Cattle, which we often associate with the iconic imagery of American cowboys, rugged cattle drives, and vast ranches, actually have a more diverse and complex history in the Americas. Contrary to the perception of cattle as purely European imports to the continent, recent research has shed new light on their origins.
The prevailing narrative attributes the introduction of cattle to the Americas to the Spanish, who brought them from Europe via the Canary Islands. However, a fascinating study delving into ancient DNA from Spanish settlements in the Caribbean and Mexico has revealed a surprising twist. This research indicates that cattle were not just limited to European imports; they were also brought from Africa during the early stages of colonization, well over a century before such importation was officially recorded.
Historical records, primarily maintained by Portuguese and Spanish colonists, tend to focus on cattle breeds originating from the Andalusian region of Spain. Curiously, there is no mention of African cattle transportation in these records. Some historians have interpreted this omission to imply that the initial wave of colonists relied exclusively on a small population of European cattle initially transported to the Caribbean Islands.
The leader of the study, Nicolas Delsol, a postdoctoral associate at the Florida Museum of Natural History, explains that previous research indicated a few hundred cattle were brought over in the early 16th century. These animals were then bred locally on Hispaniola, and from there, it was believed that their descendants spread throughout the Americas.
Interestingly, Christopher Columbus is credited with introducing the first cattle to the Caribbean during his second expedition in 1493. These cattle served as valuable farm animals and a crucial source of sustenance. The cattle adapted so well to their new environment that they became feral and started causing issues on the Island of Hispaniola. The Spanish addressed this by distributing cattle across the Caribbean, and by 1525, foreign breeds were being raised in parts of Central and South America. Concurrently, the Portuguese were moving related breeds from mainland Europe and the Cape Verde Islands to what is now Brazil.
Despite the insights gleaned from historical records, there is reason to believe that this version of events might be incomplete. In 1518, Emperor Charles V issued a decree permitting the direct transportation of enslaved people from their homelands to the Americas. This practice commenced less than three years later and continued for decades. This historical context raises the possibility of enslaved Africans playing an essential yet often unacknowledged role in the establishment of cattle ranching.
Delsol suggests that the earliest ranchers in Mexico were predominantly of African ancestry. He points out that groups like the Fulani in West Africa had societies centered around herding cattle, indicating a strong likelihood of a connection between the cattle brought from similar regions and the enslaved Africans.
Genetic studies have provided some support for this theory. Modern American cattle DNA reflects their European heritage, but it also shows evidence of hybridization with African and Asian breeds. Unfortunately, without archaeological data, it's challenging to pinpoint the exact timing of these events.
The presence of African cattle in the Americas can be traced back to the 1800s, when humped zebu from Senegal and n'dama cattle from Gambia were transported to regions with similar environmental conditions across the Atlantic. Simultaneously, cattle domesticated in Southeast Asia over millennia were imported from India, leading to the emergence of hybrid breeds that remain prevalent today. Examples include the Senepol from the Virgin Islands and the American Brahman, commonly found in tropical regions.
Do these records signify the initial instance of cattle being imported from regions beyond Europe, or do they merely represent a continuation of an undocumented practice that had been ongoing? According to Delsol, the only way to establish certainty would involve sequencing ancient DNA from preserved cow and bull remains dating back to the colonial era. While one previous study attempted this using 16th-century bones from Jamaica, their findings yielded inconclusive results.
Delsol undertook the task of collecting 21 bone samples from diverse archaeological sites. Among these, seven originated from Puerto Real, a former ranching hub in Hispaniola founded in 1503, but eventually abandoned due to rampant piracy. The remaining specimens came from 17th and 18th-century sites in Central Mexico, spanning a wide arc from Mexico City to the Yucatan Peninsula.
After successfully extracting DNA from the bone material, Delsol conducted a comparison of their genetic sequences with those of modern cattle breeds across the world. As anticipated, most sequences displayed a pronounced affinity with European cattle, particularly evident in the Puerto Real samples. Notably, six bones from Mexico exhibited genetic sequences common to African cattle, yet significantly, these sequences were also found in breeds native to southern Europe.
Delsol acknowledged the complicating factor of cattle in Spain resembling those in Africa due to centuries-long exchanges across the Strait of Gibraltar. However, a tooth discovered in Mexico City stood out remarkably. Within the tooth's mitochondria, a distinct sequence was found, largely unattested in regions other than Africa. The source cow likely lived during the late 1600s, thereby pushing back the timeline for the introduction of African cattle by more than a century.
When examining the bones chronologically, an intriguing pattern of escalating genetic diversity emerged. The oldest bones from Puerto Real and Xochimilco, situated south of Mexico City, originated from European stock. In contrast, specimens from later Mexican sites seemed to trace their lineage to animals more prevalent in the Iberian Peninsula and Africa.
The collective findings suggest that Spanish colonizers initiated direct cattle imports from West Africa as early as the early 1600s. Delsol emphasized the profound impact of cattle ranching on both the landscape and social structures across the Americas. He noted that the diverse genetic heritage of American cattle has been known for some time, and this research provides a more comprehensive timeline of their introduction.
The results of this research have been published in the journal Scientific Reports.