Study traces genetic origins of cattle

All modern livestock, including these Scottish highland cattle, near Silverthorne, Colorado, may be descended from a small herd of 80 wild ox domesticated in the Near East about 10,000 year ago. PHOTO BY BOB BERWYN.

New research suggests all modern cows can be traced back to a small herd of domesticated aurochs in the Near East

By Summit Voice

If you’ve ever wondered why most cows look basically the same, a team of French, German and British researchers may have the answer.

After studying DNA extracted from the bones of domestic cattle excavated in Iranian archaeological sites, the scientists said all cattle are descended from as few as 80 animals that were domesticated from wild ox in the Near East some 10,500 years ago. The sites that were studied date to not long after the invention of farming and are in the region where cattle were first domesticated.

The team examined how small differences in the DNA sequences of those ancient cattle, as well as cattle living today, could have arisen given different population histories. Using computer simulations they found that the DNA differences could only have arisen if a small number of animals, approximately 80, were domesticated from wild ox (aurochs).

“Getting reliable DNA sequences from remains found in cold environments is routine,” said Dr. Ruth Bollongino, lead author of the study and a researcher with the CNRS and National Museum of Natural History in France.

“That is why mammoths were one of the first extinct species to have their DNA read. But getting reliable DNA from bones found in hot regions is much more difficult because temperature is so critical for DNA survival. This meant we had to be extremely careful that we did not end up reading contaminating DNA sequences from living, or only recently dead cattle.”

The number of animals domesticated has important implications for the archaeological study of domestication.

“This is a surprisingly small number of cattle. We know from archaeological remains that the wild ancestors of modern-day cattle, known as aurochs, were common throughout Asia and Europe, so there would have been plenty of opportunities to capture and domesticate them,” said Professor Mark Thomas, geneticist and an author of the study based at the UCL Research Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment.

“Wild aurochs are very different beasts from modern domestic cattle. They were much bigger than modern cattle, and wouldn’t have had the domestic traits we see today, such as docility,” said Professor Joachim Burger.

“So capturing these animals in the first place would not have been easy, and even if some people did manage snare them alive, their continued management and breeding would still have presented considerable challenges until they had been bred for smaller size and more docile behavior,” he added.

Archaeological studies on the number and size of prehistoric animal bone have shown that not only cattle, but also goats, sheep and pigs were all first domesticated in the Near East. But saying how many animals were domesticated for any of those species is a much harder question to answer. Classical techniques in archaeology cannot give us the whole picture, but genetics can help – especially if some of the genetic data comes from early domestic animals.

Dr Jean-Denis Vigne, a CNRS bio-archaeologist and author on the study, said: “In this study genetic analysis allowed us to answer questions that – until now –archaeologists would not even attempt to address.

“A small number of cattle progenitors is consistent with the restricted area for which archaeologists have evidence for early cattle domestication ca. 10,500 years ago. This restricted area could be explained by the fact that cattle breeding, contrary to, for example, goat herding, would have been very difficult for mobile societies, and that only some of them were actually sedentary at that time in the Near East.”

Dr Marjan Mashkour, a CNRS archaeologist working in the Middle East, said, “This study highlights how important it can be to consider archaeological remains from less well-studied regions, such as Iran. Without our Iranian data it would have been very difficult to draw our conclusions, even though they concern cattle at a global scale”.

The study is published in the current issue of the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution. Dr Ruth Bollongino of CNRS, France, and the University of Mainz, Germany; lead author of the study, said: “Getting reliable DNA sequences from remains found in cold environments is routine.


4 thoughts on “Study traces genetic origins of cattle

  1. That makes sense though I think. Domestication attempts were probably viewed as unusual by the rest of the population (you know, “What do mean you want to keep an auroch as a pet??”). So maybe it would take the concerted effort of an entire village of weirdos to really get the ball rolling 😛

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