The History of Goats and People

Goats have been companions to man almost since the beginning of human
civilization. The goat was one of the earliest animals to be domesticated. (Both
goats and sheep lay claim to being the earliest herd animals.) Early hunter-gatherers drank goat’s milk and soon learned to make cheese. Archaeologists
have found evidence that goats were being kept, rather than hunted, about
10,000 B.C. at Ganj Dareh, a Neolithic village in western Iran. Mounds of
domestic goat bones unearthed at Jericho have been carbon-dated to 7000 to
6000 B.C.

DNA findings released in 2001 suggest goats may have been domesticated in
other regions of the world as well. Gordon Luikart of the University Joseph
Fourier in Grenoble, France, and his colleagues speculate that another goat strain
found in the Indian subcontinent, Mongolia, and Southeast Asia is descended
from a she-goat tamed about 9,000 years ago in an area of Pakistan called
Baluchistan, in the Indus Valley. Archaeological evidence suggests that
Baluchistan was a major center of domestication. A third unrelated strain, of as a
yet-undetermined origin, is believed to have been the ancestor of today’s Swiss,
Mongolian, and Slovenian breeds.

Domestic goats are thought to have shaped the development of human
civilization by providing a portable supply of meat and milk that allowed hunter-gatherers to become agricultural nomads. Goats were small, easy to handle, and
able to thrive in arid, semi-tropical and mountainous areas where horses, cattle,
and other larger herbivores could not survive. Their skins supplied leather and
pelts for robes and rugs. The woolly fur of goats was woven into the earliest
cloth, and goat horns were made into drinking vessels, ornaments, and musical
instruments. Goats carried their owners’ belongings on their backs or pulled
them on sledges as they traveled from region to region. Young kids were used as
sacrificial animals for religious rites. Goats achieved mythical stature as fertility
gods; the Greek god of forests and flocks, Pan, was born with the legs, tail, and
horns of a goat; and the Teutons believed that the chariot of Thor, the thunder
god, was pulled through the heavens by two he-goats.
Domesticated goats spread west from the Fertile Crescent across Europe and
eventually into Great Britain, sometimes escaping and establishing feral
populations in remote areas where they can still be found. Today, goats are the
third most plentiful animals in the world. The estimated world population of
goats today is about 460 million, the majority of them in developing countries
where goat products are common and widely valued.

More than half of the world’s population drinks goat milk, although in the
United States goat’s milk is only slowly gaining in popularity. Europeans have
appreciated the special attributes of goat’s milk for generations, and products
such as chèvre (goat’s milk cheese), butter, yogurt, and ice cream made from
goat’s milk are popular in European nations. Until about 400 years ago, goats
surpassed cattle in Europe as the preferred milking animal, and in much of the
world, they still do. The reasons are simple: Goats are less expensive to purchase
than larger animals, and the amount of feed a goat requires per gallon of milk
output is less than that needed for cattle. Goats are hardy, smaller, and more
manageable. Goats multiply rapidly. Three or four goats are a much safer
investment than a single cow because if one goat fails to produce or becomes
sick, the others can replace it. These qualities make goats ideal for small dairy
operations or for household use. Cow’s milk only began to predominate when
modern dairies became a large, organized industry because larger animals could
give greater quantities of milk.
Dairy goats in the United States
Goats were brought to the Americas in the 1500s by Spanish seafarers who
carried them on their ships to provide milk and meat and often released them on
small islands where they multiplied and could be caught and slaughtered for
fresh meat by future voyagers.

A visitor to Plymouth Colony in September 1623 noted that the colony possessed
six goats. In 1849, North America’s first purebred goats, seven Angora does and
two bucks, were imported to South Carolina. In 1904, the first North American
dairy goat exhibition was held at the St. Louis World’s Fair, and in the same
year, the American Milk Goat Record, now the American Dairy Goat
Association (ADGA), was established. During the early 1900s, several breeds of
dairy goats were imported. The first officially documented Pygmy goats were
imported to the U.S. during the 1950s as zoo animals.

During the first half of the 1900s, goat’s milk in the United States primarily was
marketed through pharmacies as an alternative for people who were allergic to
cow’s milk. In the 1970s, a movement toward self-sufficiency and sustainable
agriculture revived an interest in raising dairy goats. Small, adaptable and
consuming relatively few resources, one or two goats could supply all the milk a
family needed. During the 1980s, Americans became increasingly interested in
healthful and natural foods, and during the 1990s, the rising popularity of
specialty cheeses and ethnic cuisines contributed to a growth in demand for goat
milk and goat milk products.
Before the late 20th century, travelers in rural America occasionally spotted a
few goats mixed in with a farmer’s livestock in the fields, a nostalgic reminder
of the “old world” of European ancestors. During the last few decades, there has
been an upsurge in the number of Americans raising goats for meat and milk and
a steady annual increase in the number of dairy goats.

According to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS),
360,000 milk goats were listed in the United States in January 2011, an increase
of 4,000 since the previous year. Dairy goats are found in every state in the
United States, but the largest numbers live in Wisconsin (50,000 head),
California (38,000 head), Iowa (31,000 head), and Texas (20,000 head). Because
these statistics are based on dairy operations large enough to be licensed and
regulated as working dairy businesses by the U.S. government, they do not
include goats raised on hobby farms or kept in backyards. The population of
producing dairy goats in the United States could be 400,000 or more if these
smaller operations were taken into account.

The main dairy goat breeds in the U.S. are Alpine, LaMancha, Nubian,
Oberhasli, Saanen, and Toggenburg. Each of these breeds is capable of
producing more than 2,000 pounds of milk per year, but the U.S. imports more
than 50 percent of the dairy goat cheese products it consumes, mostly from

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