October 2, 2010

French cattle genetics

This is a new paper that may provide some insight into cattle genetics. However, while Zebuine breeds are widely sampled, European breeds other than French (and a handful of NW European, Swiss and Italian breeds) are not, what makes more difficult to make a comprehensive assessment.

Mathieu Gautier et al, Insights into the Genetic History of French Cattle from Dense SNP Data on 47 Worldwide Breeds. PLoS ONE 2010. Open access.

Unsupervised hierarchical clustering of the 1,121 individuals genotyped for 44,706 SNPs
Legend is found at supplementary table S1 (download).

It is interesting that even at K=47 some populations still do cluster, a sign of a very intense relatedness that in some cases may be obvious (Angus varieties, Holstein from Europe and America) but in others maybe not so much.

If we stop at K=5 or K=6 we can appreciate three basic groups in Europe (taurine breeds):

The orange cluster includes most French and Swiss breeds (partial exceptions found only in the NW) and even permeates somewhat into England (Hereford) and Norway. It also includes Italian and Moroccan breeds, even if these have something of zebu. The purest representative is the Blond d'Aquitaine.

Blond d'Aquitaine
Excepting the Brown Swiss, the homogeneity of the main part of this cluster is maintained still at K=10, clearly suggesting a common origin for southern and  eastern French cattle, including North Italian breeds

The yellow cluster has Holstein as only pure representative but makes up the largest part, or at least a sizable fraction, of NW European cattle, from the Loire to Norway. Next to Holstein in purity is Angus, a Scottish breed.

Holstein-Frisian cattle
At K=10, Angus and Hereford already display their unique personalities anyhow, suggestive of an early divergence, possibly within the British Neolithic, a relatively late phenomenon, while the other NW European breeds, continental, still look "hybrid" instead.

The small green cluster is restricted to the Jersey breed.

Jersey cattle

The non-European or zebuine components don't show but a cline across Africa, with extremes in West Africa and India. Plus the distinct Lagune breed from Benin. This pattern remains pretty much the same at K=10.

The two rightmost breeds are modern North American taurine-zebuine hybrids. At K=10 it is apparent the dominance of Hereford and Angus components in each but at lower K levels they look identical. However at K=47 they appear as totally distinct clusters each on their own right, probably because of extreme inbreeding.

Back to European breeds, the authors speculate somewhat with a dual Mediterranean and Danubian Neolithic origins but the stop short of proclaiming any theory because they have to admit that their sampling is too limited for anything like that.

I must say that I know of no archaeological record of any cattle (Bos sp.) being associated with Mediterranean Neolithic (Cardium Pottery). This culture was specialized in fishing and ovicaprids, probably with some pigs too (and, of course, cereals, pulses and olives), not bovine cattle. But I'm not really sure how cattle was incorporated into these areas' economy, what certainly happened by Chalcolithic times at least, when bulls become a popular artistic and maybe religious motif in south Iberia (competing with deer, sometimes up to the point of transforming an animal into the other).

What seems pretty apparent is that a Chassey-La Lagozza (proto-Ligurian?) Chalcolithic origin can be speculated for this cluster. A lot should depend on Balcanic, Central European and Iberian affinities or differences, not considered here, but I can already say that the Blond d'Aquitaine looks similar to the usual montane Basque types, such as the Betizu, though these are usually reddish in color and have somewhat larger and often characteristically-shaped horns.

Betizu, typical Basque cow


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. The Blonde d'Aquitaine is a modern creation that fused many aboriginal SW French cattles : the "Garonnaise" (from the Garonne valley), the "Quercy" (from modern Lot) and Pyrenean cattle which got nearly extinct because of the imposition of the Blonde d'Aquitaine by "Chambres d'Agriculture".

    Here is data about French cattle :


    The main cattle used for milk in Gascony used to be the "Lourdaise" : only 70 heads remain.

    A competitor found in central Pyrenean Gascon lands (Bigorre, Comminges, Couserans) : the "Aure" (from the Aure valley)

    The most successful breed : the

    In my home Béarn, the main race used to be the "Béarnaise" : it was fused into the "Blonde d'Aquitaine" and only 90 "Béarnaises" remain. Note that the arms of Béarn show these very cows.

    In Bazas (South of Bordeaux), a peculiar cattle is raised for meat : that's the "Bazadaise".

    For other livestock breeds, see :


  3. Thanks for that input, Heraus.

    Whatever its origins, it is very apparent that the Blonde is, among the sampled breeds, the one that looks "purest" in its orange component, even more than the Gascon, which shows small zebuine blue and NW taurine yellow apportions.

    I'm not sure how to interpret this, but I'd say all that cluster looks very much as having a single origin anyhow, origin that maybe got emphasized by re-admixture, accidentally.

    I find interesting that all the breeds you mention, excepting the Bazas, show at least on occasion the lyre-shaped horns of the Betizu cattle. Surely an indicator of shared origin for all that cluster, as I suspected already.

    I'm not sure what to think of the rather unusual look of the Bazas bulls. In some images they give an auroch or maybe brave Spanish cattle vibe. It's intriguing.

  4. Mention of Angus is nice but where is the Scottish Highland cow on your charts? Too small to read? The Highland breed is one of the least changed breeds in the world.It is also the oldest registered breed.
    Michael McDermott
    Blue Ox Farms, MN. USA

    1. Not "my" charts: I'm just reporting and discussing on an academic paper by other people (which should be obvious). Obviously the sample of breeds is not exhaustive and can hardly be - but, unless I'm missing something, the absence of your favorite breed in this study is not my fault at all.

  5. I wonder where they got their Blondes from for the test? In my part of Gascony the Blondes were mixed in with the old Gascon Aureolé cows which were distinct from the Ariège Gascons. There's a lot of variation in Blonde herds. I joke that no two cows have the same style horns. This Blonde data is interesting - even through the breed is all over the place all the component parts were free of Zebu. Still, it is weird to see you call such a modern hybrid of a breed "pure".

    [Note I have Salers rather than Blondes and Salers horns put those Betizu ones to shame :-)]


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