Who brought the Zebu in the Near East ?

If folks over here are not already aware, a major ancient DNA paper on cattle came out last week in the Science magazine. It had an unprecedented 67 ancient cattle samples.

Here’s the abstract,

Genome-wide analysis of 67 ancient Near Eastern cattle, Bos taurus, remains reveals regional variation that has since been obscured by admixture in modern populations. Comparisons of genomes of early domestic cattle to their aurochs progenitors identify diverse origins with separate introgressions of wild stock. A later region-wide Bronze Age shift indicates rapid and widespread introgression of zebu, Bos indicus, from the Indus Valley. This process was likely stimulated at the onset of the current geological age, ~4.2 thousand years ago, by a widespread multicentury drought. In contrast to genome-wide admixture, mitochondrial DNA stasis supports that this introgression was male-driven, suggesting that selection of arid-adapted zebu bulls enhanced herd survival. This human-mediated migration of zebu-derived genetics has continued through millennia, altering tropical herding on each continent.

Well the widespread Zebu presence in the LBA Near East is not exactly a new discovery. It has been known for quite sometime now among archaeologists. This article gives a good overview on the subject.

(Syrio-Hittite Terracota Zebu, source)

(Hittite Bronze Zebu, source)


Nevertheless, with this new study, we now have conclusive evidence that the widespread Zebu admixture in the Near Eastern cattle did indeed start around 2000 BCE.


Illustration of the proportion of Zebu ancestry over time in domesticated cattle of Eurasia. From Verdugo et al. 2019

(figure courtesy : twitter/johnhawks)

As can be seen from the above figure, after 4000 YBP, there is a sudden spurt in indicine or Zebu admixture across nearly all the ancient samples of Near Eastern Cattle including cattle samples from Central Asia, Iran, the Caucasus, Levant, Mesopotamia & the Balkans.

Again quoting from the paper,

…despite archaeological evidence for contact between civilizations of the Fertile Crescent region and the Indus Valley (9), the influence of the zebu genome is detectable in ancient Southwest Asian cattle only 4000 years later (Fig. 2). However, after ~4000 yr B.P., hybrid animals (median 35% indicine ancestry) are found across the Near East, from Central Asia and Iran to the Caucasus and Mediterranean shores of the southern Levant (table S2 and fig. S1). During this period, depictions and osteological evidence for B. indicus also appear in the region (9, 13). In contrast to autosomal data, but similar to earlier work (14), we find persistence of B. taurus mitochondria, suggesting introgression may have been mediated by bulls (Fig. 2).

As the bolded portions note, the indicine admixture in the ancient cattle samples from the Near East post 4000 YBP, show on an average 35 % indicine admixture but that this mostly through the Indicine bulls as there is indicine mtDNA in these admixed samples. This widespread and major admixture in the Near Eastern cattle post 4000 YBP, is clearly a major turning point in the history of the Near Eastern cattle.

What lead to this major turning point ?

It is now widely accepted that there was a major 4200 YBP climatic event that brought about a prolonged phase of drought perhaps extending to several centuries which affected all major civilizations of the Near East extending all the way to the Indus civilization. This event is also considered a major reason for the apparent ‘collapse’ of the Indus civilization.

The Large Harappan Footprint across Middle Asia


Most if not all movements of cattle across large distances in prehistory are usually associated with movement of humans. Did the large influx of Zebu autosomal DNA into the Near East cattle also result due to South Asian population expansion into the Near East post-4000 YBP ?

What we do know from archaeology is that the Harappans were operating across a vast landscape and their presence and influence can be detected in Central Asia, Eastern Iran( Jiroft & Helmand), the SE Arabian coast (Oman & Bahrain) and in Mesopotamia already in the 3rd millenium BC. The Harappans even had their own colonies in these different regions.

It appears that a minority but nevertheless a significant and arguably influential community of Harappans were present in most of these regions away from the Greater Indus region as far as atleast Mesopotamia. Infact, in a lot of these places, the Harappans were apparently living in those places for many generations. It is conceivable that they would have brought and maintained the Zebu cattle in their new homelands.

Therefore, already in the 3rd millenium BC, it is quite probable that the Zebu cattle was already a minor but regular feature of the Middle Asian landscape.

