The Rise of the Ruminants

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

All mammals produce milk for their young, but only a closely related handful have been exploited by humans. Cattle, water buffalo, sheep, goats, camels, yaks: these suppliers of plenty were created by a scarcity of food. Around 30 million years ago, the earth’s warm, moist climate became seasonally arid. This shift favored plants that could grow quickly and produce seeds to survive the dry period, and caused a great expansion of grasslands, which in the dry seasons became a sea of desiccated, fibrous stalks and leaves. So began the gradual decline of the horses and the expansion of the deer family, the ruminants, which evolved the ability to survive on dry grass. Cattle, sheep, goats, and their relatives are all ruminants.