According to The Modern Farmer, people have been farming deer since the 1970s. The link provided also explains the benefits deer farming has over conventional livestock farming. The one fundamental problem I have with this is that they're still farming wild deer. Which means that they are not yet completely reliant on humans, along with other environmentalist complaints.

So let's hypothesize on deer farming during the Neolithic, a time when agriculture was just starting. We still have Rangifer, the caribou, only this time, they are FULLY domesticated, not SEMI-domesticated. There are also the deer listed in the link, too:

  • Cervus (wapiti, sika and red deer, though I'm personally not so sure considering how big and volatile they are, especially during rutting season)
  • Axis axis (chital, or Indian spotted deer)
  • Dama dama (fallow deer)
  • Odocoileus (whitetails and mules)

If any one of these have been bred to serve humans in the sixth or seventh millennium BCE, would we still breed cattle, sheep and goats along with them, or would the domesticated deer fill all three niches at once?

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    $\begingroup$ What's to say that neolithic man didn't try to domesticate the deer? People, like all things living, take the path of least resistance. If the scrawny deer were harder to domesticate than the big, fat cows, the decision to domesticate deer would have been abandoned by all but Ugh, who couldn't be trusted to use common sense. But he was in great shape, cows are easier to catch than deer, after all. $\endgroup$ – JBH Mar 20 '18 at 22:15
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    $\begingroup$ Elk were "domesticated" hundreds of years ago. Many tribes in Finland and Russia (Syberia) consider elk a regular domestic animals, like we do cows. $\endgroup$ – Nuloen The Seeker Mar 20 '18 at 23:06
  • $\begingroup$ @NuloenTheSeeker Elk were never European. $\endgroup$ – JohnWDailey Dec 2 '18 at 4:04

Yes we would breed other things, but I think you're missing another important point.

To answer your question, deer probably wouldn't fill all the niches of domestication. Different meat and milk tastes different, and the raising conditions are different from other animals as well. Once a diversity of animals are available, people will want to have more than one type of animal. Diseases can also be spread amongst animals, but have a harder time crossing to a different species. In other words, spreading your animals types helps prevent ecological and biological strains on your environment.

The point I think you've skipped is why would deer be domesticated in the first place. I suggest this video by CGP Grey explaining the prerequisites to domestication. Part of domestication is the ease of domesticating the animal. Deer are nervous, run fast, and can jump quite high. This makes them hard to capture and hard to keep captured, especially with neolithic technology. (Do you want to build a 10 foot rock enclosure?)

So domestication of the deer in the first place would likely be so difficult it would not be tried. That's why we got the animals we have in the first place. You might want to come up with a feasible reason why the deer would and could have been domesticated in the first place.

  • $\begingroup$ Your note on the difficulties of domesticating deer reminds me of my own question Could circa-1600 humans have domesticated or tamed kangaroos? (which also, incidentally, might provide a summary of the points in the video, which I haven't watched...) $\endgroup$ – a CVn Mar 20 '18 at 21:35
  • $\begingroup$ The video basically sums up those points. It's worth a watch. $\endgroup$ – Unassuming Guy Mar 20 '18 at 21:41
  • $\begingroup$ "Deer are nervous, run fast, and can jump quite high. This makes them hard to capture and hard to keep captured, especially with neolithic technology." So how did those deer farmers keep them penned in? $\endgroup$ – JohnWDailey Dec 2 '18 at 4:05


Cows, sheep and goats are not niches. They fulfill niches in separate terrains. Which is why we still herd all of them 7000 years later.

