Stone-Age Property in Domestic Animals

28 Pages Posted: 31 Mar 2013 Last revised: 26 Jul 2016

Date Written: March 29, 2013


Only yesterday, all animals were wild. Zoological archaeologists assert that about 15,000 years ago, our hunter-gatherer forebears achieved the first domestication — the dog. Over the course of ensuing millennia, they proceeded to domesticate sheep, cattle, and other livestock. By the advent of the Bronze Age, domestic animals had come to constitute a major component of human wealth. Domestications required Stone Age people to create various informal property rules to resolve conflicting claims to the ownership of a domestic beast. A brand on an animal, for example, might have been considered adequate notice to a hunter that another person’s tamed animal was no longer up for grabs. This article marshals indirect sources of evidence, such as the practices of modern-day hunter-gatherers and the historical materials left by the earliest civilizations, to ground hypotheses about the substance of primeval property rights in domestic animals. These sources suggest, for example, that during the Neolithic Period (the late Stone Age) both dogs and livestock conventionally would have been owned privately by either an individual or a family, and not, as Friedrich Engels speculated, communally by a band or a tribe.

Keywords: property rights, domestic animals, cattle, dogs, Stone Age, Neolithic Period, Friedrich Engels, William Blackstone

JEL Classification: K11, O13, P32

Suggested Citation

Ellickson, Robert C., Stone-Age Property in Domestic Animals (March 29, 2013). Yale Law & Economics Research Paper No. 468, Available at SSRN: or

Robert C. Ellickson (Contact Author)

Yale Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-432-7033 (Phone)

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