The archaeological record for the domestication of wild forms of cattle (Bos primigenius) indicates that the process occurred independently at least twice and perhaps three times. People kept cattle around for easy access to food, including milk, blood, and meat, and for use as load-bearers and plows.
Three Cattle Domesticates
The taurine (humpless, B. taurus) was probably domesticated somewhere in the Fertile Crescent about 8,000 years ago. Taurine cattle were apparently traded across the planet, and appear in archaeological sites of northeastern Asia (China, Mongolia, Korea) about 5000 years ago.
Evidence for domesticated zebu (humped cattle, B. indicus) has been discovered at the site of Mehrgahr, in the Indus Valley of Pakistan, about 7,000 years ago.
Scholars are divided about the likelihood of a third domestication event, in Africa. The earliest domesticated cattle in Africa have been found at Capeletti, Algeria, about 6500 BP, but Bos remains are found at African sites in what is now Egypt, such as Nabta Playa and Bir Kiseiba as long ago as 9,000 years, and they may be domesticated. If these remains were indeed domesticated, then they represent the first event of domesticating cattle.
Support for Separate DomesticationsRecent mitochondrial DNA studies support the archaeological notion of multiple domestication events, with genetics indicating that breeds domesticated in the Near East and introduced into Europe where they mixed with local wild animals (aurochs), and with African domesticated cattle. Although the site of Rosenkof in northern Germany has been the focus of some discussion arguing in support of an independent European domestication of cattle, aDNA evidence does not support such a designation, and no evidence for local domestication of cattle in Europe has been identified. In addition, a 2010 publication suggests that African cattle are also likely descended from previously domesticated cattle in the Near East and/or Indus Valley.
This article is part of the About.com Guide to the History of Animal Domestication.
Ajmone-Marsan P, Garcia JF, and Lenstra JA. 2010. On the origin of cattle: How aurochs became cattle and colonized the world. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews 19(4):148-157.
Beja-Pereira, Albano, et al. 2006 The origin of European cattle: Evidence from modern and ancient DNA. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103(21):8113-8118.
Bradley, Daniel G., Ronan T. Loftus, Patrick Cunningham, and David E. MacHugh 1998 Genetics and domestic cattle origins. Evolutionary Anthropology 6(3):79-86.
Bradley, Daniel G. 2003. Genetic hoofprints. Natural History February 2003.
Brass, M. 2007. Reconsidering the emergence of social complexity in early Saharan pastoral societies, 5000-2500 BC. Sahara 18: 1-16
Götherström, Anders, et al. 2005 Cattle domestication in the Near East was followed by hybridization with aurochs bulls in Europe. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 272(1579):2345-2350. Free download
Mannen, H. et al. 2004. Independent mitochondrial origin and historical genetic differentiation in North Eastern Asian cattle. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 32(2):539-544.
Scheu, Amelie, et al. 2008 Ancient DNA provides no evidence for independent domestication of cattle in Mesolithic Rosenhof, Northern Germany. Journal of Archaeological Science 35:1257-1264.
Wendorf, Fred and Romuald Schild 1994 Are the early Holocene cattle in the eastern Sahara domestic or wild? Evolutionary Anthropology 3(4):97-123
NoteThanks to Michael Brass for assistance; any mistakes are the responsibility of Kris Hirst.
This glossary entry is part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.