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Genetic History of African Cattle Mapped, Origins Clarified

Mar 28, 2014 01:56 PM EDT

By analyzing the genetic history of 134 breeds of cattle from around the world, a team of researchers has revealed that ancient African cattle were first domesticated in the Middle East.

Previously, geneticists and anthropologists suspected ancient Africans domesticated cattle native to the African continent about 10,000 years ago.

Now, in a report published in the journal PLOS Genetics, researchers suggest that the origin of the first cattle domesticated in Africa was actually the Fertile Crescent, the region of the Middle East that now covers Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Israel.

The University of Missouri researchers behind the study report that 10,000 years ago, domesticated cattle were brought into Africa as farmers migrated out of the Fertile Crescent.

These Middle Eastern cattle went on to breed with wild cattle called aurochs native to Africa, changing the genetic make up of the animals enough to confuse geneticists for a number of years.

"In many ways, the history of cattle genetics mirrors human history," said lead study author Jared Decker, an assistant professor of animal science in the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. "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. By better understanding the history of the animals we domesticate, we can better understand ourselves."

The researchers were able to reveal the genetic ancestry of cattle species around the world. They found evidence of genetic mixing of native cattle in Indonesia with imported cattle from India, as well as genetic evidence of European and African cattle in Italy and Spain. The Texas longhorn, a unique American breed of cattle, his its genetic roots in Spanish cattle imported by explorers in the 16 th century and breeds of Zebu, or Brahman cattle from India imported to the US from Brazil in the late 1800s, the researchers said.

Genetic research on cattle is important, Decker said, because it can be useful information for cattle farmers to maximize meat and dairy production and can be useful when ranchers are trying to solve agricultural issues.

"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."

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