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

Probably the earliest domesticated herd animal in the Old World, the sheep (Ovis aries) makes an unparalleled contribution of food and fiber. The great advantage of these small ruminants is their ability to digest the cellulose of wild grasses and coarse woody shrubs in their complex stomachs and convert it into usable products.

Origin and Domestication

Sheep were domesticated on the flanks of the Taurus–Zagros Mountains, which run from southern Turkey to southern Iran. Within that arc is found the urial (Ovis orientalis), a wild sheep now generally regarded as the ancestor of the domesticated sheep. Early archaeological evidence of sheep under human control comes from Shanidar Cave and nearby Zaqi Chemi in Kurdistan. Sheep bones recovered in abundance at these two sites have been dated to between 8,000 and 9,000 years ago and contrast with other Neolithic sites close to the Mediterranean, where similar evidence of domesticated sheep is rare. However, accurate species identification has posed problems, for the bones of goats and sheep are often difficult to distinguish from one another. Therefore, some archaeological reports have grouped them together as “sheep/goat” or “caprine.”

The domestication process that transformed O. orientalis into O. aries involved several key changes. The body size of the sheep was reduced from that of the urial. Diminution could have been accomplished over many generations by culling out larger, aggressive males as sires. Selection also occurred for horn-lessness, but this process is not complete. Although many breeds of domesticated female (and some male) sheep typically have no horns, in other males the horns have only been reduced in size. Domesticated sheep also have a long tail as compared with the wild ancestor. The most significant physical transformation of the animal was the replacement of the hairy outercoat with wool fibers, which turned the sheep into much more than a food source. As early as 6,000 years ago, woolly sheep had differentiated from hairy sheep, and in ancient Mesopotamia, the raising of wool-bearing animals was a major activity in lowland areas. Selection for white-wooled animals explains the gradual dominance of that color.

In spite of the many human uses of sheep, domestication may have been motivated by religion rather than economics. Urials were animals of ritual significance, and to ensure a ready supply for sacrifice, humans may well have sought to tame and then breed them in captivity. At Catal Hüyük in Anatolia, the remains of sanctuaries from between the seventh and sixth millenniums B.C. depict ram heads.

The early use of sheep as sacrificial offerings went hand in hand with a long selection for qualities of fecklessness, timidity, and total dependency. Long after successful domestication, sheep sacrifices continued in religious ritual. The cultic use of sheep was known in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and China. The Hebrew Bible made many allusions to ovine sacrifice, and from this, Christianity developed the idea of the “Lamb of God,” a metaphor for Jesus as a sacrificial vessel for the sins of mankind. Unlike Christianity, Islam incorporated sacrifice as a literal requirement of the faith. Each year, during the festival of Id al-Adha, every male Muslim is enjoined to slaughter a domesticated animal, in most cases a sheep, as a sign of his submission to the will of God. Sheep accompanied the spread of Islam from its Arabian core, not only because of religious associations but also because the Arabs were, above all, pastoralists.

Ovine Diversity

Through isolation and/or mutation, sheep differentiated into almost 1,000 breeds, most with regional distributions. Some of these have now disappeared as more productive breeds have taken their places. The selection of sheep breeds in Western Europe has been influenced largely by the strong Western bias toward high productivity. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the breeds of Cheviot, Cotswold, Dorset, Hampshire, Leicester, Oxford, Romney, Shrop-shire, Suffolk, and Southdown all emerged in the British Isles, bred in some cases for their wool and in others primarily for their meat. The Rambouillet, a smooth-bodied wool breed, originated in France. In the United States, the breeds of Columbia, Debouillet, Montalde, Panama, and Targhee were developed (mostly in the twentieth century) through crossing of different breeds to adapt them to North American environmental conditions.

About 10 percent of classified breeds produce fine wool. Merino sheep are the outstanding source of high-quality wool and, as such, are the most important of all sheep breeds. The long fibers of Merino wool are turned into yarn used for worsted apparel. The history of Merino sheep in Spain is well documented after about A.D. 1500, but their origin is not. It seems most plausible, however, that this breed was brought from North Africa during the Moorish occupation of the Iberian Peninsula.

Genotypic and phenotypic diversity of sheep is greatest in the Near East, where these animals have been part of human livelihoods longer than anywhere else in the world. Breeds of indigenous origin, well adapted to the local environmental conditions, still dominate there. Some breeds, such as the Awassi and Karaman, have fat tails—fat tails being a much-appreciated delicacy in places such as the Middle East; others have semifat tails (e.g., Chios sheep); still others have thin tails, for example, the Karayaka of Turkey. Fat-rumped breeds form yet another category. Near Eastern breeds have several kinds of fleece, or none at all. The good-quality carpet wool yielded by some breeds makes possible the manufacture of Oriental rugs, one of the world’s magnificent art forms. Fur-sheep are another category; most famous are lamb pelts from Karakul sheep produced in the Middle East and central Asia, especially in Bokhara, where this breed originated. Many sheep of western Asia also have their variants in Africa (Epstein 1971).

