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Tuesday, 8 May, 2001, 09:19 GMT 10:19 UK
Ancient farmers were goat-herders
Goat graphic
By BBC News Online's Helen Briggs

They say that the dog is man's best friend but it seems that in ancient times it was the goat that played this role.

New genetic evidence suggests that goats travelled around the world with early farmers, serving as a walking milk supply and a tool for bartering.

The animals probably helped our ancestors conquer new territory and develop early trade.

Modern-day goats still bear the genetic signature of the movement and mixing of animals 10,000 years ago.

'Poor cow'

Goats have often been dubbed the "poor man's cow" because they can survive in harsh conditions on meagre food.

In many countries, the world's 700 million goats now play second fiddle to the four major livestock species: cattle, buffalo, pigs, and sheep.

But a genetic analysis of more than 400 goats from 44 countries throughout Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East suggests that goats were once the favoured domestic animal.

Researchers have found that the goat's genetic history is different from other farm animals, such as cows and sheep.

Potable supply

This history shows more mixing between continents, suggesting that goats travelled with early farmers as they journeyed and colonised new land.

"We think humans were moving about with goats, and much more with goats than with sheep or cows," Pierre Taberlet, one of the co-researchers of the study, told BBC News Online.

They probably provided milk, said Dr Taberlet, of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Grenoble, France.

It seems that goats were "walking fridges", acting as a handy portable food supply as well as a trading tool.

Three lines

The study reveals that all goats alive today are descended from three distinct lineages.

The first population arose about 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East, also where cattle came from. The other two arose more recently, probably in South eastern Asia and the Middle/Near East.

The work, which was carried out by a Swiss-French team, is published in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It is based on studies of mitochondrial DNA, the scrap of genetic material that is passed from mother to child.

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