Goats Key to Spread of Farming, Gene Study Suggests

October 10, 2006

Goats accompanied the earliest farmers into Europe some 7,500 years ago, helping to revolutionize Stone Age society, a new study suggests.

The trailblazing farm animals were hardy and highly mobile traveling companions to ancient pioneers from the Middle East who introduced agriculture to Europe and elsewhere, researchers say.

The onset of farming ushered in the so-called Neolithic Revolution, when settled communities gradually replaced nomadic tribes and their hunter-gatherer lifestyles between 8000 and 6000 B.C.

A team of archaeologists and biologists has traced the origins of domesticated goats in Western Europe to the Middle East at the beginnings of the Neolithic period.

The study is based on DNA analysis of goat bones from a Stone Age cave in France and suggests the animals spread across Europe quickly after their introduction. (Get goat photos, facts, and more.)

The team says its findings, reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicate that goats may have played a key role in the rise and spread of farming worldwide.

Genetic Mixing

The new research follows up on a 2001 study by the same team that found domesticated goats today are much more mixed genetically than other livestock.

By tracing the animals' mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down in cells through generations from mother to offspring, scientists showed that goats differ much less genetically between continents than cattle, sheep, or pigs.

This suggested that goats were transported much more extensively in the past, allowing the genetic material from different populations to intermingle.

The findings were very surprising, according to team member Pierre Taberlet from the Laboratoire d'Ecologie Alpine at Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble, France.

"For example, cattle from North Africa are different from cattle from Europe, but for goats everything is mixed—almost the same level of [genetic] mixing as in humans," he said.

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