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Goats (Capra hircus) were among the first domesticated animals, adapted from the wild bezoar ibex (Capra aegagrus) in western Asia. Bezoar ibexes are native to the southern slopes of the Zagros and Taurus mountains in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. Evidence shows that goats spread globally and played an important role in the advancement of Neolithic agricultural technology wherever they went. Today, over 300 breeds of goats live on every continent except Antarctica. They thrive in an astonishing range of environments, from human settlements and tropical rainforests to dry, hot deserts and cold, hypoxic high altitudes. Because of this variety, the domestication history was somewhat obscure until the development of DNA research.
Where goats originated
From between 10 000 and 11 000 before present (BP), Neolithic farmers in areas of the Middle East and Western Asia started keeping small herds of ibexes for their milk and meat. Their dung was used for fuel, and their hair, bone, skin, and sinew were used for clothing and building materials. Domestic goats were recognised archaeologically by:
• Their presence and abundance in regions well beyond western Asia.
• Perceived changes in their body size and shape (morphology).
• Differences in demographic profiles from feral groups.
• Stable isotope evidence of dependence on year-round fodders.
Archaeological data suggests two distinct places of domestication: the Euphrates river valley at Nevali Çori, Turkey (11 000 BP), and the Zagros Mountains of Iran at Ganj Dareh (10 000 BP). Other possible sites of domestication posed by archaeologists included the Indus Basin in Pakistan at Mehrgarh (9 000 BP), central Anatolia, the southern Levant, and China.
Divergent goat lineages
Studies on mitochondrial DNA sequences indicate there are four highly divergent goat lineages today. This would mean either that there were four domestication events, or that there is a broad level of diversity that was always present in the bezoar ibex. Additional studies suggest the extraordinary variety of genes in modern goats arose from one or more domestication events from the Zagros and Taurus mountains and the southern Levant, followed by interbreeding and continued development in other places. A study on the frequency of genetic haplotypes (gene variation packages) in goats suggests that there may have been a Southeast Asian domestication event as well. It’s also possible that, during the transport to Southeast Asia via the steppe region of central Asia, goat groups developed extreme bottlenecks which resulted in fewer variations.
Goat domestication processes
Researchers looked at stable isotopes in goat and gazelle bones from two sites on either side of the Dead Sea in Israel: Abu Ghosh (the Middle pre-pottery Neolithic B [PPNB] site) and Basta – the Late PPNB site. They showed that gazelles (used as a control group) eaten by the occupants of the two sites maintained a consistently wild diet, but goats from the later Basta site had a significantly different diet than goats from the earlier site.
The main difference in the oxygen- and nitrogen-stable isotopes of the goats suggests that Basta goats had access to plants that were from a wetter environment than where they were eaten. This would likely result from the goats being either herded to wetter environments during some part of the year or provided fodder from those environments. This indicates that people managed goats – herding them from pasture to pasture or feeding them, or both – by as early as around 9 950 calibrated years BP. This would have been part of a process that began earlier still, perhaps during early PPNB (10 450 to 10 050 calibrated years BP) and coinciding with reliance on plant cultivars.
Goats in South Africa
When we mention the founding of the South African (SA) Boer Goat Breeders’ Association in 1959 and the preceding era, we immediately commemorate three people. They coincidentally had the same first name, Theunis.
The first was the late Theunis Jordaan, or TB Jordaan of Buffelsfontein, Somerset East. He was renowned as a breeder and judge of Friesians, Merinos and his beloved Boer goats. One morning we visited the farm Karkotskraal, to the south of Somerset East, where a flock of Boer goat ewes was grazing. The old man who looked after the goats, Antoon Fourie, was a veteran of the Anglo-Boer War. When we drove into the yard, the goats were on their way to the kraal. Approximately 50m away from us they stopped, sniffed the air with their heads alert and inquisitively approached us in their creaking boots, as only a Boer goat can. What a sight!
It was a flock of approximately 400 ewes – all of them white with red heads and good conformation. And one looked exactly like the other. That day I realised that this man owns something that could rock the world. It was some nine years before the establishment of the SA Boer Goat Breeders’ Association. This stud of TB Jordaan, of which he was stud master from 1930 to 1960, was the first Boer goat stud in the country that was registered as such.
This is the information he chronicled himself: “This stud of ennobled Boer goats was founded in the year 1931, with the purchase of one ram from the late Jeremias Triegaardt of the farm Van Wyksvlei, Bedford, and half of the Boer goat ewes that belonged to the partnership WG Jordaan and Sons, of which I was a partner. Around 1918 my father, the late WG Jordaan, bought 15 goat ewes from Mrs Van de Venter of the farm Slot, district Somerset East. They were white smooth-coated goat ewes with light red heads. Then he bought a ram from the late IB van Heerden of Kaalplaas, Cradock. It was a particularly large red-dappled ram, with a strong constitution. These goats were therefore the foundation of the current stud. More or less sixty years ago many farmers each had a few Boer goats.
“In those days, however, they were all the colours of the rainbow and many were long-haired. The only feature people then considered was constitution. The colour, evenness, uniformity and pigmentation did not matter at all. In 1925, while I was in Australia, my father and my brother, who was also a partner in the business, bought two rams from Triegaardt.”
TB Jordaan was the first chairperson of the Boer Goat Breeders’ Association – an office he managed with dignity and competence from 1959 to 1968. It was not an easy road and at some meetings, he had to hold a tight rein because some members had strong personalities and sometimes wanted to impose their own views of what the Boer goat should look like. A reconnoitre of the minutes of the annual general meetings of that time relates the story of stormy decision-making around the Boer goat. I attended some of the meetings in those days and I remember the vehement discussions on the colour of the goat!
Goats are primarily browsers, not grazers, so they thrive on brush, leaves, and coarse plants that other species leave behind or can’t digest. Goats can stand on their hindlegs to browse low-hanging tree branches that are up to six or seven feet off the ground. They’re strong climbers, too, so they can forage in steep places where sheep and cows won’t venture. They can cover great distances looking for food, and will tolerate extremes in temperature and handle heat stress and prolonged water deprivation when they must.
As Thomas Bewick observed in A General History of Quadrupeds as far back as 1792: “The goat is an animal easily sustained and is, therefore, chiefly the property of those who inhabit wild and uncultivated regions, where it finds an ample supply of food from spontaneous productions of nature, in situations inaccessible to other creatures.” – Michelle Kruger, SA Boer Goat Breeders’ Association
South Africa contributes almost 50% to the Southern African goat population with approximately 5,62 million animals distributed throughout nine provinces. Approximately two million of these animals are found in the Eastern Cape, almost 1 million in Limpopo and just over 700 000 in KwaZulu-Natal. The remaining provinces share the remaining 1,8 million animals. The Angora goat population of approximately 640 000 goats is the major contributor to the income generated in the formal goat sector. This population supplies more than 50% of the global mohair clip. The commercial meat goat industry, consisting of the Boer, Savanna and Kalahari Red breeds, comprises 1,3 million goats with commercial dairy goats being the smallest sector, with approximately 4 000 registered dairy goats. The majority (approximately 63%) of South African goats consist of unimproved indigenous veld goats in the non-commercialised agricultural sector and are kept in small-scale conditions.