History on the Hoof
The genetic record reveals today’s cattle have complicated pasts.
Most scholars agree that hunter-gatherers living in the Middle East were the first to embrace the advantages of plant cultivation, and that the domestication of animals followed soon thereafter. Few of these farm-friendly creatures rivaled the importance of cattle, a fact made plain by the speed with which they spread throughout the prehistoric world.
In recent years, scientists have been using the power of genetics to get a better sense of how this dispersal, and the interbreeding that inevitably accompanied it, eventually laid the genomic groundwork of modern breeds. Among these investigators is Jared Decker, an assistant professor of animal science at MU.
Decker’s most recent work, completed with a team of international researchers, involved charting the genetic history of 134 cattle breeds from around the world. Their study, published in the journal PLoS Genetics, used this data to weigh the breeds’ genetic similarities and differences. Perhaps not surprisingly, they determined today’s bovines have complicated family trees.
Locally domesticated cattle from Bali, for example, had been bred with ancient imports from India, cattle in Italy and Spain shared ancestry with African breeds, and cattle in Korea and Japan turned out to have genetic material from Europe. The researchers also determined that unique American breeds, such as Texas Longhorns, are no less diverse. They’re the result of breeding between Spanish cattle, transported from Europe by explorers in the 16th century, with breeds of Zebu, or Brahman, cattle from India, that were imported into the United States via Brazil in the late 1800s.
Even more intriguing is a finding that sheds light on some of the earliest effects of animal husbandry. Researchers previously suspected that ancient African people domesticated indigenous cattle breeds some 10,000 years ago. In fact, Decker’s study found these livestock were imported from the Fertile Crescent.
“In the case of African cattle, anthropologists and geneticists used to suspect that domesticated African cattle were native to the continent, when in fact, they were brought by migrating peoples thousands of years ago,” he says.
Such points, Decker says, are of more than simply esoteric interest.
“By better understanding the history of the animals we domesticate, we can better understand ourselves,” he says, adding that advancing our knowledge of cattle breeding is also important for animal farmers looking to maximize their herds’ meat and dairy production.
“Now that we have this more complete genetic history of cattle worldwide, we can better understand the diversity of the species,” Decker said. “By understanding the variations present, we can improve cattle for agricultural purposes, whether that is through breeding more disease-resistant animals or finding ways to increase dairy or beef production.”