How Modern and Ancient Genomic Analyses can Reveal Complex Domestic Histories Using Cattle as a Case Study

Authored by: Ceiridwen J. Edwards , David E. MacHugh , David A. Magee

Routledge Handbook of Agricultural Biodiversity

Print publication date:  October  2017
Online publication date:  October  2017

Print ISBN: 9780415746922
eBook ISBN: 9781315797359
Adobe ISBN:


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The domestication of animals was a key element in the transition of human societies from nomadic forager to sedentary agro-pastoralists (Magee et al., 2014). Zeder (2012) defined domestication as

a sustained, multigenerational, mutualistic relationship in which humans assume some significant level of control over the reproduction and care of a plant/animal in order to secure a more predictable supply of a resource of interest and by which the plant/animal is able to increase its reproductive success over individuals not participating in this relationship, thereby enhancing the fitness of both humans and target domesticates.

(pp. 163–164) Animal domestication can be regarded as an extension of the predator-prey relationship between humans and the target species, in which humans separated a few individuals from wild populations and intervened in the life cycles of these captive individuals. This intervention would have resulted gradually in behavioural and biological changes of the target species, leading to the emergence of a completely domesticated form (Uerpmann, 1996). While it is likely that the early stages of animal domestication lacked human intentionality, subsequent stages undoubtedly involved increasing degrees of conscious and deliberate human action as the relationship between humans and their domesticates intensified. For example, human nursing behaviour may have resulted in the incorporation of young, easily manageable herbivorous wild animals, such as wild goats and sheep, into early human settlements. Although the rearing of young wild animals as pets may not have directly resulted in their domestication, successful maintenance of these animals within a few proto-Neolithic settlements could certainly have resulted in the awareness of their economic potential. The coupling of this realization with a few successive, good cereal harvests may have enabled the development of a number of small, productive domestic flocks. Once even a basic understanding of animal management had been attained, humans could (perhaps consciously) focus their attention on the domestication of larger ruminants, including wild cattle.

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