Sheep were first domesticated in the Mesolithic period (10 - 8000 BC) in Mesopotamia, the South-West of Asia. Remains of domestic sheep dating back to 7000 years ago have been found in Iran, Iraq and Palestine while the earliest woven wool garments have been dated back to 4000 – 3000 BC
Origin: The Wild Sheep
Wild sheep looked different than today’s domesticated animals: they had a shorter, coarser fleece and the wool colours were often pigmented. These sheep could not be shorn, instead the wool was harvested/plucked by hand in a process called ‘rooing’. It is believed that the selective breeding for wooly sheep began around 6000 BC while efforts to obtain white-fleeced sheep began in Mesopotamia around 3000 BC. By the Bronze Age (2300-600 BC) sheep with characteristics similar to the modern breeds were widespread throughout Western Asia.
Sheep Make Their Way Around the World
From Asia sheep were introduced via trading to North-Africa and to Northern Europe. Europe saw the value in this new domestic animal that could provide not only meat and milk but also wool and Europe embraced sheep farming.
A series of classic Greek writings dated about 500 BC describe in detail selective sheep breeding and wool processing, while Roman writings by Virgilio, Varro and Columella describe in details the sheep breeding processes and wool fabric production, mentioning the existence of sheep farms with as much as 10.000 sheep.
The Old and New Testaments of the Bible are also sources of historical documentation about sheep and sheep farming.
Development of the Wool Industry
In the Middle Ages (476-1453 AD) wool trading flourished in Europe, with cities located in the Benelux Countries, England, France and Italy at the core. The most important raw wool producers were Spain and England while the best processors were Italy and the Benelux Countries. It is well known that England’s kings would often sell England’s wool for years in advance when in need of funds.
Spanish sheep were brought to America in 1492 by the first explorer or the continent, Christopher Columbus. Cortez further spread sheep to Mexico and the Western United States. It is considered that the sheep Columbus introduced to the Americas were the ancestors of today’s Churros breed.
The Beginning of the Merino Sheep and Wool Industry
The Spanish’ jealously-guarded fine-wool sheep breed (later called the Merino) was introduced by the Beni-Merines a tribe of Arabic Moors in the 12th Century AD and refined through cross-breeding with the North African stock.
Before the 1700 selling these outside the Spanish empire was punishable by death but after the Age of the Great discoveries, as the Spanish empire began its decline the King Himself gifted it to Hungarian and German provinces, to French, Portuguese and Dutch monarchs. The Dutch acclimated the breed to their South-African colonies and from South-Africa several Cape Fat Tail sheep were sold in 1788 to voyagers on their way to Australia. Out of these voyagers, one stands out: Captain John Macarthur who is considered the most important figure of the beginning of sheep selective breeding in Australia.
By 1800 the fine Spanish wool and the coarser British wool had strong competitors in Saxony and Silesia who produced a very dense and fine Merino wool. The United States and Russia had obtained merino sheep via Spain, respectively Portugal and were starting their own flocks. This is why when in 1803-1804 John Macarthur lobbied the King of England to encourage selective breeding in Australia he did so.
By 1810 Australia boasted over 30,000 sheep and was one of the world Merino wool trade centers, together with the United States and Germany and by 1840 it was the most important Merino sheep grower, together with South Africa and New Zealand. The rest of the world focused on cross-bred and coarser-wool sheep breeds.