12 May 2006

Where Did Cows Come From?

An artist's depiction of an auroch.

The latest research injects some nuance into the general picture that wild aurochs were domesticated in the Neolithic era, noting that in addition to the Near East and India, some important parts of the domestication process took place from Southern European wild cattle and possibly North African wild cattle.

Cattle domestication from wild aurochsen was among the most important innovations during the Neolithic agricultural revolution. The available genetic and archaeological evidence points to at least two major sites of domestication in India and in the Near East, where zebu and the taurine breeds would have emerged independently. Under this hypothesis, all present-day European breeds would be descended from cattle domesticated in the Near East and subsequently spread during the diffusion of herding and farming lifestyles.

We present here previously undescribed genetic evidence in contrast with this view, based on mtDNA sequences from five Italian aurochsen dated between 7,000 and 17,000 years B.P. and >1,000 modern cattle from 51 breeds. Our data are compatible with local domestication events in Europe and support at least some levels of introgression from the aurochs in Italy. The distribution of genetic variation in modern cattle suggest also that different south European breeds were affected by introductions from northern Africa. If so, the European cattle may represent a more variable and valuable genetic resource than previously realized, and previous simple hypotheses regarding the domestication process and the diffusion of selected breeds should be revised.

Aurochs themselves are now extinct.

By the end of the 16th century only a small herd of Aurochs survived near to Warsaw, and in 1627 the last Auroch in Europe died. Although they survived longer in Asia, they became extinct there about a hundred years later.

All domestic cattle originate from Auroch, but no wild type now survives. They were much larger than today’s cattle and had a darker colour. The males were much larger than the females and had very long curving horns. The females were lighter in colour, with shorter horns. They weighed between 600 and 1000 kilograms.

Evolution isn't just the stuff of fossils.

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