In places where sheep are raised more for their subsistence value, numerous breeds may be represented in a single flock. For example, in northeastern Brazil, an owner may keep hair sheep and those with wool; polled sheep and those carrying horns; sheep with colors ranging from red-brown to white to black-pied; sheep with horizontal ears, but also those with lop ears; sheep with thin tails, but also those with semifat tails. These heterogeneous mixtures are the result of several introductions and free crossings over time. The first sheep were exported to Brazil in the sixteenth century from Portugal and included both the coarse-wooled Churro and the fine-wooled Merino. The Crioulo breed, coarse-wooled and horned, emerged from the Churro. Hair sheep were imported from the Caribbean and elsewhere, and in the twentieth century, sheep were brought from Italy to Brazil.

Keeping of Sheep

Sheep have been kept either as part of pastoral livelihoods or as an element of mixed agropastoralism. In the former, they consume grass and woody shrubs that are part of the natural vegetation. Sheep grazing on the coastal meadows (prés salés) of western France has established a standard for high-quality lamb production known throughout the culinary world. When integrated with a farming economy, sheep consume stubble in the fields and, in turn, contribute manure to renew the soil. Sheep are almost never kept in stalls or feedlots as cattle are. Intensive sheep production has lagged far behind that of cattle and pigs.

Where aridity has made agriculture too uncertain or impossible, sheep can survive on sparse wild grasses and woody shrubs. Sheep raising has traditionally been most profitable when natural vegetation on land owned by the community or the state reduced the cost of production. Often, however, the need of such vegetation has involved seasonal movement to find proper forage at all times of the year. In much of the subhumid world, transhumance is the solution to providing livestock with what they need to survive. In the Iberian Peninsula, sheep raising became the most valuable avenue of land use after the introduction of the Merino. The powerful sheep-owners’ organization, the Mesta, obtained priority in deploying their sheep over the countryside. Always in search of more and better pastures, sheep were driven north and south on the Spanish plateau along designated pathways called cañadas. The migration of millions of sharp-hoofed animals etched miniature canyons into the land that can still be seen as relict features in the landscape.

Traditional patterns of seasonal sheep movement continue to prevail in the Middle East, North Africa, and central Asia. In Europe, transhumance between high and low pastures is still practiced, but now sheep may be transported by rail and truck rather than on foot. Transhumance is also found in western North America and southern South America, but more in the form of commercial livestock strategy than cultural adaptation. In all forms of sheepherding, shepherds and dogs remain indispensable, for they protect their defenseless charges not only from predators but also from the sheep’s own mimetic behavior and innate stupidity.

Sheep Products


Wool is the main product of commercial sheep raising such as is practiced in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, Uruguay, and North America. Most wool involved in world trade comes from these areas. Wool is also a major product for small farmers throughout the world. Sheep’s wool has many advantages: It is resilient, which imparts to fabrics the ability to retain shape and resist wrinkling. Wool traps and retains heat-insulating air, but at the same time its low density permits the manufacture of lightweight fabrics. In addition, wool fiber takes dyestuffs well.


If all the world’s sheep are taken into consideration, meat has been the primary objective of raising them. Fat (tallow) from sheep was once tremendously important for making candles until paraffin replaced it; in the Middle East and Africa, tallow continues to have considerable value as a substitute for cooking oils. Selection for fat tails is ancient. Herodotus mentioned sheep in which the tail constituted one-sixth of the total weight of the butchered animal. In some sheep, the tail is so large and heavy that it is an obstruction to the animal’s mobility. Cases are known in which owners have constructed a little wheeled cart to relieve the weight of the tail and keep it from dragging on the ground.

Sheep meat is divided into mutton and lamb, with the latter deriving from an animal of up to 1 year of age and without permanent teeth. Mutton—the meat of a sheep older than 1 year—is the favorite meat of the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed, more than 50 percent of those regions’ total meat requirements are satisfied by mutton.The sheep is the prestige animal of Islam, which ecology has encouraged, because the quality and quantity of forage in this part of the world favor it over cattle, which have much larger appetites and more stringent feed requirements in order to thrive. Goats are an alternative to sheep. Pigs are taboo.

