DNA Traces All Domesticated Cattle Back to One Small Herd From 10,500 Years Ago

Posted on March 27, 2012

A new genetic study has found that 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. Researchers first extracted 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).

Professor Mark Thomas, geneticist and an author of the study based at University College London, says, "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."

Aurochs were significantly wilder than modern cattle. Raising these big, angry animals would not have been an easy or enjoyable thing to do. You can read more about aurochs, the ancestor of modern cattle, here. The last auroch died in the Jaktorow Forest in Poland in 1627.

Professor Joachim Burger, an author of the study based at the University of Mainz, Germany, says, "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. 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."

The research paper, "Modern Taurine Cattle descended from small number of Near-Eastern founders," is published here in Molecular Biology and Evolution.