Daniel W Gade. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

The domesticated goat (Capra hircus) is an animal that, although of extraordinary usefulness to humans, experiences sharply different levels of acceptance around the world. Its ruminant ability to digest cellulose is the key to its success as a form of livestock, but its browsing efficiency can often be harmful to marginal environments.

Origin and Domestication

Goats were domesticated in the Near East from Capra aegagrus, known variously as the Persian wild goat, bezoar goat, or padang. The males of this ungulate species of the rugged terrain of western Asia have long, scimitar-shaped horns; the females’ horns are similarly shaped but shorter. The bezoar goat has been a prey of hunters, in part, at least, because its stomach concretions (also called “bezoars” by physicians) have a widespread but medically unfounded reputation as an antidote for poison. The foothills of the Zagros Mountains is the most plausible area for the origin of goat domestication. Early Neolithic sites contain evidence of goat keeping from as long as 9,000 years ago. Such dating would seem to make the goat a candidate for the world’s oldest domesticated herd animal. Brian Hesse (1982) analyzed the abundant goat bones at the site of Ganj Dareh on the cold Iranian plateau and determined that the smaller size of the bones corresponded to domestic goats. Other sites, dated several hundred years later, have yielded further evidence of early goat keeping in the eastern half of the Fertile Crescent. At Jarmo, goats were the most numerous domesticate. At Tepe Ali Kosh, domestic goats preceded domestic sheep. From the east, the domesticated caprine spread westward into the Mediterranean. For example, at Natufian sites in the Levant, the domesticated goat appeared only later as a significant animal in the life of the people. There, and in Egypt, goats have been present for about 7,000 years. In the Nile Valley, goats were integrated into a sedentary agricultural system, but they also could be sustained in the non-irrigated desert beyond.

As with sheep, the domestication process decreased the average size of goats from that of their ancestors. Although the domestic goat bore a horned resemblance to the bezoar, smaller horns gradually evolved, and a number of polled breeds also emerged. The lop ears and twisted horns of some goat breeds reveal human selection of mutations. As with other domesticated animals, the coat colors and patterns of domestic goats are more diverse than those of their wild ancestors. Unlike sheep, goats have maintained the agility, intelligence, and curiosity of the wild animal. These features enable domestic goats to bond with humans much more strongly than do sheep and, at the same time, to be more willful and combative. As was the case with other animals, domestication increased libido; the adjective “goatish” means “lustful.” Although goats and sheep belong to the same family (Bovidae), and even the same tribe (Caprini), these two different genera do not hybridize.

Domestication may not have been for the economic reasons that seem so seductively straightforward today. The need for food was not necessarily a plausible mother of invention, for domestication is a process that occurs over many generations. A quite different motive seems more worthy of consideration. As with sheep and other domesticates, taming and reproduction in captivity may well have begun for the purpose of maintaining a steady supply of sacrificial animals. This theory is suggested by the important role that goats played in religious ritual, often as symbols of fecundity and virility. In Sumer, the deity known as “Enki” had the tail of a fish and the head of a goat. The Israelites sacrificed goats to Yahweh. The well-known figurative concept of the “scapegoat” came from the practice of priests’ placing their hands on the heads of goats and recounting the sins of the people.

The importance of sacrifice probably motivated early cult masters to keep a ready supply of animals for this purpose, and controlling reproduction ensured a flow of live animals that the vagaries of hunting could not. Several other religions, such as Zoroastrianism and Hinduism, have sacrificed goats. In the latter case, goats are sacrificed to “Kali,” the Hindu goddess of time, who is much revered in the Bengal region of India (Samanta 1994). A healthy male goat, black in color, is prepared for sacrifice through purification rites. Then the animal is decapitated in conjunction with the invocation of Kali, “who thirsts for blood.” The blood is ritually drunk; the rest of the goat is then immolated, and sometimes the cooked flesh is eaten.

In the art of ancient Greece, satyrs were the attendants of Dionysus and Pan and had goat-like attributes. They had the legs and hindquarters of a goat, small horns, and goat-like ears. The gods themselves were goat-like: Pan had a man’s body and head, but the hooves and horns of a goat; Dionysus, who assumed the form of a goat, was, like Zeus, raised on goat’s milk. The cults of Zeus, Apollo, Hera, Hermes, and Artemis all manifested caprine elements. Aphrodite was sometimes depicted as riding a goat. In ancient Rome, goats were sacrificed during the feast of Lupercalia. Goat imagery of the classical period was the source of goat-like demons of the Middle Ages. Witchcraft has used the goat as a symbol of evil. The Biblical metaphor of the sheep (those chosen by God) and the goats (the damned) has doubtless influenced Western thinking about the relative worth of these two animals.