Mutton is also culturally important in central Asia as a food, more so than in China, even though that country is the world’s leading mutton producer. Australia, with its population of less than 20 million people, nevertheless produces four times as much sheep meat as the United States with 265 million people. Australians eat most of it but also export considerable quantities. The island peoples of Mauritius and Papua New Guinea, for example, derive a major part of their commercial meat supply from imported Australian mutton.

In Europe, sheep meat consumption is only one-eighth that of beef and veal and one-sixteenth that of pork. Among Europeans, the British have been especially fond of mutton, but their consumption of it has declined in recent decades in response to the availability of cheaper sources of protein such as poultry. Nonetheless, the United Kingdom still produces three times more sheep meat than the United States and also relies on mutton imports from Argentina.

The preferred sheep meat in many Western countries is lamb, which is more tender and subtle in flavor than mutton. A century ago, however, lambs were rarely marketed as a source of meat. One specialized variant of lamb is a milk-fed baby, which yields a succulent white flesh. In Mediterranean countries, suckling lamb is a much appreciated Easter delicacy. It is an old specialty (abbaccho) of the Roman Campagna, a favorite residential area of Rome in ancient times, and in Greece, milk-fed lamb is considered the height of gourmandise.

As already hinted, Americans eat little sheep meat of any kind. In 1985, less than 1 percent of the red meat consumed in the United States was lamb or mutton (USDA 1987). One explanation for this small amount is that sheep flesh was historically of poor quality because the only sheep slaughtered were those whose wool-bearing days were over. The nineteenth-century rise of the beef-centered meatpacking industry may also have played a role in marginalizing sheep meat. But most persuasive in explaining the weak pattern of sheep meat consumption are protein alternatives. Since 1963, the use of lamb and mutton in the United States has decreased more than 60 percent; during this time, pork, beef, and especially poultry have become relatively cheaper to purchase. Another contributing factor is meat cuts: Mutton and lamb have a higher ratio of fat and bone than do beef or pork.

Today, what little sheep meat is consumed in the United States is as lamb. Part of that market is composed of immigrant populations, which reduces even more its consumption among mainstream American meat-eaters. The latter group may eat it mainly in restaurants specializing in Greek, Middle Eastern, and French cuisines. However, in some regions of the country, particularly the South and the Midwest, lamb is not even readily available in many supermarkets. Where found, in the meat counters of larger cities, lamb is typically at least as expensive as beef or pork, and usually more so.

Consumers who reject lamb for reasons other than price often state that they do not like its strong taste. The main factors controlling flavor in lamb meat are breed (Rambouillet lambs have a more intense flavor than Columbia lambs); sex (rams have a more intense flavor than wethers or ewes); and age and weight (flavor intensity varies inversely with these) (Crouse 1983).

Milk and Cheese

Milk has been a subsidiary product from sheep for millennia. Today, it is most important in the Middle East, where it is occasionally drunk fresh but is more commonly turned into yoghurt and cheese. Turkey, Iran, and Syria are major producers of dairy products from ewes, but most of these products are not commercialized beyond the local area. In Europe, the human use of sheep’s milk is said to have increased when the Hundred Years’ War killed off many cattle. Today, however, fresh sheep’s milk is no longer consumed by most Europeans. The relative inefficiency of milking sheep, and their low productivity (150 pounds per lactation compared to 20,000 pounds for a cow), has encouraged the conversion of sheep milk into higher-value dairy products. In the Balkans, sheep’s milk is made into yoghurt, but elsewhere in Europe, it is almost entirely made into cheese.

Europe’s most famous sheep’s-milk cheese is Roquefort—made distinctive by its veins of blue-green mold which develops on curd placed to cure in cool limestone caves. “Roquefort” is a controlled appellation (appellation contrôlëe), which means that cheeses with this name can come only from a designated territory in the Cévennes region of France with the town of Roquefort as its center. However, the sheep’s milk from which the curd is made comes from a much wider area that extends from the Massif Central to the Pyrenees and the island of Corsica. Almost all French sheep’s milk produced is now devoted to making Roquefort cheese.

The manufacture of Roquefort is a holdout of tradition; other French cheeses once made with sheep’s milk are now made from cow’s milk. In Italy, sheep’s-milk cheese is called pecorino (pecora is the Italian for ewe); it can be either soft and fresh (ricotta pecorino) or hard (pecorino romano, or simply Romano, used in grated form on pasta). Queijo da serra (“mountain cheese”) is a notable cheese from the mountainous interior of Portugal, a country that well into the twentieth century made most of its cheese from sheep’s milk. Greece produces large amounts of feta, a sheep’s-milk cheese salted and then preserved in a brine of milk, water, and salt.

