Most species of the present farm and pet animals were domesticated before the beginning of written history. Paleolithic man started gathering food by hunting wild animals, mostly herbivorous, because these species were grazers and browsers due to which it was easier to kill them. This process gradually changed to taming and then domestication.
Review of the accessible ancient literature of India and other civilizations from the Vedic period through the Epic, Puranic and Medieval period and modern studies reveal the existence of different kinds of buffaloes in Asian, African and some European countries. However, buffaloes are considered to have originated in Asia and Africa. Americas and Australia were devoid of buffaloes and the Europeans introduced different types of domesticated buffaloes in these continents.
Existence of different kinds of Indian (Asiatic) buffaloes has been recorded in all ages. In ancient literature, different forms of buffaloes have been described, ranging from docile riding beast to furious and powerful demons in the mythology of India, China, Indo-China, Assyro-Babylonia and ancient Persia.
Domestication of buffalo started much later than the domestication of horses, donkeys, dogs, cattle, sheep, goats and elephants. Buffalo was considered animal of the demon group and hunted for food upto Ramayana and Mahabharata epical period. In ‘Ram Charit Manas’ of Tulsidas, Demon King ‘Ravana’ went to awake his brother ‘Kumbhakarna’ from his deep sleep of six months and ordered to arrange supply of thousand pitchers of wine and large number of buffaloes for the feast of Kumbhkarna. During Mahabharata period too, buffalo was listed as wild animal. However, there is mention of rearing boars, buffaloes and elephants for food and other purposes. Buffaloes were well domesticated in the Indian subcontinent by the era of medieval period and they were considered milch animals along with cows, goats and sheep (Kautilya’s Arthasastra 381-186 B.C.).
A majority of the modern historians believe that buffaloes were first tamed and then domesticated for working in various agricultural operations before 2500 B.C. in Mesopotamia during the period of Akkadian dynasty and in Indus valley civilization of Indian subcontinent extending to Harappa, Mohanjodaro and some parts of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Haryana.
Evidence is available on the seals and sculptures, mostly depicting male buffaloes crowned with typical crescentic and massive horns now prevalent among the wild Indian and Swamp buffalo (Zeuner, 1963). On one of the seals of the Indus valley excavation in Lahore Museum, depiction of a buffalo on feeding trough can be considered a valid evidence of domestication of buffalo during that period. Some multicoloured ceramics of Nal culture of South Baluchistan exhibit buffaloes (Brentzes, 1969) and it is considered contemporary with the Indus valley culture.
Another river valley civilization – the Shang Dynasty (probably during 1766-1123 B.C.), existed along the Yangtze and Yellow rivers in China. Presence of tamed buffaloes has been mentioned in the Shang dynasty during the second millennium B.C. (White, 1974). The importance of buffalo in the life of people during Shang dynasty, as an important animal of socio-economic and cultural significance, is evident from the depiction of buffalo in different forms on the vessels and pillars of Shang period (Brentjes, 1969). Studies of skeletal fossils found during breaking of land in the North-East Thailand for rice cultivation provided evidence of buffalo domestication during the second millennium B.C. around 1600 B.C. (contemprary to Shang dynasty period) in Southeast Asian countries.
Till the restoration of further information on the domestication of buffaloes, it may be more appropriate to believe that wild buffaloes of the Indus valley (Bubalus arnee) were first tamed and domesticated in the region and then extended to Mesopotamia in the west and upto china in the east. From Mesopotamia, it spread westwards.
Indo-gangetic plain is the world’s largest fertile plain where the world’s first civilization settled for food security. The large area in the Indus valley was covered with marshy grasses, dense forests and grasslands intercepted by many rivers, streams and other water resources which provided suitable environment for human settlement and buffalo domestication in the valley.
Evolution of large number of buffalo breeds by people in the Indian subcontinent clearly suggests the importance given to this animal as a source of food and power, which were sufficient grounds for its domestication. Deep involvement of the people of this region led to evolving several breeds of buffaloes capable of thriving and performing in the prevalent agro-climatic conditions and herbage. Probably milk production formed the basis of selection and breeding which resulted in the evolution of farmers’ dairy breeds of riverine buffalo like Murrah, Kundi, Nili Ravi, Jaffarabadi, Mehsana, Surti etc.
Geographical division between Riverine and Swamp buffaloes is assumed to be provided by Patkai, Barail and Arkan-Yoma mountain ranges of Burma. Buffaloes to the west of these mountains are supposed to be the River type and those distributed to the east of these mountains (Far East) are believed to be the Swamp type.
All descript and nondescript South Indian buffaloes resemble Swamp buffaloes in external features with low milk yield and small body size. The karyotype of Orissa buffaloes is similar to 48 (????) chromosomes of Swamp buffalo (Bidar et al 1986). Therefore, the demarcation line between distribution of River and Swamp breeds within India (North South) is yet to be established by cytotaxonominists based on karyotypes. All nondescript and descript north Indian buffaloes are Riverine type (Chukrubarthi and Benjamin 1980).