Integration of domestic geese into backyard flocks, homesteads, and small farms is becoming increasingly common. While geese may seem like a trendy and unique animal that’s just starting to gain traction in poultry popularity contests (and on social media), geese have been companions to humans for thousands of years.
Thus, in order to gain a better appreciation for these majestic and useful animals, it’s worth exploring the history of domesticated geese, including their evolutionary journey, origins, and reasons behind their domestication.
Evolutionary history of geese
One of the avian species to survive the cataclysmic asteroid impact and volcanoes at the end of the Cretaceous period was Vegavis iaai, which may have looked more like a loon but had skeletal qualities linking them to ducks and geese. For instance, one set of recently discovered Vegavis skeletal fossils includes a syrinx, aka the vocal anatomy that allows geese to honk and ducks to quack.
Based on the structural similarities of the fossilized syrinx to the syrinx of modern geese, scientists conclude that Vegavis iaai actually honked like a goose. Yes, fellow goose lovers, this means our planet has been home to the ear-piercing sounds of goose honks since at least the time of the dinosaurs!
So when you see your geese stand out in the elements, facing hurricane-force winds and pounding rain like some kind of feathered terminator (despite access to perfectly adequate shelter), perhaps that’s their ancestral genes, saying, “We survived a giant asteroid, volcanoes, thousands of years of raining fire, and the suspension of photosynthesis. Is this all you have for us now, sky?”
Origins of domestic geese
Modern genetic analyses have revealed that European domestic geese are descended from wild Greylag geese (Anser anser). However, Chinese domestic geese have two branches: most originated from swan geese (Anser cygnoides), whereas the more uncommon Yili goose originated from greylag geese.
Differences? Chinese domestic geese have a knob on their beak, and are smaller and lighter than their European counterparts. European domestic geese are larger and heavier, and produce less eggs than Chinese geese.
For reference, there are 20 species of wild geese in the world. After thousands of years of breeding, there are 135 distinct breeds of domestic geese, which are all descended from two goose species (and crosses between those two species).
Where and when did people first domesticate geese?
Groundbreaking research in 2022 concluded that geese were first domesticated at least 7,000 years ago in an ancient rice cultivation village in Tianluoshan, China. These findings make geese the oldest domesticated poultry species in history!
How did scientists determine that the bones were from domesticated geese rather than wild geese? First, one of the bones uncovered was from a gosling, despite the fact that no wild geese breed in that region.
Second, nitrogen-stable isotope composition of bones from mature geese found at the site showed they had a different diet than wild, migratory geese. Their diets were likely high in rice, which was provided by the rice farmers who bred and cared for them. There were also morphological differences between the domestic goose bones compared to wild goose bones.
What about European domestic geese?
As for when and where the first European goose domestication event occurred, the answer isn’t as clear. Possibilities include:
- 5,000 years ago in Southeastern Europe,
- 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia,
- 4,500 years ago in Egypt.
What’s the first species of poultry to be domesticated?
Geese may well be the first domestic poultry species, but that standing could change as new archaeological or genetic data comes to light.
Why? There’s fierce debate as to exactly when certain poultry species became domesticated versus simply being a wild bird that was eaten by our ancestors or that happened to be living in close proximity to our ancestors.
Based on the best available data to date, here is a chronological timeline of poultry domestication:
- Geese – When: 7,000 years ago / Where: China
- Pigeons – When: 4,000 years ago / Where: Egypt
- Chickens – When: 3,600 years ago / Where: Thailand
- Ducks – When: 2,500 years ago but who knows / Where: China
- Turkeys – When: 2,000 years ago / Where: Central America
- Guinea fowl – When: 2,000 years ago / Where: Sudan and Mali (Africa)
Domesticated geese spread throughout human civilization
Both Chinese and European domestic geese quickly spread throughout geographically connected human societies, where the animals were held in great esteem.
Paintings of geese were recorded from Ancient Egyptian and Grecian civilizations from the years 2686–1991 BCE. The ancient Romans wrote about utilizing goose feathers, meat, and fatty liver (commonly known as *foie gras).
(*As a side note, the making of foie gras is a horribly cruel practice that requires force-feeding geese, and I would encourage you to boycott any restaurant serving this very unethical “delicacy.”)
Archaeological evidence in Europe points to the “peak” of goose husbandry having occurred during the Middle Ages (aka medieval period), when peasants kept large flocks.
Reasons for goose domestication
So why did our ancestors domesticate geese? For the same reasons that geese remain popular today…
You can read my article “Top 10 reasons to raise geese” to get a detailed explanation of their positive attributes, but let’s summarize:
- Geese are highly adaptable, hardy, and reliable alarm systems.
- They provide huge, nutrient-rich eggs and are amazing parents, making the propagation of more geese easy as the rearing of goslings requires little human assistance.
- Their ability to forage on grass and graze in open spaces makes them ideal for utilizing marginal lands.
- Additionally, geese have been valued for their feathers, which were used for bedding, writing quills, and ornamental purposes.
- Perhaps most obviously, geese provide a source of meat.
Regardless of how you feel about eating animals, we can certainly honor how geese have provided human beings with nourishment throughout our comparatively small history. (Note that we, at Hoof and Feather, do not raise our geese for meat, but we recognize that many people have done so for thousands of years ).
Have you thanked a goose today?
Geese are closely related descendants of the honking waterfowl that survived earth’s greatest extinction event. Perhaps the first avian species to be domesticated by humans, the history of the domestic goose is also deeply intertwined with the history of human civilization.
It’s my hope that as more people discover the joy and utility of keeping these special birds, we can collectively treat them with a deep respect. May these cherished companions continue to be integral to our cultural, culinary, and agricultural heritage!
Other helpful goose articles:
- 7 reasons why you shouldn’t get geese
- Male or female geese – which should you get?
- What to feed geese: all your questions answered
- Adult geese vs goslings: which should you get?
- How to hatch goose eggs
- How to poach goose and duck eggs to perfection
- Top 10 reasons to raise geese
- How to introduce new geese to your flock