Besides meat and hide:

  • beasts of burden: a reindeer can pull a sleigh, but can it pull a plow? Can it pull a yoked plow.
  • milk: do "they" produce as much milk as old breeds of cattle?
  • wool: not too much on deer.
  • size: a small herd of goats is easier/cheaper to maintain than a small herd of deer.
  • $\begingroup$ Not only no wool, but the hair is 'sliped' you cannot tan a deer hide to maintain a hairy surface it falls out easily. $\endgroup$ – Sherwood Botsford Mar 20 '18 at 22:41
  • $\begingroup$ Why would we still need wool? Wouldn't that risk overheating? Besides, wild sheep were never woolly. $\endgroup$ – JohnWDailey Mar 21 '18 at 3:59
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnWDailey "Wouldn't that risk overheating?" You're trolling us. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Mar 21 '18 at 4:02
  • $\begingroup$ No, I'm serious. $\endgroup$ – JohnWDailey Mar 21 '18 at 4:54
  • $\begingroup$ Besides, I've read that middle age people used to rely on oxen for plowing, but moved to lighter and more reliable horses. $\endgroup$ – JohnWDailey Mar 21 '18 at 4:57

We have elk ranches (wapati) in Alberta. Raising them is hard.

  • They don't like crowding.
  • Big fences. (Expensive)
  • Seem to get sick a lot. A variety of tuburculosis, brucelosis, diseases that require destroying the herd.
  • Meat is leaner than what people like.
  • $\begingroup$ Elk was my favorite meat growing up in Alberta! $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Mar 21 '18 at 3:22

Read the book Guns, Germs and Steel from Jared Diamond. He explains it better than I can, and in more detail. It comes to this:

Man has tried to domesticate what was possible. As you know, that are not too many species. Some are simply to dangerous. Lions and tigers eat large monkeys - which is what we are. Rhinos, giraffes and especially cape buffaloes don't eat us, but are very bit as dangerous.

Other species take too long to produce offspring. Elephants for example take 20 years between generations. That is way too long for breeding. Apart from the fact that they are very expensive to keep.

Others, deer, for example, cannot be kept in captivity. You need insanely high fences, otherwise they jump over. They are very skittish, that is their natural response to danger.

And others are not herd animals. Zebras come to mind. Unlike horses, they not necessarily follow a leader. They're individualists. With a very bad attitude. Some animals, like cheetas can't breed in captivity. They need a yard of 25 km for that.

And finally, other animals, such as moose or elk, are a wee bit too smart. They notice it immediately if one of their flock or herd is taken to a barn and never comes out. Alive, that is. You can play that trick a few times, but after that you can't get them into that barn.

  • $\begingroup$ "one of their flock or herd is taken to a barn and never comes out. Alive, that is." Reminds me of Animal Farm. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Mar 21 '18 at 8:29
  • $\begingroup$ "Others, deer, for example, cannot be kept in captivity. You need insanely high fences, otherwise they jump over. They are very skittish, that is their natural response to danger." So how did those deer farmers keep them penned in? $\endgroup$ – JohnWDailey Mar 21 '18 at 16:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Jos - Diamond may have oversimplified elephant generation lengths. Female elephants usually become fertile in their teens, like humans. In the wild, male elephants usually aren't allowed to mate until they are in their 30s and 40s, thus often being twice the age of their mates. In captivity, some elephants become parents at young ages. Packy (1962-2017) was born when his mother was 10 and his father 15, and was 13 years older than his first child. I have read somewhere of a captive elephant becoming a father age 9. $\endgroup$ – M. A. Golding Mar 21 '18 at 16:48

A different domesticization?

When we think of domestic animals we think of the way it was done in the Near East and Africa: animal husbandry with large herds of grazers and large open pasture / range land. Animals used for meat and milk both. Gentle animals accustomed to be handled.

But could deer be domesticated in a different way? What if what you had to work with was woodland, not savannah or plains? And what if you had no cattle or donkeys or sheep? Maybe deer (and turkeys??) could be your domestic animals.

Here is a scenario.

1. http://www.aboutnorthgeorgia.com/ang/Woodland_Indians

During the Middle Woodland period throughout the North American continent, most nomadic tribes began to form permanent settlements. Only in the area east of the Mississippi River and south of the Cumberland River did a large number of nomadic groups continue to exist. Archeologists believe that abundant game, especially deer, made it possible for some groups to continue their nomadic ways. Near the end of Middle Woodland Era the bow and arrow entered into common use.

