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K. Kris Hirst

Domestication of Cattle - in China?

By November 27, 2013

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A recent article published in Nature Communications suggests, sort of, that cattle may have been domesticated in China.

Herd of Cows in Rural Yunnan Province, China
Herd of cattle in Yunnan Province, China. timquijano.

The story is a little odd. Two conjoined jawbones (mandibles) were identified as taurine (Bos taurus, the humpless cattle type thought to have been domesticated in the Taurus Mountains about 10,500 years ago) have been recovered from the Kongni ditch in northeastern China.

The mandibles are AMS radiocarbon dated between 10,756 and 10,565 years ago, and mitochondrial DNA studies of it suggest to the scholars that the beast had a distinct mitochondrial structure, distinct from other types of aurochs. It looks domesticated, based on the tooth wear. If the scholars are correct in their surmise that this is evidence of early taurine domestication in China, it might be pretty amazing news--but they come from a place called the "Kongni Ditch" without any additional description and that worries me, and I'm strongly reminded that context, if not everything, is a big hunk of the pie.

I've sent away for some more information about the context, and I'll report it if and when I hear back.

It may turn out that there's another cattle domestication center in China--heck, how would I know? and science as we know is a moving target--but at the moment, this is an outlier, so caution is in order.

Zhang H, Paijmans JLA, Chang F, Wu X, Chen G, Lei C, Yang X, Wei Z, Bradley DG, Orlando L et al. . 2013. Morphological and genetic evidence for early Holocene cattle management in northeastern China. Nature Communications 4:2755.


December 2, 2013 at 4:24 am
(1) AubergineFleur says:

You have Kongni Ditch as being near Harbin on your domestication of cattle page…

December 2, 2013 at 7:26 am
(2) Kris Hirst says:

Yes, that’s in the article I read. But, what kind of site is it (house, midden, burial?), what culture is represented, what other kinds of artifacts are there and how old are they, what’s the geological context–all of those kinds of questions are crucial to understanding the meaning of the cattle bones. A “ditch” sounds like the bones have been displaced by geological or human processes, but you can still get contextual data from it: when did the displacement happen, where was the original site? These questions will eventually be answered, I’m sure.

December 2, 2013 at 10:59 pm
(3) Dawn Driskill says:

Doesn’t the carbon date signify? I understand the context may be iffy but the dating stands. Unless you are saying the carbon dating is affected by the context?

December 3, 2013 at 7:29 am
(4) Kris Hirst says:

Absolutely, the radiocarbon date stands as does the DNA stuff, which is why I chose to talk about it. I’m just cautious: it’s the first evidence I’ve seen for a separate domestication event for aurochs in China and that’s definitely interesting.

December 3, 2013 at 7:32 am
(5) Sheila McGregor says:

From my own research into cattle domestication it goes invariably with lactase persistence (lactose tolerance) in the adult population. This is not the case in any Asian population I know of, from Turkey to Japan, though the Turks keep milk animals and convert the lactose by fermentation into yoghourt. IMO, if there were herds of tame cattle in China they must have been kept for meat, tallow and hides, much as the Bantu keep goats. But I agree: this seems a very odd finding. Sheila McGregor

December 3, 2013 at 12:25 pm
(6) Anthony says:

I would be curious to know if the bones were moved via natural earth movement and if so, what culture lies above the site? This might provide greater details as to the domestication practices during that era.

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