Sheep and goats are assumed to be the oldest domestic livestock. Sheep are bred in different areas around the world from lowlands to mountains and from tropics to cold north moorlands. They are exceptionally acclimatized to extreme conditions. They are also very useful, providing meat, milk, tallow, wool, fur, leather, horn, lanolin, dung, and they carry loads in Tibet. No culture or religion forbids killing sheep or eating sheep meat.
The exact origin of the domestic sheep is not clear because all wild sheep in the genus Ovis are fertile when bred together and zoologists still do not agree about their taxonomy. Two groups of wild sheep are considered as having first undergone domestication. They differ in the size of the body and in their habitats. The arkhar or argali sheep (O. ammon) is the representative of the "mountain" group. It has six subspecies and it lives in central Asia in altitudes ranging from 16,500 to 19,500 ft (5,030-5,940 m). The Asiatic mouflon (O. orientalis) and the urial sheep (O. vignei) are members of the "steppe" group of wild sheep. They also have several subspecies and live in lower regions from west Asia to northwest India. The European mouflon (O. musimon syn. O. ammon musimon) is a special case. It comes from Corsica and Sardinia and it was assumed to be the progenitor of domestic sheep for a long time. However it is itself a feral form of the early Neolithic domestic sheep, which came with humans to Corsica 9,000 years ago. The question of domestic sheep progenitors is still debated. With certainty we can eliminate only the species that were not domesticated. These are the American bighorn sheep (O. canadensis), Dall's sheep (O. dalli), and the Siberian snow sheep (O. nivicola), which were not "in the right place at the right time." All other species are good candidates.
Almost 14,000-year-old paintings from the La Pileta cave in Spain show sheep and goats in a corral. It takes a long time for wild sheep, which were kept in simple corrals, to become truly domestic animals. The oldest findings of domestic sheep come from the north Iran mountains (Zawi Chemi Shanidar) and date from 9000 B.C. However, there were certainly more areas of domestication in western Asia at that time. In 4000 B.C., domestic sheep were bred throughout the civilized world. At first they gave only meat, milk, and leather, and only later did wool sheep appear, though only with short and rough wool (in Mesopotamia around 3000 B.C.). In the first millenium, sheep spread all over Europe, Africa (except in primeval forest areas), and Asia (to Sulawesi). At that time sheep with white, longer wool were common, with four horns or without horns (known from ancient Egyptian frescos). Sheep from antique Greece and Rome resembled modern breeds. The number of sheep breeds today ranges between 550 to 630. They are categorized according to wool type, tail length, fat deposits, or utility. There are no existing feral sheep populations except that of the European mouflon and the Soay sheep.
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