11 Domestic Animals that Originated in Asia

Humans have domesticated dozens of different kinds of animals. We use tame animals for meat, hide, milk, and wool, but also for companionship, for hunting, for riding, and even for pulling plows. A surprising number of common domesticated animals actually originated in Asia. Here are eleven of Asia's all-star domesticates.

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The Dog

A labrador running
Faba-Photograhpy / Getty Images

Dogs are not only man's best friend; they are also one of our oldest friends in the animal world. DNA evidence suggests that dogs were domesticated as much as 35,000 years ago, with domestication taking place separately in both China and Israel. Prehistoric human hunters likely adopted wolf pups; the friendliest and most docile were kept as hunting companions and guard dogs, and gradually developed into domestic dogs.

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The Pig

Domestic piglet. Sara Miedema via Getty Images

As with dogs, the domestication of pigs seems to have happened more than once and in different places, and again two of those places were the Middle East or the Near East, and China. Wild boars were brought onto the farm and tamed around 11,000 to 13,000 years ago in the area that is now Turkey and Iran, as well as southern China. Pigs are smart, adaptable creatures that breed easily in captivity and can convert household scraps, acorns, and other refuse into bacon.

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The Sheep

Pashtun refugee children from Afghanistan with their family's sheep. Ami Vitale / Getty Images

Sheep were among the earliest animals to be domesticated by humans. The first sheep likely were tamed from wild mouflon in Mesopotamia, today's Iraq, some 11,000 to 13,000 years ago. Early sheep were used for meat, milk, and leather; wooly sheep only appeared around 8,000 years ago in Persia (Iran). Sheep soon became very important to people in Middle Eastern cultures from Babylon to Sumer to Israel; the Bible and other ancient texts make many references to sheep and shepherds.

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The Goat

Girl in India bottle-feeds goat kid. Adrian Pope via Getty Images

The first goats were probably domesticated in the Zagros Mountains of Iran around 10,000 years ago. They were used for milk and meat, as well as for dung which could be burned as fuel. Goats are also remarkably efficient at clearing brush, a handy trait for farmers in arid lands. Another helpful feature of goats is their tough hide, which has long been used to make water and wine bottles for transporting liquids in desert regions.

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The Cow

A domestic cow gets a snack. Maskot via Getty Images

Cattle were first domesticated around 9,000 years ago. Docile domestic cattle are descended from fierce ancestors — the long-horned and aggressive aurochs, now extinct, of the Middle East. Domestic cows are used for milk, meat, leather, blood, and also for their dung, which is used as fertilizer for crops.

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The Cat

Young Buddhist monk in Burma with a kitten. Luisa Puccini via Getty Images

Domestic cats are difficult to distinguish from their nearest wild relatives, and can still easily interbreed with such wild cousins as the African wildcat. In fact, some scientists call cats only semi-domesticated; until about 150 years ago, humans generally did not intervene in cat breeding to produce specific types of cats. Cats likely began to hang around human settlements in the Middle East about 9,000 years ago, when agricultural communities started to store grain surpluses that attracted mice. Humans likely tolerated the cats for their mouse-hunting skills, a commensal relationship that only very gradually developed into the adoration that modern-day humans often display for their feline companions.

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The Chicken

Girl feeding a hen. Westend61 via Getty Images

The wild ancestors of domestic chickens are red and green junglefowl from the forests of Southeast Asia. Chickens were domesticated approximately 7,000 years ago, and quickly spread to India and China.  Some archaeologists suggest that they may have been tamed first for cock-fighting, and only incidentally for meat, eggs, and feathers.

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The Horse

Akhal Teke stallion. Maria Itina via Getty Images

Early ancestors of horses crossed the land bridge from North America to Eurasia. Humans hunted horses for food as early as 35,000 years ago. The earliest known site of domestication is Kazakhstan, where the Botai people used horses for transportation up to 6,000 years ago.  Horses like the Akhal Teke pictured here continue to hold great importance in Central Asian cultures. Although horses have been used across the world both for riding and for pulling chariots, carts, and carriages, nomadic peoples of Central Asia and Mongolia also relied on them for meat and for milk, which was fermented into the alcoholic drink called kumis.

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The Water Buffalo

Hmong children bringing home their water buffalo, Vietnam. Rieger Bertrand via Getty Images

The only animal on this list that is not common outside of its home continent of Asia is the water buffalo. Water buffaloes were domesticated independently in two different countries — 5,000 years ago in India, and 4,000 years ago in southern China. The two types are genetically distinguishable from one another. Water buffalo are used across southern and southeastern Asia for meat, hide, dung, and horn, but also for pulling plows and carts.

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The Camel

Mongolian child rides a Bactrian camel. Timothy Allen via Getty Images

There are two types of domestic camel in Asia — the Bactrian camel, a shaggy beast with two humps native to the deserts of western China and Mongolia, and the one-humped dromedary that is usually associated with the Arabian Peninsula and India. Camels seem to have been domesticated fairly recently — only about 3,500 years ago at the earliest. They were a key form of cargo transport on the Silk Road and other trade routes in Asia. Camels also are used for meat, milk, blood, and hides.

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The Koi Fish

Koi pond at Tenjyuan Temple in Japan. Kaz Chiba via Getty Images

Koi fish are the only animals on this list that were developed primarily for decorative purposes. Descended from Asian carp, which were raised in ponds as food fish, koi were selectively bred from carp with colorful mutations. Koi were first developed in China about 1,000 years ago, and the practice of breeding carp for color spread to Japan only in the nineteenth century.