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Three species that changed our world: Part II (Cows)

By Joseph D. Thompson

After years of work in the lab, in the field, and on our televisions, noted academic, writer, and broadcaster Alice Roberts has introduced the world to many topics.

Now, as part of Oxford University’s online student gateway webinar series, Roberts recently explained how Stone Age hunters domesticated dogs and cattle, how Bronze Age nomads domesticated horses, and how teaming up with these other species helped our ancestors to survive and thrive.

Alice Roberts book Tamed

She showed how archaeology and history mesh with genetics to allow us to explore Neolithic life and its legacy.

Roberts is especially interested in the intersection between biology, archaeology, and history, and the interaction between humans and the environment through time. She has presented more than one hundred television programs, on subjects that include biology, archaeology, and history.

Her book, Tamed: Ten species that changed our world, served as inspiration for this talk. In Parts I and III, we examine Robert’s deep dive into the domestication of dogs and horses, respectively.

When our ancestors tamed animals

For hundreds of thousands of years, our ancestors depended on wild plants and animals. They were hunter-gatherers–consummate survival experts. Then a revolution happened: Our ancestors’ relationship with other species changed as they began to tame them. The result was a boom in human population.

Alice Roberts book Tamed

“After the Ice Age we have an incredible change in human lifestyle,” said Roberts. “This change, which I do think is the biggest revolution, sees our ancestors changing from being hunter-gatherers and nomads moving around in the landscape following herds, essentially to being settled farmers.”

Evidence of early farming communities dating back 11,000 years exist in what is now Turkey, as well as in the famous Fertile Crescent region, which includes Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt.

As the world warmed up following the end of the Ice Age, there also was much more carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere. When you combine these factors with adequate rain, grass, wheat, rye, and barely all start to become denser.

“Those wild cereals are domesticated and then, along with those crops, we get domesticated animals very, very quickly,” said Roberts.

She explained that the archaeological record shows that almost as soon as those first crops were produced, domesticated animals entered the picture.

A focus on cattle

“The earliest evidence of domesticated cattle comes in the form of bones from pre-pottery Neolithic sites,” said Roberts. “The Neolithic Package often is described as being farming plus pottery, but in fact, there are sites where we’ve definitely got farming, but we don’t have any pottery yet.”

Typical sites, for example along the Euphrates River, show evidence of cereal domestication as well as animal domestication 10,500 years ago. But raising pre-historic wheat and raising pre-historic cattle were very different enterprises.

“I think it’s just incredible,” said Roberts. “Domesticating cereals is one thing, but domesticating these enormous, enormous beasts is another. These were huge beasts with massive horns.”

And it wasn’t just the meat our ancestors were after. Evidence shows that these animals were being domesticated for both meat and milk from the very beginning.

“Archaeologists used to think that it was just about meat and the idea of dairy came along later, but now we’ve got some great evidence for very, very early use of milk,” said Roberts.

She points to 8,000-year-old potsherds that have evidence of milk lipids still remaining on the inside surface as evidence of early human’s dual use of cattle.

Ancient teeth provide clues

It’s not just the pottery evidence that makes the case for early domesticated dairy, either. Evidence has been gathered, the earliest of which was by Richard Evershed and his team from the University of Bristol, from concreted plaque (calculus) that shows evidence that ancient diets included milk.

Alice Roberts

Evidence from Neolithic sites in Poland—from approximately 7,000 years ago—even shows the beginning of cheese-making in this time. Being able to produce food that could be stored and easily moved would have been a game-changer.

“It obviously was very successful, and cattle and dairy farming spread,” said Roberts.

Once again—as with dogs–genetics reveals that there was lots of interbreeding along the way.

“Before modern genetics came along, we didn’t know what to expect. We thought that species would have been much more separated, but there’s lots of evidence of hybridization,” she said.

The interbreeding would have gone both ways, too, from domesticated to wild and from wild populations back to domestic animals. This is where genetics nearly stops, however. Unlike our dogs’ ancestors—wolves, which still exist—there are no true wild cattle anymore. They all have died out.

According to Roberts, wild cattle survived the longest in Poland where they were protected by royal decree to ensure they existed for the sport of the kings. But even that couldn’t save them.

the species that have been so familiar to our ice age ancestors were now extinct.

— Alice Roberts

“In the end, domestic cattle encroached on the habitat of the aurochs, and cattle diseases spread across to them, and illegal hunting also played a role. But eventually, their demise was insured by a lack of interest,” said Roberts.

And so, in 1627, in a game preserve in Poland, the very last recorded aurochs died.

“The species that have been so familiar to our Ice Age ancestors were now extinct,” said Roberts.

But we still have their domesticated cousins.

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