Arts & Humanities

It’s Taken 10,000 Years For Pigs To Become Pigs

An international team of researchers found that wild boars mingled with pigs thousands of years ago to change their genetic makeup.
By Keith Randall, Texas A&M University Division of Marketing & Communications August 15, 2019

Pigs in a field
Almost none of the human-selection over the first 2,500 years of pig domestication has been important in the development of modern European commercial pigs.

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Call it a case of Jurassic Pork.

It seems the common pig took a rather strange route to become the pig it is today, according to a team of international researchers that include a Texas A&M University genome expert. The team has found pigs have the genetic makeup of European wild boars and have mostly lost their original identity they had roughly 10,000 years ago.

Their work is published in the current issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Anna Linderholm, director of the BiG (bioarchaeology and genomics) Laboratory and an archaeologist at Texas A&M, and a team of worldwide researchers sequenced DNA from hundreds of pigs collected from the Near East and Europe. They found that the first pigs to arrive in Europe and live alongside farmers 8,000 to 10,000 years ago had a definite Near Eastern genetic history. But over the next 3,000 years or so, almost all the pigs mingled with European wild boars, so much so that they lost all the original identity.

The pigs became more genetically like the Europeans boars, and throughout this change they did keep typical domesticated signals which showed in their coats and colors, ranging from black to brown and eventually spotted.

“Having access to ancient genomes over such a large space and time has allowed us to see the slow-motion replacement of the entire genome of domestic pigs,” the team said in a statement. “This suggests that pig management in Europe over millennia was extensive, and that though swineherders maintained selection for some coat colors, domestic pigs interacted with wild boar frequently enough that they lost the ancestral signature of the wild boar from which they were derived.

“We are all taught that the big change was the initial process of domestication, but our data suggests that almost none of the human-selection over the first 2,500 years of pig domestication has been important in the development of modern European commercial pigs,” the team concluded.

Linderholm said it took some detective work to figure out what had really happened over the last 10,000 years with pigs.

“We could not have seen this by looking at the modern DNA because the real truth of what happened in prehistory lies buried in the ancient DNA,” she said.

“This means that when we look at modern European pigs, they look like they were domesticated in Europe even though we now know that is not true.”

She said the next step will be to precisely identify the few genes that modern pigs have retained from their original Near Eastern ancestry. It will allow researchers to determine whether the artificial selection applied by early farmers over 10,000 years ago left any further legacy in modern pigs beyond coat color.

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