Domestic cattle and society: a tightly interlinked history of development

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Bronze figure of a bull from the 1st to 2nd century CE, found in Augusta Raurica
Bronze figure of a bull from the 1st to 2nd century CE, found in Augusta Raurica. (Photo: Susanne Schenker, Augusta Raurica)
Meat, milk, labor: domestic cattle have a lot to offer. Their history is consequently closely intertwined with that of humankind. Researchers at the University of Basel have investigated the genetic development of this livestock animal in Switzerland, and it is linked with societal developments.

Cows are part of the Swiss landscape, and their meat, milk and resulting products are inextricably linked with traditional Swiss cuisine. Originally from the Middle East, domestic cattle have been the most important domestic animal in the area that is now modern-day Switzerland since the Neolithic period, and they have been used in a variety of ways. "Their milk has been part of human nutrition since the fourth millennium BCE, and they were used as draft animals up to the 20th century CE," states Sabine Deschler-Erb, Professor for archaeozoology at the Integrative Prehistory and Archaeological Science (IPAS).

Over time, agricultural practices and the requirements placed on animal performance have continually changed - and had a corresponding impact on genetic diversity. The archeozoologist and her team wanted to understand these developments and therefore investigated animal bones from various areas in Switzerland in greater detail. The researchers were able to draw on the finds and information from various cantonal archaeological services (Kantonsarchäologien), and published the results in the journal Diversity.

Fresh blood from Rome

Measuring the bones provides information about the growth of the cattle. "The average body size has not always been the same across all time periods. A look at the genetics shows how this came about," says Dr. José Granado, a specialist in DNA testing and first author of the study. Analyses of mitochondrial DNA, which in contrast to chromosomal genetic material is only passed down through the mother, reveal the animals’ genetic origins. The diversity of the gene pool increases and decreases over time.

There was a rise in diversity in the first century BCE. "This can best be explained by the importing of new animals that were cross-bred with the local population," says Granado. This is no coincidence, as during this time the Romans settled north of the Alps and brought cattle with them from their homeland. A more intensive form of agriculture was intended to feed the growing population. It required larger areas of arable land as well as stronger and correspondingly larger working animals to plow and fertilize them. "People wanted to encourage these characteristics through breeding," explains Granado.

The Romans then moved back in the third and fourth centuries CE. "In the following Early Middle Ages, society reverted to small-scale agriculture and people increasingly became subsistence farmers again," states Sabine Deschler-Erb. "Large cattle that require a lot of space and feed were more of a disadvantage for individual farms. Pigs, which you could also feed with leftover food or send into the forest to eat acorns, were possibly a better choice." Although people still kept cattle, they interbred them with the existing stock, resulting in a fall in genetic diversity, and over time the animals grew smaller again.

Animal bones as an underestimated treasure trove

There have been barely any studies into how cattle developed in a specific region. The University of Basel’s study is the first to do this, and, what’s more, over such a long period of time - from the Stone Age to the Early Middle Ages. Previous studies looked at the geographic spread of domestic cattle.

"Precisely because livestock live so closely together with people, their remains are a treasure trove of information on sociocultural changes: new types of housing, diets, population size, agricultural practice," says Sabine Deschler-Erb. DNA analyses of bone material are generally a popular method for learning more about previous populations. However, the focus is primarily on human bones from graves. "There are comparably few of these, though. Bones from domestic animals are present in greater quantities."

There is therefore no lack of work for the researchers, not least because the methods for evaluating archeological material are constantly developing. "If you combine various techniques with one another, the existing archive can be investigated further, for example with regard to the milk or meat yield," says José Granado.

Hope for increased diversity

Ripples in the genetics of domestic cattle can still be seen today. "If, as in recent years, you want to maintain high productivity with proper milk machines and inseminate thousands of cows with the semen of a good breeding bull, the gene pool will shrink," states Granado. However, there are also counter-movements: the Pro Specie Rara foundation is campaigning to preserve livestock breeds that have become rare, and other standards also apply in organic farming. "It is conceivable that future trends will move away from one-sided intensive use because consumer behavior or ethical standards change, for example," says Deschler-Erb.

This also fits in with the history of domestic cattle: "There have always been times when diversity has fallen," states Granado. For example, there was a bottleneck of this kind in the Iron Age: "Diversity tended toward zero." Since then, genetic diversity has increased again, showing that this type of trend can be reversed.

Archaeozoology deals with the remains of animals from archaeological excavations. The Integrative Prehistory and Archaeological Science (IPAS) at the University of Basel examines animal bones and puts them in a historical context. Domestic animal husbandry in the Iron and Roman periods is one of the department's focal topics.

Among the research methods applied, the analysis of archaeological DNA is one of the most important. It was established in Basel by Dr. Angela Schlumbaum, research associate in the IPAS, in the 1990s, when genetics in archaeology was a novelty.
Schlumbaum's research interests include the history and economic importance of domestic cattle in Switzerland from the Neolithic period to the early Middle Ages.

Original publication

José Granado et al.
The mtDNA D-Loop Legacy of Cattle: Fluctuations in Diversity from the Neolithic to Early Medieval Times in Switzerland.
Diversity (2023),