European aurochs DNA in domestic cattle

A study 1 just published by the Royal Society sheds some light on the genetic relationship between the European auroch and modern European cattle breeds. Cattle were initially domesticated perhaps around 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, and independently in India and probably Africa. As animal agriculture spread into Europe from the Middle East, domesticated cattle must have coexisted with wild European aurochs for some time, since aurochs in Europe didn’t die out until much later (in fact, the last aurochs appear to have lived in Poland around 1627). Analysis of contemporary as well as ancient mitochondrial DNA from Middle Eastern and Central European archaeological sites now seems to suggest that European cattle originated solely from Middle Eastern aurochs, and that no introgression of European auroch genes into domesticated cattle occurred during their long coexistence.

However, an earlier study 2 did show that there had indeed been introgression of auroch Y chromosomes into Northern and Central European domestic cattle and that these Y chromosome markers still exist in some European breeds. Of course, what might seem contradictory really isn’t: mitochondria are strictly inherited from one’s mother, and the mating of domestic cows with auroch bulls wouldn’t have left any mitochondrial evidence. It would be interesting to know whether such hybridization occurred surreptitiously or intentionally, which of course would suggest that early framers knew something about the benefits of cross-breeding.

From H. Michael Kubisch.

  1. Edwards CJ et al., 2007. Mitochondrial DNA analysis shows a Near Eastern Neolithic origin for domestic cattle and no indication of domestication of European aurochs. Proceedings Royal Society B 274:1377-1385 []
  2. Götherström A et al., 2005. Cattle domestication in the Near East was followed by hybridization with aurochs bulls in Europe. Proceedings Royal Society B 272:2345-2350 []

2 Replies to “European aurochs DNA in domestic cattle”

  1. Has any entity been involved, this century, in trying to revive the aurochs via selective breeding using recently generated gene maps from ancient tissue samples as guides? Such work might produce a viable population that would be more than a zoological curiosity: a new meat source, provided the required tameness also be bred in.

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