Genetic reconstruction of ancient northern European cattle and sheep populations

Marianna Niemi

Research output: ThesisDoctoral ThesisCollection of Articles


Ancient DNA holds tremendous potential to answer multidisciplinary research covering topics in evolution and origins of species, their population genetics and migration. The data produced can also be used to date events in the history of particular species. Here, for the first time, these aspects are studied by analysing ancient and contemporary DNA samples from cattle and sheep from the north-east Baltic Sea region (NEBSR). The study is particularly focused in exploration of the genetic variation, frequency of local variants, origin of endangered native breeds and the beginning and development of animal husbandry in the northernmost latitudes of agriculture. This thesis binds the genetic, statistic and modelling results into a wide multidisciplinary context. By sampling 109 ancient specimens found in 66 archaeological sites and DNA samples from contemporary native breeds, the genetic history of NEBSR cattle and sheep was reconstructed from prehistory to the present. Ancient ancestral animal populations in NEBSR were different compared to current cattle and sheep. Maternally and paternally inherited mtDNA and Y-chromosomal markers revealed ancient lineages, which are no longer found in contemporary populations. Ancient and modern haplogroup data supported geographical mtDNA haplogroup distribution and expansion processes starting around 10000 BP (before present) from the Near Eastern domestication centre, expanding over the European continent and finally reaching NEBSR around 4500 – 3000 BP. A closer comparison to ancient and contemporaneous western Eurasian mtDNA data using phylogenetically younger lineages of mtDNA suggests dual origin for NEBSR cattle and sheep, the European mainland and Pontic Steppe in the Middle Volga region in western Russia. Bayesian reconstruction of effective population sizes supports a small initial population and slow beginning of animal husbandry in NEBSR. The burst of animal husbandry in the NEBSR was genetically dated to the Middle and Late Iron Age (400-1000 AD) in line with a similar burst of cereal cultivation as detected from fossil pollen from lake sediments. Throughout history, NEBSR domestic animal populations have been changing. Major changes in NEBSR have happened at least twice: in the Late Iron (Viking) Age (800-1200 AD), with the migration of Swedish farmers, in early Medieval Ages and again in the modern period, when the native breeds were dominated by global commercial dairy breeds. The associated changes in phenotype are demonstrated by the colour defining MC1R gene analysed from ancient and contemporary cattle. Iron Age cattle had a higher frequency for dominant black colour, while along with new Medieval cattle, more recessive red and wild-type alleles entered into NEBSR cattle populations. Cattle in NEBSR used to be multi-coloured throughout history, until reaching their current form in the 20th century. The breeding in prehistoric and early historic periods was an unfocused, culture-environmental selection, favouring genetic combinations that survive in the harsh historical environments. The beginning of a conscious improvement of populations by artificial selection of breeding animals likely dates to the Post-Medieval period, with constantly increasing skill and intensity during the modern period. The combination of first culture-environmental and later more goal-determinate selective breeding resulted in local animal types and, consequently, in native breeds currently valued for their national heritage, generally good health and high efficiency in low-input conditions.
Original languageEnglish
  • Sajantila, Antti, Supervisor
  • Vilkki, Johanna, Supervisor, External person
Award date16 Nov 2018
Place of PublicationHelsinki
Print ISBNs978-951-51-4475-1
Electronic ISBNs978-951-51-4476-8
Publication statusPublished - 2018
MoE publication typeG5 Doctoral dissertation (article)

Fields of Science

  • Animal Migration
  • Animals, Domestic
  • Animal Husbandry
  • +history
  • Breeding
  • Cattle
  • +genetics
  • DNA
  • DNA, Ancient
  • DNA, Mitochondrial
  • Domestication
  • Europe
  • Fossils
  • Genetic Markers
  • Genetic Variation
  • Human Migration
  • Population Dynamics
  • Phenotype
  • Sheep
  • Y Chromosome
  • 412 Animal science, dairy science
  • 1184 Genetics, developmental biology, physiology

Cite this