Today, farmers are accused of “tampering with Nature.” But farmers have been doing such tampering for thousands of years. We had to, for survival. As one dramatic example, wild sheep didn’t have wool. Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep still don’t! Nature gave sheep a long, coarse hair coat instead. In the beginning, the wool was just a short insulating undercoat with fuzzy fibers too short to make thread. For the first 4,000 years we herded sheep, it was only for their meat.
But, as farming spread out into colder climates, humans had trouble keeping warm. The supply of bearskins, for example, would quickly have become inadequate as farming supported more people and the local bear population was reduced by hunting pressure.
Wooly sheep are a mutation of nature, which probably occurred naturally. It may have happened as sheep were taken into more northern climates were they weren’t native, such as the highlands of Iran and Turkey. Once longer wool occurred, generations of farmers encouraged it by selectively breeding their sheep for longer and longer wool fibers.
Wool fabrics seems to have appeared about 3350 BC, in northern Syria, Iran, and in what’s now Turkey just before cities were invented, We know this partly because that’s when the languages started to have words for wool, says David Anthony in his excellent book, The Horse, the Wheel and Language.
We also know this from the pattern of sheep bones found in archeological digs. When sheep were raised only for meat, they tended to be butchered at a young age, and the number of sheep and goats in the herds tended to be about equal. The sheep were eaten, and the goats were kept mostly for milk. In one region of southern Russia about 4000 BC, sheep were the dominant domesticated animal, and outnumbered goats by 5 to 1. That was the classic wool-sheep harvesting ratio, but this early pattern appeared in only a few settlements.
Then, however, the numbers of sheep began to radically outstrip the number of goats. The wool mutation had arrived and spread. And many more of the slaughtered sheep were older animals, apparently retired wool-producers. In the upper Euphrates Valley of Anatolia, herds were dominated by cattle and goats before 3350—and then sheep suddenly outnumbered both of the other species. More than half of these sheep lived to maturity and must have had wool-producing careers.
Woolen thread was spun on hand spindles, kept spinning by a trick of the wrist. Then the woolen threads could be woven into fabrics that were much warmer than linen or cotton. They also took dyes better, and gave us brighter-colored clothing. Woolen textiles were widespread by 2800 BC. The fabrics, however, were so expensive that even later generations of parents deeded wool clothing to offspring in their wills.
The wool could also be made into felt, one of the early “miracle fabrics.” Felt became the material of choice for making the winter yurts that housed most of the steppe nomads as they herded their animals across 4,000 miles of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia. Felt was lightweight, durable—and very warm.
The felt was made by pressing wool fibers into a loose mat. Then the mat was rolled up, pressed tightly, wetted, and then rolled and pressed again, over and over until the curly wool fibers interlocked. It was far warmer than an American Indian teepee.
The next time you hear the “tampering with nature” charge, remember the old nursery rhyme, “Black sheep, black sheep, have you any wool?” What if the sheep answered, “Sorry, never heard of it”?
David W. Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Princeton University Press, 2007