Early diffusion of domestic bovids in Europe

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Cattle, sheep and goat were domesticated in the Near-East during the 9th millennium BC. From there, sheep and goat, which had no wild ancestors in Europe, were introduced to this continent at the beginning of the 7th millennium B.C. and diffused following two main flows: a southern route along the northern coastline of the Mediterranean, and a northern route across central Europe following the Danubian corridor. Possible scenarios of migration have been complicated to investigate regarding cattle, as the species had a possible wild ancestor in Europe: the local aurochs, whose disappearance only occurred at the end of the 17th century A.D. and whose remains are hardly distinguishable from those of the early domestic forms on the basis of classical osteometry. A tight cooperation between Archaeozoology and Genetics has provided, in the frame of several publicly funded projects (among which the OMLL scheme), substantial new data allowing refinement of historical scenarios to a degree never achieved thus far. We were able to demonstrate that local aurochs did not contribute, or contributed to a very limited extent, to the constitution of European domestic cattle herds, whose origin can be clearly traced back to the Near East. Thus, from this point of view, domestic cattle biogeographical history is very similar to sheep and goat, and their appearance in Europe probably owes more to farming pioneers than to local hunter-gatherers. Analyses of goat aDNA revealed the preservation of an important genetic diversity very far from the diffusion centre. This is suggestive of the persistence of gene flow between domestic herds across the dispersion area along the different diffusion routes, which prevented the occurrence of severe bottleneck effects. This diversity also indicates that the existence of contacts between farming groups encompassed very large areas. It is very interesting to note that recent works published on domestication and diffusion of pig in Neolithic Europe have proposed very different scenarios. This highlights the specificity of domestic bovids as tracers of human contacts, exchanges and displacements during the Neolithicisation of Europe.


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