The lands of the New World produce very little sheep’s-milk cheese. About 90 percent of Latin American production comes from the Bolivian Altiplano near Oruro. The native cheese makers of queso de Paria are indigenous people whose ancestors were taught the art of making a soft, unripened cheese by the Spanish conquerors of the Andes. In the United States, sheep’s-milk cheese is manufactured on a small scale in the upper Midwest and in California and Vermont. It is considered a gourmet item because sheep’s milk commands four to five times the price of cow’s milk. One advantage of sheep’s milk is that it can be successfully frozen and stored. Hinkley, Minnesota, has a cheese-processing plant that derives its sheep’s milk from a wide area.

Environmental Effects of Sheep

Sheepherding has an ecological downside when considered historically over long periods. These ungulates have frequently overgrazed the land and brought about serious erosion, especially in areas where vegetation regenerates slowly. Sheep graze plants much closer to the ground than do cattle, and if uncontrolled, they can even, by consuming tree seedlings, denude an area to the point of preventing regeneration. Sheep contributed to the early formation of eroded landscapes in the Middle East and the Mediterranean region. Even a recently settled land such as Australia shows strong evidence of the sort of damage that intensive sheep raising can do. By 1854, New South Wales had a sheep population of over 12 million. It was an “ungulate irruption” that changed species composition of the vegetation, encouraged the introduction of noxious weeds, and degraded the soil. Sheep introduced into the New World have caused deterioration in the ranges of the western United States, Argentine Patagonia, and the Andean highlands. In Mexico, a case study of the Valle del Mezquital north of Mexico City has documented environmental changes wrought largely by intensive sheep grazing during the colonial period (Melville 1994).

World Production and Trade

More than 1 billion sheep are found in the world today, and they occur on all inhabited continents. Ovines are found in the hottest countries, such as Somalia and Sudan, but there are also large herds in cold, windswept lands near Antarctica, such as Patagonia in southern Argentina and the Falklands (Malvinas), and on the fringes of the Arctic, as in the Faroe Islands and Iceland. Depending on the area, plains, plateaus, and mountains can all support sheep populations. Tolerance for hot, cold, dry, and wet conditions, along with an absence of any cultural prejudice against the animal and its multifaceted uses, account for its wide distribution.

Asia has about a third of the world’s sheep, with especially large populations in China (mainly west and north), Iran, India, Kazakhstan, and Pakistan. Africa’s sheep are found in all countries of that continent and, in the northern, western, and eastern parts, are often associated with nomadic, seminomadic, or transhumant groups.As a country (though not as a continent), Australia has, without question, the largest sheep population. Sheep are also the kingpin of agropastoralism in New Zealand, where the sheep–human ratio is among the highest in the world.

Europe (west and east combined) has about as many sheep as Australia. The superhumid United Kingdom and subhumid Spain have the largest ovine populations in the European Union. South America has more than five times as many sheep as North and Middle America taken together. Sheep are the most important domesticated animal in the high Andes of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, where the cold climate and a homespun tradition make wool an especially valuable product. But 5 million sheep are also found in hot northeastern Brazil, where wool has little value. Much farther south, commercial wool production is important in temperate southern Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile. The pastoralists of tiny Uruguay, which has about the same number of sheep as the United States, have long grazed sheep and cattle together.

Multispecies grazing in Uruguay contrasts with the conflictive tradition in western North America, where sheepmen and cattlemen pitted themselves against one another in a struggle for domination of the range. Since 1942, the rise of synthetic fibers, a shortage of skilled labor, and the increased cost of land have together forced a decline in the sheep industry in the United States. Nevertheless, entrepreneurial sheep raising on federally owned expanses still constitutes an important use of land in parts of the arid West.

Live sheep also find their way into world trade. Nigeria, Senegal, Kuwait, and especially Saudi Arabia import large numbers of them to be slaughtered in prescribed Islamic fashion. Movements of live sheep from Australia to Saudi Arabia are particularly large, enabling the faithful to satisfy their obligation of dispatching a sacrificial animal during the pilgrimage to Mecca. Normally, more than 1 million sheep are sacrificed each year for this purpose. Much of this slaughter, which wastes the meat, occurs in five abattoirs in Mina, near Mecca (Brooke 1987).

The long-term future of sheep raising in the world appears bright. Ruminant animals possess a keen advantage in being able to make use of arid or steep lands that cannot be cultivated. Sheep are productive, adaptable, and largely noncompetitive with humans. More than any other domesticate, their dual contributions of food and fiber give sheep an economic edge that spreads the risk of keeping them. And, finally, there are no cultural barriers to constrain their use.