Goat Distribution

The world’s pattern of goat keeping is very uneven. The animals play a major role in subsistence economies, where they provide useful products in return for a minimal investment of capital and labor. Thus, nonindustrial countries contain more than 90 percent of the half-billion goats in the world (FAO 1995). Goats adapt well to both dry and wet conditions and to tropical and midlatitude climates, and culture also helps to explain the importance the goat is accorded in the developing world. Islamic societies of the Middle East and North Africa have ennobled the goat as a source of food, and the Arab conquest of North Africa greatly expanded pastoralism as a way of life and the goat’s role in it. By contrast, the Romans in North Africa emphasized farming to a much greater extent. Yet the Islamic factor must also be weighed by the ability of the goat to thrive in a subhumid environment. Thus, for example, the rural folk of both Greece and Turkey have paid much attention to goat keeping. The summer drought of the Mediterranean climate has always made it difficult to supply the large amounts of better-quality fodder needed to sustain herds of cattle. Keeping goats as an alternative avoids this constraint.

Though only partly semiarid and Islamic, Nigeria has more goats—about 250 million—than any other country in Africa. No controlled breeding is practiced, and the typical herd comprised several different kinds, including dwarf goats, which stand less than 50 centimeters high (Epstein 1971). Goats constitute about half of the domestic grazing livestock in Nigeria and provide about one-quarter of the meat consumed in that country. Goat meat supplies protein, mostly to rural people, who also sell live animals in markets as a source of income. The animals generally fend for themselves, subsisting largely on browse discovered within a radius of their dwelling compound. Sometimes they are fed vegetable waste from the kitchen, and their owners typically provide water. Night shelter within the compound protects them from predators and thieves. During the planting season, goats are often tethered to prevent crop destruction. Most of the animals have parasites, and their mortality rate from disease is high.

Goats are also part of the rural tradition in Mexico. Most of the 9 million goats there browse the sparsely vegetated slopes throughout the country. Poor Mexican farmers have long counted on their cabras as sources of animal protein and income. The criollo breed, which evolved from goats brought from Spain in the sixteenth century, is well adapted to the hot, dry landscape. However, it is low-yielding in edible products and is a carrier of brucellosis, a disease of domestic animals often transmitted to humans. Goat keeping in Mexico today has the reputation of a backward livestock activity, and environmentalists blame free-ranging animals for much of the erosion of the hill lands.

Uses of Goats

Goats provide four major products for human use: meat, milk, fiber, and skins. In nonindustrialized societies, owners typically make use of all four. In Europe, North America, and some other places, goats are normally kept only for their milk.


Goat meat is a vital addition to the diets of millions of people, although such consumption is not accurately recorded by official market statistics because a goat is often raised and butchered by the same family that consumes it. The small carcass size of a goat allows the animal to be consumed by a household in two or three days, and meat spoilage is consequently less than if a family butchered a cow.

Goat flesh is especially important in rural Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia; in India, members of a number of Hindu castes eat it with equanimity. In several Asian countries, goat and sheep meats are not differentiated, and, in fact, some languages do not distinguish between the two. By contrast, northern Europeans and North Americans generally avoid goat meat, with readily available meat alternatives as well as negative feelings about goats as human food constituting the explanation. In the United States, the flesh has a reputation for being smelly and tough, an opinion based on the cultural prejudices of those who have never eaten it. One major exception, however, is the attitude among people of Latin American origin, who have created a specialized ethnic demand for goat flesh. Superannuated dairy goats are slaughtered for this market, and in southern Texas meat goats are raised for sale (Glimp 1995).

Compared to other forms of livestock, goats have a structural disadvantage in that their higher metabolic rate makes them less efficient meat producers. A 350-kilogram (kg) cow requires the same amount of energy as six goats—each weighing only 25 kg. Moreover, slaughtered goats have a lower percentage of useful parts and, correspondingly, more offal. That same 350-kg cow yields 189 kg of product, whereas the six goats together yield only 81 kg (McDowell and Woodward 1982).

Another problem is that goat meat tends to be dry because the animal has its fat deposited around the viscera rather than in marbled fashion, as do cattle and sheep. Age and sex are also factors. A young doe is palatable, but the tough meat from an old billy goat is not. Adult males have a scent gland that can make the strong flavor of their meat unacceptable to consumers. Kids, however, either as sucklings or when weaned, produce a meat of tender texture and delicate flavor. In France, kid is the only form of goat meat that finds a ready market.

Some goat dealers in the western United States have tried to distribute goat meat commercially under the euphemism of “chevon.” Because goat meat is low in fat, producers have sought to capitalize on the national concern about fat in the diet. Sensory experiments have demonstrated that it is possible to use goat meat, alone or in combination with beef, to produce lowfat meat products for consumers who would not ordinarily consume goat meat (James and Berry 1997). More attention to breeding quality meat animals may have a long-term effect in a gradual American acceptance of goats as food.The Boer goat, originally from South Africa, is considered to be the best meat breed.


