European farmers used primeval oxen in cattle breeding

Domesticated cattle in central and northern Europe are more closely related on the father’s side with the primordial oxen that once populated Europe than with the cattle that the first farmers brought with them up through Europe during the Great Migration. This provides a new picture of the transition from a hunting and gathering society to agrarian culture. The findings are being presented in an article by research from Uppsala University in Sweden in the latest issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society of London.

The primeval ox, extinct since 1627, was once spread over Europe and in parts of Asia and Africa. Today’s domesticated cattle descend from this ancient ox, which was domesticated some 10,000 years ago. As with many other domesticated animals, it has been assumed that this took place in a limited number of geographic regions, in the case of cattle, in the fertile river valleys of Mesopotamia, on the one hand, and, on the other, in India.

“When it comes to cattle in Europe, it has been assumed that they descend from already domesticated animals that the first farmers brought with them in the Great Migration up through Europe several thousand years ago,” says Hans Ellegren, professor of evolutionary biology at Uppsala University in Sweden, who carried out the study together with his colleagues Anders Götherstam and Cecilia Anderung.

The discovery that cattle in central and especially northern Europe evince greater genetic similarity with European prehistoric oxen than with cattle from southern and southeastern Europe is thus surprising. But this similarity is seen only in the Y chromosome, the chromosome that is inherited only from the father. In the part of the genes that is inherited only from the mother, the mitochondrial DNA, European cattle and primordial oxen are genetically distinct. The findings therefore indicate that there was cross-breeding between the first domesticated cows that came to Europe and wild pre-historic bull oxen.

“It might be thought, on the one hand, that the early free ranging of cattle led to unintentional cross-breeding and that this was simply impossible to prevent. Another interpretation would be that the early farmers intentionally improved the breeding stock by having wild bulls mount their cows,” says Hans Ellegren.

The study thereby calls into question the classical model of the origin of domesticated animals, according to which it has been assumed that once the early agrarian cultures had successfully domesticated a wild animal, the use of this animal was disseminated primarily through trade or migration of people.

“It’s now time to revise this model. The transition from hunters and gatherers to farmers seems to have been more complex than was previously believed,” concludes Hans Ellegren.

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