Top Signs of Animal Domestication

How Can Archaeologists Tell if an Animal is Domesticated?

The domestication of animals was an important step in our human civilization, involving the development of a partnership between human and animal. The essential mechanism of that domestication process is somebody selecting for an animal's behavior and body shape to suit his or her specific needs.

The process of domestication is a slow one, and sometimes archaeologists have a difficult time identifying whether a group of animal bones in an archaeological site represents domesticated animals or not. Here is a list of some of the several signs that archaeologists look for in determining whether the animals in evidence at an archaeological site were domesticated, or merely hunted and consumed for dinner.

1
Body Morphology

European domestic pigs, descendants of the European wild boar.
European domestic pigs, descendants of the European wild boar. Jeff Veitch, Durham University.

One indication that a particular group of animals might be domesticated is a difference in body size and shape between an archaeological assemblage and animals found in the wild, called morphology. Wild boars are much larger and harder to handle than the domestic pig. 

2
Population Demography

Domestic Cow (Bos taurus) in Rural Zurich, Switzerland
Domestic Cow (Bos taurus) in Rural Zurich, Switzerland. Joi Ito

Population demography refers to differences in the range of genders and ages between a domesticated group of animals and those found in the wild. Farmers like keeping many female cows around and few if any males. 

3
Site Assemblages

Artifacts from domesticated horses would include shoes, nails, and hammers.
Artifacts from domesticated horses would include shoes, nails, and hammers. Michael Bradley / Getty Images

Site assemblages--the content and layout of settlements--hold clues to the presence of domesticated animals. Paddocks and sheep cotes, blacksmith shops, and milking stations are features that indicate the presence of animals. 

4
Animal Burials

4,000-Year-Old Pig Skeleton at Taosi
The remains of a 4,000-year-old pig found at the Chinese archaeological site of Taosi. The descendants of this domestic pig are now found all over the world. Image courtesy of Jing Yuan

How the remains of an animal are buried has implications about its status as a domesticated partner. Some animals are buried with or alongside their human partners. 

5
Animal Diets

Chickens feed at a poultry wholesale market in Chengdu of Sichuan Province, China
Chickens feed at a poultry wholesale market in Chengdu of Sichuan Province, China. China Photos / Getty Images

A domesticated animal will eat differently than one in the wild, normally; and this dietary change may be identified through the use of stable isotope analysis.

6
Mammalian Domestication Syndrome - Mechanisms Behind Animal Taming

Why is This Dog So Cute?
Why is This Dog So Cute? This is Helios, an approximately 3-year-old cattle dog/greyhound mix with Lucky Dog Animal Rescue. Lucky Dog Animal Rescue

New studies published in 2014 suggest that the entire suite of behaviors and physical modifications developed in domesticated animals--and not just the ones we can spot archaeologically-- might very well have been created by genetic modifications of a stem cell connected to the central nervous system.