Background: Cattle domestication started in the 9(th) millennium BC in Southwest Asia. Domesticated cattle were then introduced into Europe during the Neolithic transition. However, the scarcity of palaeogenetic data from the first European domesticated cattle still inhibits the accurate reconstruction of their early demography. In this study, mitochondrial DNA from 193 ancient and 597 modern domesticated cattle (Bos taurus) from sites across Europe, Western Anatolia and Iran were analysed to provide insight into the Neolithic dispersal process and the role of the local European aurochs population during cattle domestication.
Results: Using descriptive summary statistics and serial coalescent simulations paired with approximate Bayesian computation we find: (i) decreasing genetic diversity in a southeast to northwest direction, (ii) strong correlation of genetic and geographical distances, iii) an estimated effective size of the Near Eastern female founder population of 81, iv) that the expansion of cattle from the Near East and Anatolia into Europe does not appear to constitute a significant bottleneck, and that v) there is evidence for gene-flow between the Near Eastern/Anatolian and European cattle populations in the early phases of the European Neolithic, but that it is restricted after 5,000 BCE.
Conclusions: The most plausible scenario to explain these results is a single and regionally restricted domestication process of cattle in the Near East with subsequent migration into Europe during the Neolithic transition without significant maternal interbreeding with the endogenous wild stock. Evidence for gene-flow between cattle populations from Southwestern Asia and Europe during the earlier phases of the European Neolithic points towards intercontinental trade connections between Neolithic farmers.