Milk is an important product of the goat, and in some areas dairy products constitute the only reason for keeping the animals. Yet from a commercial point of view, goats cannot compete with cows. Milk yields per lactation, duration of lactation, percentage of protein, persistency of milk yield, and the suitability of milking machines are all measures in which cows perform better than goats. Moreover, the need to maintain many more goats than cows for milk production entails more work in milking, more health problems, and more record keeping. However, in the overall perspective of single-family subsistence, the goat’s small size fits in better with a family’s needs than that of the much larger cow, and goats have a strong home instinct and require less herding than cattle. Compared to sheep, goats have a higher level of milk production, perhaps because the incidence of twinning is high in all breeds.

In Africa and western Asia, milk production is an important aspect of keeping goats. At a country level, India is the world leader in producing goat milk; other producers include Iran, Pakistan, Somalia, and Sudan. The Nubian goat, red or black in color, is an important milking breed of the Old World. It is recognized by its Roman nose, short hair, long legs, and lack of horns.

In zones of Western culture, goat’s milk is now less important than in other parts of the world. In Latin America, Mexico and Brazil are the two main producers of goat milk. Dulce de leche, a caramelized concoction of sugar and goat’s milk, is a much-appreciated sweet in countries settled by Spaniards. In the Mediterranean region, goat’s milk is locally available, especially in small villages. In Greece, about one-fourth of the milk supply is still provided by goats.

Moving north, both France and Switzerland produce substantial quantities of goat milk. The Alps have an old caprine tradition, which has given rise to seven dairy-goat breeds, the best known of which are Toggenburg, Saanen, and French-Alpine. Norway is also famous for its high-yielding dairy goats. In Western Europe outside the Mediterranean, however, goat milk is a specialty product. Fresh goat’s milk is important for those allergic to cow’s milk. In the United States, for example, it has been estimated that about 1 person in 1,000 has a medical need for goat milk (Haenlein 1996). Differences in the protein makeup of goat’s and cow’s milk make that of the former a nutritious substitute.

The American dairy-goat population of 1.5 million females is divided among six breeds. The Nubian is numerically the leading one but is surpassed in actual milk production by the three long-established Swiss breeds. California is the leading producer of goat’s milk in the United States. Total production in the country is estimated at 600,000 tons, and about 300 farms and businesses sell goat’s milk or goat-milk products. However, production, processing, and marketing of goat’s milk is much less regulated by the states than is cow’s milk. “Natural-food” stores often sell goat-milk products, including butter, ice cream, yoghurt, cosmetics, and soaps. In addition, goat milk is used to feed calves for veal production and to nurse zoo animals and pets.

Much of the world’s goat milk is converted into yoghurt, butter, and cheese. Middle Eastern countries produce goat cheeses largely unknown outside their borders. Making cheeses has become the main use of goat’s milk in Europe, where the relatively high price has encouraged their development as specialties for cheese lovers who enjoy their tangy flavors. When overripe, however, goat cheese can be brittle in texture, acid in smell, and ammoniacal in flavor. France still produces about 20 different kinds of goat cheese. Distinctively shaped and packaged, these cheeses are often sprinkled with a condiment like paprika or black pepper. Other European countries, especially Italy, make some goat cheese, but none of them are recognized for their quality as much as those of France. Until the late 1970s, no goat cheese was made in the United States, but by the 1990s, about 50 percent of American-produced goat milk was used to make cheese. Such cheeses—half imported and half domestic—developed a popular following and a gourmet image conveyed by use of the word “chevre” on the label.

Fleece and Skins

Goats yield other valuable products with their hair and skins. The classic Bedouin tent of southwestern Asia and northern Africa is made of goat hair. Goat fibers have also been used in pastoral societies to make carpets, brushes, and felt. High-quality goat fleece, traded internationally, derives from two specific breeds. One of these is the Angora—almost always white—which came originally from Turkey and has been known since antiquity for its lustrous fleece. Countries of western Asia export this product but do not have a monopoly. Before the Turkish Sultan decreed in 1881 that live Angora goats could not be exported, the breed had already been transported to other parts of the world. They thrive in South Africa, where they were introduced in 1838, but only much later did mohair become the main objective in raising them. At present, some 1.3 million Angora goats around Port Elizabeth in Cape Province yield 6 million kg of mohair annually.

In North America, Angora goats date from 1849 and have become highly concentrated on the Edwards Plateau of southern central Texas. More than 2 million animals are herded there on the open range, primarily to produce mohair for textile, upholstery, and wig-making industries. Mohair is more notable for its strength and luster than for its fineness of fiber. Angora goats in the United States, larger than their Turkish ancestors, are more numerous than those of any other breed.

