, which was the animal of choice for the kings of Sumer, but it became vital to the Assyrians, as, in 1,500 B.C. it was used to pull the first war chariots, and shortly thereafter, in c. 1,000 B.C. the Assyrians put together the first cavalry unit, with horses ridden bareback (the saddle had not yet been invented) and double, the front man guiding the horse, and the other shooting the arrows.
Camels were introduced to the area from Arabia around 2000-1000 B.C., and they were ridden or used as pack animals.
Wild animals were also an important part of the Mesopotamian culture. They hunted gazelle, and there may even have been attempts to domesticate them, which ultimately failed, though this animal continued to be a food source for them. The lion hunt was a ritual of the king to show his strength in protecting his people, and that he had the gods’ favor, so his power was legitimate and approved.
In conclusion, animals formed a large part of Ancient Mesopotamian society. This is evident throughout the history of the cultures who populated this area, from the first farmers to the fall of New Babylon to the Persians in 539 B.C. Though they are now gone, the Mesopotamian legacy lived on in the form of their many inventions, including the plow, the wheel, writing, and the cavalry unit.
Cultural Atlas For Young People: Ancient Mesopotamia (3rd Edition) by Erica C. D. Hunter, copyright 2007 The Brown Reference Group plc.
Ancient Mesopotamia by Virginia Schomp, copyright 2004 Scholastic Inc.
http://archeaology.about.com, www.dairygoatjournal.com, www.softpedia.com, www.gatewaystobabylon.com