What Animals Looked Like Before Humans Started Breeding Them For Food

Around 11,000 years ago when humans first began trading nomadic lifestyles for permanent communities, they also began to domesticate animals. Species like sheep, cattle, and goats were among the first to be tamed based on their usefulness to human survival. This was only the beginning of the millennia of selective breeding, changing what were once wild animals into the domestic creatures commonly recognized today.

What animals looked like before humans bred them for food is shockingly different to how many species look today. From cattle that look like they're on steroids to turkeys that have doubled in weight, many of them have received a size upgrade to feed humans more efficiently. For better or worse, cross-breeding has become driven primarily by trends in human diets, multimillion-dollar corporate takeover of farming, and a growing global population.

Of course, sometimes genetic mutations in cross-breeding animals not only led to useful scientific discovery but also produced some weird, cross-bred animals. Photography in particular illuminates how selective breeding in the farming industry (and even of some animals we no longer breed for meat) has forever changed both the way humans eat and how domestic animals look.


  • Beef Cattle

    Beef cattle have had what might be the most shocking transformation of breeding over the years. Today's cattle are descendants of the wild cattle of Chillingham, which were meticulously bred by British agriculturist Robert Bakewell in the 1700s for greater output of meat and muscle.

    The modern Belgian Blues are one example of cattle being produced en masse for sheer size, bred to produce twice the usual amount of muscle seen in beef cattle. Nowadays, small cattle farms are fairly rare, having been primarily replaced with large factories where, controversially, the cattle are kept in small confines where disease spreads more quickly, increasing health risks. Dairy cattle have seen similar changes, with farmers selectively breeding for larger udders and higher milk production.

  • "Turkey-raising may well be one of the oldest forms of organized meat production in the Northern Hemisphere," according to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Native American groups reportedly domesticated wild turkeys before the European colonists showed up in North America:

    Turkey bones have been found in Indian burial mounds in Tennessee, Kentucky, and some other parts of the South, and turkeys were being raised in Mexico and Central America for more than 500 years before the Spanish arrived. Turkey relics have been found in Arizona dating as far back as 25 [CE].

    But because of such excessive and long-term domestication, turkeys are also one of the best examples of how humans have enlarged farm animals over the years. In the 1930s, the average weight of a turkey was around 13.2 pounds. However, by 2014, it had more than doubled to 29.8 pounds. Many claim growth hormone injections have led to this impressive size evolution, but since the mid-20th century, the FDA has prohibited growth hormones in poultry. 

    "And they were never, ever used in turkeys," Francine Bradley, a poultry specialist in the Animal Science Department at UC Davis, told the LA Times.

  • Most sheep breeds are thought to have descended from the European mouflon. Robert Bakewell, who had a hand in developing several domestic species in the 1700s, bred the sheep for both meat and fiber production. Many sheep raised today are dual-purpose, which means they are raised for both their meat and different varieties of wool. Experts think their multifunctionality and "ability to adapt to local environments" are both reasons why sheep have become so essential to agricultural production through the ages:

    Many of the characteristics in sheep breeds, such as tolerance to temperature variations, may be responses to climatic differences, such as day length, seasonality, UV and solar radiation, precipitation, and humidity.

    At the same time, reports say lamb and mutton consumption in the United States decreased significantly after WWII. Harsh conditions and socialized perception both may be to blame, but sheep farmers in the modern day rely more on wool and other byproducts from sheep than meat.

  • Shrimp

    Shrimp is the most widely consumed seafood in the United States, and many kinds of seafood are generally considered to be a healthy source of Omega-3s and other proteins. However, the shrimp-as-food seascape has changed a lot since the farming of shrimp began in Asia in the 1400s, where they were culled from small ponds and local ecosystems. In recent decades, farm sizes have grown exponentially, and modern technology is allowing farmers to produce much larger shrimp than they could find in the wild.

    However, as journalist and author of Real Food, Fake Food Larry Olmsted pointed out, this is somewhat controversial since much of the shrimp is imported into the US without inspection or even adherence to any regulations; in seafood farms overseas, the creatures are reportedly often pumped with illicit substances. According to Olmsted:

    Most of the shrimp raised on farms today live in actively managed ponds and are fed artificial food sources, all calculated to obtain maximum growth. Farmed shrimp are now on average much larger than shrimp caught in the wild, depending on the species.

    A Government Accounting Office review of seafood fraud was highly critical of the FDA’s oversight of imported shrimp and found that after the FDA banned the import of Chinese-farmed shrimp in 2007, due to the presence of unapproved drugs, Chinese suppliers simply shipped the shrimp to Malaysia, relabeled it from there and imported millions of dollars’ worth of the drug tainted shrimp into the US anyway. Called “transshipment,” this happens with shrimp and seafood all the time.

  • Chickens bred for meat are known as broilers, and they generally have white feathers over their large, meaty bodies. The US Food and Drug Administration prohibits the use of added hormones in both pork and poultry, so those industries do not use artificial or added hormones in the production process.

    However, some birds have become so heavily modified they have trouble walking around with all their extra body weight. They've become genetically selected to grow bigger, particularly with bigger breasts, as these are the most versatile and marketable parts of the chicken for food. As such, they're 80 percent larger than they were in the mid-20th century.

    Today, they look almost nothing like their Asian ancestor, the Red Junglefowl - even though they're technically the same species.

  • Modern-day domestic pigs are almost unrecognizable from their ancestors, which had wiry coats; were dark brown, gray, and black in color; and had long tusks. They were most likely domesticated 9,000 years ago in Asia. Today's farm-raised pigs are a non-threatening shade of pink (though some heritage breeds sport other colors), lack tusks, and are considerably larger. Pigs of all breeds have been bred for mass food production, yielding tender and fatty meat.

    Though the FDA prohibits growth hormones in the development of pork, the Austin Chronicle reported that as the popularity of raising pigs for pork skyrocketed from Christopher Columbus's time onward in North America: 

    The trend was for developing herds that produced higher numbers of offspring and pigs that were leaner (resulting in better feed efficiency). Husbandry methods emphasized control of diseases caused by huge factory pig-raising techniques, introducing the use of prophylactic antibiotics. Pork had become "the Other White Meat."