The nomadic Amerinds are aware that their way of life depends on a healthy deer population. They begin to manage their ecosystem to help the deer. Purposeful burns clear out brush and maximize edge ecosystems favored by deer. Although it is not possible to know all the motivations of prehistoric people, some think that the Amerinds did exactly this. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Native_American_use_of_fire

  1. The forest is now managed as deer habitat in much the way other civilizations manage pasturage. Plants which do not provide good browse are removed. Plants which provide good browse are encouraged. The forest is gradually turned into a series of managed "feeding stations", analogous to the way modern persons who wish to encourage deer set up feeding stations.


Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate with a land manager’s goals. Food plots fail. Droughts and harsh winters happen. That’s why most hunters who are intent on growing the healthiest deer herd possible take matters into their own hands and implement a supplemental feeding program.

  1. The taking of deer for meat evolves. These fed and managed deer are not chased through the forest as a wolf might do, but rather gently led to slaughter via constructions and land management. I think of the slaughterhouse innovations developed by Temple Grandin who perceived analogies between her own autistic view of the world and the worldview of animals, and turned these observations into humane improvements of the slaughter process.

She has lectured widely about her first-hand experiences of the anxiety of feeling threatened by everything in her surroundings, and of being dismissed and feared, which allegedly motivates her work in humane livestock handling processes. She studied the behavior of cattle, how they react to ranchers, movements, objects, and light. Grandin then designed adapted curved corrals, intended to reduce stress, panic and injury in animals being led to slaughter.

  1. Lacking any fear-inducing interactions with humans, and also now lacking natural predators (which have been eradicated), these deer change over time in much the way populations isolated on islands change. Over the generations these deer increasingly lack fear at all. Their populations live more and more intimately with those of the Amerinds who manage them.

A concrete thinker would object that deer in the scenario I describe are not domestic because they do not live in pens like cattle. A more liberal approach to domesticity would note that these deer depend on humans for their existence and do not treat humans as predators, and so have been domesticated.


No, deer farming would not supplant the other forms of farming but probably complement it. The other three animals you name can all live in relatively the same environment but haven't supplanted one another. So logic would suggest that this would hold for the deer as well.

Also a deer can never fill the niche of the cow or the goat. One of the main niches of cow is the taste of cow meat, milk and cheese the same for sheep and goat. This I think is the main reason for the variety and a niche that the deer can never fill.

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    $\begingroup$ Especially cheese and butter. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Mar 20 '18 at 21:02
  • $\begingroup$ Looks as though you haven't read the link. $\endgroup$ – JohnWDailey Mar 20 '18 at 21:18
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnWDailey I read the link, and nothing in that link contradicts what DJ wrote. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Mar 20 '18 at 21:27
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnWDailey Following links shouldn't be required for answering a question. If the linked material is important enough to influence answers, a summary of the salient points should go straight into the question. If the linked page changes or is taken offline for some reason, ability to answer a question (or to understand an answer) should ideally not be affected; in practice, we can at least strive for this to not be affected for someone with relevant subject matter expertise. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Mar 20 '18 at 21:37
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    $\begingroup$ Re taste, some people prefer venison, and consider beef a rather inferior alternative. Reindeer cheese en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reindeer_cheese is also quite tasty, and AFAIK there's no inherent reason why deer couldn't be selectively bred to produce milk as abundantly as cows - whose own milk production is the product of millenia of selective breeding. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Mar 21 '18 at 3:21

Deer farming in different forms has been practiced for millenia but has lots of problems.

They just don't offer the advantages of cows or sheep which are herd animals and can easily be enclosed and herded. Cows are a better source of meat, sheep have wool etc,. So deer would not supplant them. Deer also have a different disposition and are very hard to catch.

Outlying Islands of England/Scotland were great for deer, because they cannot escape and can be hunted at leisure, but trying to enclose them elsewhere would be a huge problem that other animals do not pose.


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