Meat from sheep, referred to as lamb from animals up to twelve months old and mutton thereafter, has been part of the human diet for thousands of years. Sheep were first domesticated in Mesopotamia, approximately 10 000 years ago. The animal was soon adopted in Central Asia, Africa and Europe. Sheep played a major economic role in pastoral societies, where people also used the wool and the skin, as well as the milk from the ewes. In America, on the other hand, native species of sheep were never domesticated. Reared sheep arrived there with Christopher Columbus, and were later brought to Australia, towards the end of the 18th century.
From earliest Antiquity, sheep and lambs were sacrificed to the gods and acquired the symbolic value of an innocent victim. Since then, lamb meat has often been a delicacy served as an expression of welcome. It has featured in banquets and celebrations and on special occasions in people’s lives, such as births, circumcisions and weddings. Between the 15th and 17th centuries, European aristocrats preferred the more expensive mutton and veal to beef.
Ovine meat is still popular today, although eating habits vary from region to region. In Europe, it is mainly eaten in Mediterranean countries and the British Isles. In France, consumption is in decline, especially amongst the younger generation. By contrast, demand has been increasing in Asia in recent years.