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European domestic pigs have undergone significant change since their introduction and were not domesticated independently in Europe
A new study by over 100 authors from around the world, including Richard Sabin, Principal Curator of Mammals at the Natural History Museum (NHM) has attempted to unravel the ancestry of the modern European domestic pig.
Agricultural communities emerged in the Near East around 12,500 years before present (BP). The westward dispersal of farmers into Europe began around 8,500 years BP, bringing domesticated cereals, pulses, sheep, goats, cattle and pigs, derived from wild species indigenous to the Near East. Until now it was presumed that modern pigs still shared much in common with the animals introduced to Europe in these early dispersals.
To reveal the pig’s ancestry the team utilised extensive samples of mitochondrial and nuclear DNA taken from ancient and modern Near Eastern and European domestic pigs, using both living animals and museum research collections.
Richard Sabin says, ‘This study was able to utilise more than 40 tissue samples taken from specimens at the NHM and once again highlights the importance of our natural history collections in helpingour understanding of how humans have shaped the natural world over millennia.’
Interpreting the results of their analysis the team concluded that aside from a coat colour gene, most Near Eastern ancestry in the genomes of European domestic pigs disappeared over 3,000 years ago as a result of interbreeding with local wild boar - something which pig farmers regularly report today as local wild boar regularly infiltrate domestic pig herds and interbreed.
Professor Greger Larson from the University of Oxford who also worked on the study comments, ‘Domestic pigs aren’t pigs. They are chameleons. They are able to take on the genomic appearance of local wild boar while still looking and acting like pigs. No other animal has done this!’
Importantly, the research also suggests that pigs were not domesticated independently in Europe from wild boar. Whilst much of the modern European domestic pigs ancestry can be attributed to interbreeding with European wild boar, it is still clear that these animals are the descendants of those carried by the wave of Near Eastern farmers migrating to Europe around 8000 years ago.
Richard adds, ‘Domestic pigs are one of the key food animals which have played an important part in the development of human societies, allowing our transition from nomadic huntergatherers to settled farming communities. Understanding their origins helps us to better understand the early development of our own societies.’
The paper Ancient pigs reveal a near-complete genomic turnover following their introduction to Europe is published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.
Notes for editors
The Natural History Museum exists to inspire a love of the natural world and unlock answers to the big issues facing humanity and the planet. It is a world-leading science research centre, and through its unique collection and unrivalled expertise it is tackling issues such as food security, eradicating diseases and managing resource scarcity.
The Natural History Museum is the most visited natural history museum in Europe and the top science attraction in the UK; we welcome around five million visitors each year and our website
receives over 850,000 unique visitors a month. People come from around the world to enjoy our galleries and events and engage both in-person and online with our science and educational activities through innovative programmes and citizen science projects.