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DNA traces cattle back to a small herd domesticated around 10,500 years ago

Of the domesticated species, discussions about cattle have been particularly controversial in recent years, due to genetic studies that have attempted to determine their origins. The controversial element of the discussions comes from the use of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA).

It is generally agreed that cattle were very important – they could be used not only for meat, hides and dairy products, but also for ploughing, traction and transportation. People kept cattle around for easy access to food, including milk, blood, and meat, and for use as load-bearers and plows.

Studies into cattle genetics of different areas have suggested three possible origins of domestication:  Africa, the Near East (possibly Mesopotamia), and southwest Turkey. However, in Africa, at least, a local origin is partially supported by the finds of cattle in the southeastern Western Desert, where it is thought that cattle were herded before plant cultivation was established.

The archaeological record for the domestication of wild forms of cattle (Bos primigenius) indicates that the process occurred independently at least twice and perhaps three times.

The taurine (humpless, B. taurus) was probably domesticated somewhere in the Fertile Crescent about 8,000 years ago. Taurine cattle were apparently traded across the planet, and appear in archaeological sites of northeastern Asia (China, Mongolia, Korea) about 5000 years ago.

Evidence for domesticated zebu (humped cattle, B. indicus) has been discovered at the site of Mehrgahr, in the Indus Valley of Pakistan, about 7,000 years ago, while scholars are divided about the likelihood of a third domestication event, in Africa.

The earliest domesticated cattle in Africa have been found at Capeletti, Algeria, about 6500 BP, but Bos remains are found at African sites in what is now Egypt, such as Nabta Playa and Bir Kiseiba as long ago as 9,000 years, and they may be domesticated. If these remains were indeed domesticated, then they represent the first event of domesticating cattle.

Recent mitochondrial DNA studies support the archaeological notion of multiple domestication events, with genetics indicating that breeds domesticated in the Near East and introduced into Europe where they mixed with local wild animals (aurochs), and with African domesticated cattle.

Although the site of Rosenkof in northern Germany has been the focus of some discussion arguing in support of an independent European domestication of cattle, aDNA evidence does not support such a designation, and no evidence for local domestication of cattle in Europe has been identified.

In addition, a 2010 publication suggests that African cattle are also likely descended from previously domesticated cattle in the Near East and/or Indus Valley.

Important sites include Mehrgahr, Pakistan; Catalhoyuk, Turkey; Capeletti, Algeria; Nabta Playa, Egypt; Uan Muhuggiag, Libya; and Bir Kiseiba, Egypt.

An international team of scientists from the CNRS and National Museum of Natural History in France, the University of Mainz in Germany, and UCL in the UK were able to conduct the study by first extracting DNA from the bones of domestic cattle excavated in Iranian archaeological sites. These sites 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).

According to the genetic study 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.

DNA traces cattle back to a small herd domesticated around 10,500 years ago

Cattle – History of the Domestication of the Cow

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