Do you ever think about where your food originated? I find it, as an agricultural anthropologist, fascinating. Scientists using DNA genetic technology have now determined that all domestic cattle of every breed are descended from one herd of as few as 80 wild ox, also called aurochs, around 10,500 years ago. This is around the same time and in one of the same places where crop agriculture emerged.
It has long been known that the ancestors of domesticated cattle are aurochs. What makes this study so exciting and interesting is that these ancestors were so small in number and originated in only one location when aurochs were widespread in Europe and parts of Asia. This herd came from what is modern day Iran.
DNA was extracted from the bones of domesticated cattle found in various Iranian archaeological sites, so the age of the bones was known. The scientists “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).”
Also from the article, DNA Traces Cattle Back to a Small Herd Domesticated Around 10,500 Years Ago,
“Prof Mark Thomas, geneticist and an author of the study based at the UCL Research Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment [in the UK”]: “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.
“Prof Joachim Burger, an author of the study based at the University of Mainz, Germany, said: “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.”