However, after the onset of the 4.2 kya event, with the onset of aridity, it is believed that the Harappan civilization finally collapsed around 3900 kya (1900 BCE). One of the consequences of this collapse is apparently the end of Harappan trade and interaction across Middle Asia.

So the questions is – how did the Zebu admixture in the Near East shoot up all of a sudden in a period when we are led to believe that the Harappan or Indus civilization ceased to interact with this region ?

And it is not just Indian cattle admixture that becomes widespread into the Near East during this post-4000 kya period. As the authors of this paper state,

Westward human migration has been documented around  this time(19,20) along with archaeological evidence for the appearance of other South Asian taxa such as water buffalo and Asian elephants in the Near East(21), suggesting the movement of large animals by people.

Infact, the presence of Asian Elephant in the Near East dates to from the end of 3rd millenium BC to the 8th century BC and is centred around Syria and hence this ancient elephant population is also known as the Syrian Elephant.

The authors of the study cited on Asian Elephants in our cattle aDNA paper above state something very interesting,

…ancient accounts indicate that live elephants roamed and were hunted in the Orontes Valley, the Upper Euphrates Valley and the Middle Euphrates Valley around modern Ana in Iraq, at least between the end of the 16th and 9th centuries BC, possibly into the 8th century BC (Breasted 1906–07; Gardiner 1964: 179, 201; Moorey 1994: 117; Scullard 1974: 28). The core of this region comprises the area of influence of the Mitanni Kingdom, the main local political player in LBA northern Syria…

The Mitanni were an Indo-Iranian, possibly Indo-Aryan elite ruling over the native Hurrian population in present day Syria in the mid 2nd millenium BCE. And we observe that Asian Elephants, most likely imported from the Indus civilization, only appear in the Near East during the 2nd millenium BC and in a geography that was under the political control of the Mitanni. Is this merely a co-incidence ?

A New Interaction Horizon in Middle Asia in the LBA ?

It is quite probable that with the collapse of the old Bronze Age empires all across the Near East and South Asia, this entire Middle Asian region entered into a new era of interaction which is archaeologically not so well-defined. The widespread Zebu admixture in the Near Eastern cattle along with the presence of Asian elephants as also the first attestations of the Indo-Europeans such as the Hittites & the Mitanni and the associated horse-drawn chariots are evidences of this new horizon.

But while the Zebu and the Asian Elephant came from South Asia, one may argue that the Hittites, Mitanni and the horse drawn chariot must surely come from the steppe.

Well, the strong correlation of the geography of the LBA ‘Syrian’ Elephant population with the boundaries of the Mitanni empire, does suggest some sort of interaction of the Mitanni with South Asia.

And if this is not all, we have now possibly a very strong evidence of the presence of chariots in South Asia which is as old and probably older than the Sintashta chariots in the steppe.

It maybe noted that before the discovery of the chariots in Sintashta which gave the steppe chariot the distinction of being the oldest known one, it has been argued for long that the invention of chariot is mostly likely in the Near East and not in the steppe due to several factors inimical for the use of chariots on the steppe. You can read more about it here.

The discovery of the Sanauli chariots is likely to revive that debate. Along with this, we also have the prospect of horse aDNA from the Mature Harappan Phase no less.

So could the appearance of the Zebu, the Asian elephant, the Buffalo as well as the Hittites & Mitanni and their horse drawn chariot in the 2nd millenium BC in the Near East have a common cause in their probable migration from South Asia after the Indus civilization collapse.

Certainly some food for thought !





29 Replies to “Who brought the Zebu in the Near East ?”

  1. we don’t know the ethnicity of the ‘wild guti’ who brought an end to sumerian civilization. they were from the zagros though. i assume the turnover/expansion connected pastoralism groups on the two ends of the modern iranian plateau.

    some of the kassite kings seem to have indo-european names. so yeah, big interaction south. though south asia might be less of source than one area that the ‘barbarian international’ of this period was operating.

  2. No comments about zebu cattle in middle east, but the sub story of Syrian elephants sounds like a red herring. I strongly suspect this elephant population to be some preexisting outlying pocket of either Asian or African elephants, rather than an import from India.

    Any people transporting elephants from India to syria will have to march them over bone dry Baluchistan and Iranian plateau, a highly unlikely feat considering the fact that a single animal would require 200 kg of foliage and 200 liters of water every day! For the similar reasons transporting them across sea in ships is equally improbable.

