Domesticating cattle ... and the Wrangel Island mammoths

31 Mar 2012

At http://io9.com/5897169/dna-reveals-that-cows-were-almost-impossible-to-d... ... there are over a billion cows in the world today but a paper in Molecular Biology and Evolution claims there were just 80 head of them at the start of the Holocene - all on the basis of DNA extracted from cows at one archaeological site in Iran. As noted in other studies, such as attempts to pin down when dogs were domesticated, or the relationship between modern humans and not so modern humans, why is it assumed cattle were domesticated in one place or that it was solely for economic reasons (meat, various by-products such as cheese, leather etc) when it could well have been for non-economic reasons. For example, the Egyptians sacrificed bulls to their gods - and a similar thing occurred right across Africa (even the Zulu way down south) as well as various rituals associated with cattle across the Mediterranean and Europe in general, while in India cows are still regarded as sacred. Humans and cattle have a long history - and it probably pre-dates the Holocene. Bullls are a distinct feature of cave art, for example, which seems to suggest cattle first had a symbolic connection with humans - and domestication came later. Is this lucky dip DNA trawling we might ask as well, is science taking advantage of a new methodology and drawing conclusions that are not always warranted. When C14 dating first hit the archaeology and geology scenes it overturned otherwise firm evidence such as lake varves and pottery sequences and it was much later, 20 years or so, before the scientists addicted to the process were able to accept that there were lots of problems. Calibration was one result, but various other anomalies have also been ironed out. Anyway, a pinch of salt is worth a snort but the idea all domestic cattle has an origin in one location may very well fit into the spread of farming scenario but then, again, does it really even suit that straitjacket - did people drink cows milk at that stage of the Neolithic? They don't seem to have been lactose tolerant.

What can be taken from this study is that cattle were kept in small herds in the early Holocene period when farming was being practised across much of Mesopotamia, Iran, and Baluchistan - that is what the evidence appears to imply. Other animals, such as goats and sheep, were more commonly kept. The problem is that we only have the io9 author's abstract of the paper and a lot of what is said is missing. The comments are even worse - not worth reading. Juvenile.

In another story at www.io9.com (scroll down from the above paper), 'The last mammoth died out just 3600 years ago ,,, but should they have survived' - and the subject matter is the survival of a dwarf species of mammoth on Wrangel Island off eastern Siberia, in what had been the Bering land bridge during the Ice Age. They had survived for 6000 years after mammoths on the mainland disappeared, a population of around a thousand animals. Yet, they disappeared between 1650 and 1600BC - why? That is the crux of the article, and research done by British and Swedish scientists (no mention of the Russians). In-breeding is discounted as the population was stable over a long period of time, and naturally, human hunters may have played a role, it is suggested , but even then, could they have had such a sudden impact. What is not mentioned is the narrow growth tree ring event at 1628-5BC that coincided with the Second Intermediate Period in Egypt (the end of the Middle Kingdom), the transition to the Shang dynasty in China, the end of MBIIA in the Levant, etc - and so what else was going going in the 17th century BC?