Cattle domestication in the Near East was followed by hybridization with aurochs bulls in Europe


Cattle domestication in the Near East was followed by hybridization with aurochs bulls in Europe

Domesticated cattle were one of the cornerstones of European Neolithisation and are thought to have been introduced to Europe from areas of aurochs domestication in the Near East. This is consistent with mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) data, where a clear separation exists between modern European cattle and ancient specimens of British aurochsen. However, we show that Y chromosome haplotypes of north European cattle breeds are more similar to haplotypes from ancient specimens of European aurochsen, than to contemporary cattle breeds from southern Europe and the Near East. There is a sharp north–south gradient across Europe among modern cattle breeds in the frequencies of two distinct Y chromosome haplotypes; the northern haplotype is found in 20 out of 21 European aurochsen or early domestic cattle dated 9500–1000 BC. This indicates that local hybridization with male aurochsen has left a paternal imprint on the genetic composition of modern central and north European breeds. Surreptitious mating between aurochs bulls and domestic cows may have been hard to avoid, or may have occurred intentionally to improve the breeding stock. Rather than originating from a few geographical areas only, as indicated by mtDNA, our data suggest that the origin of domestic cattle may be far more complex than previously thought.

This paper contains some ancient DNA from cattle bones. Some from the LBK culture, others from Italy, Austria and Scandinavia. The Italian and Scandiavian samples were pre-domestic, wild cattle.


Figure 1. Map showing the distribution of the Y1 (open) and Y2 (filled) Y chromosome haplotypes among modern cattle
breeds in Europe, defined by country of origin. Size of the sectors is defined by the number of animals identified within
each region with either haplotype. Due to small sample size, data from France, Spain, and Portugal are combined into a
single chart.

I keep seeing contradictory results about auroch DNA in modern cattle. Possibly it’s becasue the mt and Y DNA show very different patterns.

However, while domestic cattle from northern and southern Europe share the same mtDNA lineage, domestic cattle from northern Europe show closer affinity with aurochsen Y chromosome haplotypes sampled locally than with domestic southern European or Anatolian populations. Thus, while hundreds of assayed European domesticates show no maternal contribution from European aurochs (e.g. Troy et al. 2001), north European cattle Y chromosomes seem predominantly to be a local legacy of wild ox.

I’m starting to wonder if semi-wild herding/herd managing similar to the way the Saami live may not have been practised for a lot longer than pastoralism proper in Anatolia, the Ssahara and Europe. The Nabta Playa cattle just seem to have water provided but are physcially like wild Bos, so an intermediate stage of herd tending before pastorlism proper began would seem possible. Some studies in Mesolithic Europe show signs of very high grass pollens and field weeds long before agriculture, so I think it’s possible fields were being cleared to provide grasslands for the herds (there’s no evidence of grain eating). Not domestication again, but management of a resource. Ancient Europeans ate a mostly meat based diet, so herd managing would make a lot more sense as a first step towards the Neolithic then growing plants.

After one very enlightening comment on another page, I’m beginning to think the Neolithic expansion proper may have been more to do with using cattle-power to plough combined with the domestication of grain. Ploughing would have made planting large fields of grain viable. Prior to that a lot of seed would have been lost  to birds, wouldn’t have set, etc, and it would have opened up new possiblities in farmland that previously wouldn’t have produced anything worthwhile, not to mention the extra yield per hour of human labour. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of research on the history of the plough, the oldest I could find goes back about 8,000 years. But it seems odd to think ancient Turks were milking them 500 years earlier but not using them to pull a plough, so I suspect plough use is older. Also there is a PIE word Ar (arable derives from it), which means to plough, and this would suggest the plough might predate the PIE expansion (about 9,000 years ago).

One response to “Cattle domestication in the Near East was followed by hybridization with aurochs bulls in Europe

  1. Form to function achieved by Michael McDermott of Blue Ox Farms, Kelliher, MN. Unlike breeding attempts by the Heck brothers, McDermott’s use of only three common beef breeds assures easy utilization to fix traits for breeding status and future ecological usage. ( Please note, importance of Key creatures for maintaining diversity). Studies show ten fold increase in flora and fauna by utilizing pureblood Highlaqnd cattle where extinct Aurochs may have fit in ecology of forest and grassland plains. See also the newly published book by Pensoft, Cis Van Vuure; Morphology and Ecology of an extinct Ox.

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