    Further, elephants aren’t much useful to anyone except the royalty. Why would ordinary farmers and artisans keep elephants like ordinary cattle. The whole scenario of a drought stricken people, migrating thousands of miles driving herds of elephants along with them appear surreal.

    1. Please bother to read the article in its entirety and also the links provided on the topic before you get into the business of dismissing something.

      The depictions, the tusks, molars and the bones of Asian Elephants found in the Near East all date to a period from 2000 BC and not before that. So how did they magically appear all of a sudden 4000 years ago and that too mostly in the domain of what would go on to become the Mitanni empire ? Can you throw some light ? If there is no Syrian Elephant before 4 kya in the Near East then it has to come from somewhere. The most obvious choice is the Indus civilization.

      The fact of the matter is that Indians (aka Harappans) had been trading with the Mesopotamians for centuries before that and there were numerous lines of communications both across the land and by the ocean. So the feat might be gargantum but the ancients did many such feats.

      1. I did in fact read the whole elephant paper. I know it talks about there being no evidence of presence of elephants in Syria earlier than 4K years. All I can say is that even a research paper can be wrong in its conclusions. No evidence of presence is not the same as evidence of absence.

        I am open to the possibility of people and cattle migrating from India to west as IVC dried up. Just that the elephant story does not fit. That’s why I called it a red herring – a needless distraction. Other points in your article may be valid.

    2. I strongly suspect this elephant population to be some preexisting outlying pocket of either Asian or African elephants, rather than an import from India.

      I don’t know about 2000 BC, but closer to our time, isn’t Seleucus supposed to have obtained a whole lot of war elephants from Chandragupta Maurya through a treaty? So there may be traces of those elephants in the “Mitanni” area (Northern Syria, Anatolia) from around 300 BC.

  3. It would be much more beneficial if the approach is just scientific or popular without political prejudices. Otherwise, it unnecessary leaves impressions of the last of OIT jerks. I have some material related to this topic, I may present if I have free time. Again this mysterious and meaningless term – Indo-European. Some guys came from the steppe? What is the significance? It’s true, would be much more exotic if they came from the top of Himalaya. Elephants? The first Aryan leader, the founder of Babylon and the ruler of Assyrian kingdom on the way back from SA brought many elephants. It was organized the first ‘triyam’ (later named’ triumph’) which was repeated every third year for hundreds of years. Much later, Romans continued this habit and conducted very often triumphs after significant events. This thing exists even today in certain occasions.

      1. i don’t know this area. do you think one article is dispositive? the other article has multiple citations and reviews conflicting assessments.

        am to misunderstand you that you are a paleomammalogist so you can assess with expertise?

      2. The abstract of the article says: Having become an ‘evolutionarily significant unit’ for centuries, these elephants died out in the 8th or 7th century BC. Does the body of the article say something different?

  4. I wrote before that the first Aryan expedition was in 2025 BC and that its leader returned from India with elephants. Maybe these are the same elephants considering that he established his empire (this is the first worldwide empire stretched from Danube to Ind river) included Syria as well. There are so many ancient Serbian toponyms in Syria (and Asia Minor, and Iran, Mesopotamia, Paksitan,India, Tibet, Turan…). And not only in Syria, he came with elephants to Europe as well. That were first elephants in Europe. A question, when Indians stopped eating beef and why? It seems that at this ‘zebu’ time they were beefeaters? What is the meaning of the name of Baghdad?

    1. Obviously, you are privileged here and your ‘comments’ are posted instantly. My comment which I posted 10 hours ago is still sitting in admin’s junk folder and it is not published. Also is obvious that you have nothing to say except to express your frustration. It is illusory to make any conversation with you or to expect that you comment on anything.

  5. “Along with this, we also have the prospect of horse aDNA from the Mature Harappan Phase no less.”

    This does not seem like a big deal, the IVC wasn’t isolated and traded with the outside world, they would of brought back animals from the outside. Your premise is that animals went out of IVC, why couldn’t they come in? Though the “Vedic” use of horses most probably it is not. This article from caravan magazine which includes a excerpt from Tony Joseph’s book Early Indians, already doesn’t find that surprising:


  6. Regarding this topic, Scorpio’s logical thinking about elephants is equally strong as hard evidence. Ancient historian Diodorus of Sicily (History vol III p.301, Harvard Uni Press, 1968) described the first triumph in history when the first Aryan leader Bak (=bull in Serbian, Belus or Dionysus or Nimrod or Bacchus >>>> name of Baghdad) returned from India on the elephant (his expedition started 2025 BC and lasted for 17 years).

