Cattle, often synonymous with American frontier and its iconic cowboys, were not native to the American continents before the Spanish arrived with European livestock. However, a recent study utilizing ancient DNA analysis has found a surprising revelation – the early presence of cattle from Africa in the Americas, long before official records documented their arrival.
Early European Introduction
Historically, records indicate that Columbus introduced the first cattle to the Caribbean during his second expedition in 1493. These cattle served as essential assets for farming and sustenance, adapting remarkably well to their new environment and even becoming feral nuisances on islands such as Hispaniola. The Spanish spread these livestock throughout the Caribbean, and by the early 1500s, foreign cattle were also being raised in parts of Central and South America.
Missing African Link
While historical records predominantly point to the introduction of European cattle, there has been a critical piece missing from the puzzle. In 1518, Emperor Charles V’s decree allowed direct transportation of enslaved people from Africa to the Americas. This historical context laid the foundation for a significant but often unacknowledged role of enslaved Africans in the development of cattle ranching. Researchers noted that early Mexican ranchers were predominantly of African descent and that the Fulani people of West Africa, who had a close relationship with cattle, might have influenced this.
Genetic Clues and Archaeological Insights
Genetic studies of modern American cattle DNA have shown traces of both European and non-European ancestry, hinting at a history of hybridization. However, without archaeological data, pinpointing specific events was challenging. To address this, researchers examined ancient DNA from cattle bones dating back to the colonial era. This groundbreaking study involved the analysis of 21 bones from various archaeological sites in the Caribbean and Mexico.
The genetic sequences extracted from the bones revealed intriguing connections. Most specimens shared strong genetic ties with European cattle, especially those from the Caribbean. However, six bones from Mexico exhibited genetic sequences common in both African and European cattle. This finding raised questions about the possibility of cattle being brought from Africa to the Americas.
African Link Confirmed
The most significant discovery came from a tooth found in Mexico City, containing a genetic sequence rarely seen outside of Africa. This sequence, dated to the late 1600s, pointed to the existence of African cattle in the Americas more than a century before previously thought. Furthermore, when analyzed chronologically, the bones indicated an increase in genetic diversity over time.
This study has shed light on a previously unknown chapter in the history of cattle in the Americas. While European cattle certainly played a vital role in shaping the landscape and social systems of the continents, the African influence cannot be underestimated. Enslaved Africans, with their heritage of herder societies, likely brought with them knowledge of cattle husbandry that intertwined with the story of cattle ranching in the Americas. This research underscores the importance of multidisciplinary approaches in rewriting history and unveiling the hidden narratives that shape our understanding of the past.
(Source: Florida Museum of Natural History)