The cashmere goat’s undercoat yields a fine fiber, known in the luxury-fabric trade as cashmere. Cashmere goats live at high elevations in northern India, Tibet, western China, Kirghistan, and parts of Iran. Selection for a cold environment was a factor in evolving the quality of fleece associated with this breed.

Goatskins are a by-product of slaughter for meat. DNA analysis has found that most of the Dead Sea scrolls were written on goatskins preserved in the dry atmosphere of the hills of Palestine. In traditional cultures, goatskins have been used as containers for liquids. Water, wine, and distilled spirits have all been transported and stored in these skins, but the availability of cheap plastic has greatly diminished such usage.

Other Uses

Goat manure is another, usually subsidiary, benefit of raising these animals. At least in one place, the Rif mountain region of northern Morocco, manure has become the raison d’être of goat raising. Large numbers of goats are needed to provide the fertilizer for cannabis production. Marijuana and hashish from this plant enter into the international drug trade, and large quantities of goat manure—without which the soil would soon become exhausted—are needed to maintain production of this profitable crop year after year.

The goat has another use of local importance as a biological control agent: Goats browse undesirable plants that are otherwise expensive and difficult to control. In the western United States, they keep in check aggressive, unwanted plants such as live oak brush, gambel oak, and leafy spurge.

Production Systems

Goats lend themselves well to a pastoral way of life. In the nomadic and seminomadic systems of Africa and Asia, they form a component of the mobile livestock capital, which is moved in constant search of fresh pasture. Goats are not the most appreciated animals in a pastoralist’s inventory, but they serve as a better hedge against environmental uncertainty than do cattle or sheep. The Tuareg people of the Sahara keep almost 10 times as many goats as sheep, a rational behavior in their water-scarce environment. In East Africa, goats manifest considerable resistance to the disease trypanosomiasis, which explains part of their importance there.

Goats also fit into a mixed herding and farming economy to provide meat, milk, and other products. Small farms lend themselves to goat keeping. In the tropics, goats can breed year-round; in midlatitudes, breeding occurs seasonally. Goats may be tethered or allowed to range freely on communal grazing areas. They follow a nutrition strategy of choosing grasses of high protein content and digestibility to graze upon, but they will shift to browse if its nutritive value is greater, and unlike cattle, goats can maintain themselves on browse alone.

The Environmental Effects of Goats

Free-ranging goats have a reputation for overgrazing, which happens when their numbers surpass the capacity of the land to support them. Gully erosion results when they destroy the native vegetation and compact the soil with their sharp hooves. Several characteristics of goats favor abuse of the plant cover. A mobile upper lip permits them to graze as close to the ground as sheep at the same time that their browsing capacities exceed those of their fleecy cousins. Thorny plants with small leaves are no hindrance to goats. If browse is in short supply, they will defoliate entire bushes. Goats browse to the height they can reach when standing on their hind legs. They will also forage on leaves by climbing into low trees. With their sharp hooves, they paw away soil to obtain roots and subterranean stems. Allowed to roam, goats can occupy considerable space. On the average, they move 9.7 kilometers (km) per day, compared with 6.1 km for sheep and 5.3 km for cattle (Huston 1978).

It is true that goats have contributed to desertification, but they often get more blame than they deserve. The process begins when first cattle, and then sheep, deteriorate the range, after which the invading brush is suitable only for goats, which can survive and reproduce in such environments. Thus, goats become the last alternative on eroded lands and are often seen as totally responsible for them.

Ultimately, however, destruction of vegetation by goats is a human management failure. An arid hillside combined with excessive numbers of goats will almost always mean harm for that environment. Human unwillingness to control goat density at a desired maximum, or to restrict the animals’ mobility, has determined the land-use history of many areas. Humans have frequently introduced goats to islands and then left them to their own devices. Without predators, feral goat populations have exploded and destroyed ecological balances; the histories of many islands, from San Clemente, California, to St. Helena, involve goat stories.

The Mediterranean Plan, funded by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in the 1950s, was the first concerted international effort to deal with such problems. Impoverishment of the Mediterranean region was attributed to the environmental degradation brought on by overgrazing. We know that some of this process was begun in ancient times because classical authors discussed the goat problem two millennia earlier (Hughes 1994). The Mediterranean localities most heavily dependent on goat products were those with the most serious erosion. In the 1940s, Cyprus, which derived one-third of its milk, two-fifths of its cheese, one-fourth of its meat, and four-fifths of its leather from goats (Thirgood 1987), was deforested because of excessive goat browsing. Vegetation flourishes in the Mediterranean region where goats and sheep are restricted. In northern Morocco, the barren slopes that are grazed by goats contrast with ungrazed enclosures that maintain a luxuriant tree cover.