Gene Study Traces Cattle Herding in Africa

Ben Harder
for National Geographic News
April 11, 2002

African herders rely on cattle for food and other basic needs, and as beasts of burden. But how cattle domestication occurred in Africa has been obscured by long-ago migrations and trade.

Now, by studying the DNA of cattle in 23 countries, an international team of scientists is filling in the picture.

Evidence suggests that sheep and goats, first domesticated in the Near East, were imported into Africa through colonization and ocean-going trade. Scientists have long speculated that the domestication of cattle also occurred first in the Near East and that the practice of herding cattle was similarly imported.

But new evidence, reported in the April 12 issue of the journal Science, suggests that Africans independently domesticated cattle.

Belgian geneticist Olivier Hanotte, who headed the new study, said the research "reconciles the two schools of thought" about how cattle domestication occurred in Africa.

"There were Near Eastern influences" on African herds, he said, "but they came after local domestication."

Since then, there has been considerable mixing of African and Asian breeds.

Unusual Pattern

In general, the domestication of cattle and other livestock has followed the establishment of agriculture. But archaeological research has shown that the domestication of cattle unfolded differently in Africa than elsewhere in the world.

In many parts of Africa, people herded cattle long before agriculture was introduced from the Near East and south Asia. Some African groups that have herded cattle for centuries have never adopted agriculture at all, or have done so only recently. One example is the Masai of eastern Africa, who rarely slaughter cattle but instead mix the milk and blood of the animals to create a staple of their diet.

Intrigued by the uncommon pattern of cattle domestication in Africa, Hanotte moved to Kenya in 1995 in an effort to explain the development. He and other researchers in Europe began untangling layers of genetic information in cattle DNA to help answer major questions about the history of herding in Africa.

Their findings offer scientists and herders a virtual history book describing how cattle, crucial to so many Africans, came to be so genetically diverse. The research also underscores why preserving that variety is essential.

Continued on Next Page >>


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