    Good reference on T.Joseph’s book. Below is an excerpt which can be related to Tony’s writing about Rg Veda’s horses.

    The white horse was a symbol of the god of the sun because the old Serbs believed that the sun was riding the sky on a white horse. This sunny white horse was called HORS!!! And this name is present in the medieval Serbian language as well as in Russian. Hors is sometimes represented with wings. Hors is located in Media and Persia under the same or slightly changed name. Austin Wadell (The Phoenician Origin of the British, Scots and Anglo-Saxons, p. 306, London, 1925) says: “Persians had a god of the sun under the name of Horu, just like the Egyptian Horus. It’s the god of the sun, the warrior leader on the horse is portrayed as killing a snake. In Christianity, it is St. George.”

    Re: Hittiti

    From the incorrect reading of the Hets’ name, in recent times western writers have created a new form – Hittiti. Austin Wadell (page 8) explains: “Hets (i.e. Heti) Jews call Heth or Hitt, and they speak of them as the ruling race in Phoenicia and Palestine at the time when Abraham came here. On the Hebrews’ – Hitt, western writers added the Latin endings -ITE, and so they got Hittites. And really, the name Hittiti is coined in the twentieth century and its name is not found anywhere in history. Hittiti (Hittites) are actually Heti or Geti (there are European and Asia Minor Serbian speaking tribes), some of them finished in India as it was written before.

    Next time we will explain who were Mittani -es (rulers and language), often cited at BP but never explained who they were.

  7. “fossil remains indicate a west asian population that is quite old.”

    You said this. My simple question is this – where is the fossil evidence in a pre-2000 BC period in the Near East ?

    The older evidence is much older and dates to the Pleistocene.

    Since you accuse me of having only a single study to back up my claims, let me quote from another paper,

    “Elephant tusks may have been imported from Africa or India; or they may come from Syria; although the hypothesis of a Syrian breed of E. surviving from prehistoric times may be ruled out.It seems possible that live E. had been imported (from India?), acclimated by man in the course of the Bronze Age, and were maintained in royal zoological reserves. Bone remains of Indian E. (elephas maximus) are found in a number of sites,and their number grows significantly during the LB period.”


    The following is a long excerpt from another paper which is not available online but the author was king enough to share it with me,

    “In the Ancient Near East, elephant bones appeared in settlements from Bronze Age levels onwards. No sample dates from before the second millennium BC, apart, perhaps, from a bone found at Tell Munbaqa on the Middle Euphrates in a level imprecisely dated to the end of the Early Bronze Age – or the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age”

    “In conclusion, the presence of elephant is attested with certainty from the Middle Bronze Age onwards. Most of the well identified and dated Near Eastern elephant remains have been discovered in Late Bronze Age and Iron Age contexts. In the rescue excavations (due to dam constructions) undertaken over the last fifteen years on the Euphrates river valley no remains have been observed from the Chalcolithic or Neolithic periods. Furthermore, no remains in the Levant, Turkey, or Mesopotamia have been identified from the beginning Holocene or from the end of the Pleistocene. In order to find remains in Syria predating the second millennium BC one has to go back to the Pleistocene, to the bones from Latamne, which, thanks to a molar, have been safely identified as Elephas.From the time in between these discoveries there are neither bone remains nor undeniable iconographic representations.”

    “An introduction of the elephant in the very late Early Bronze Age is the most convincing hypothesis…The Asian elephant could have come via the trade routes existing between India and the Near East, reaching as far as the Mediterranean, and along the way passing through the valleys of the large Mesopotamian rivers. ”


    Infact, the aDNA paper on the Syrian elephant that you linked to itself uses the Cakirlar & Ikram paper I had linked to make the following assertion,

    ” The genetic data do not distinguish between these possibilities, nor therefore between natural range expansion and human introduction of elephants into the Near East. The latter has been posited mainly due to the lack of well-dated skeletal remains of elephants before 3500 BP, or ivory (which could have been humanly transported) before 4000 BP (Çakirlar and Ikram 2016). ”

    So clearly what I am arguing for is not based on just a single paper but there are a few more that argue for it. No one disputes that the evidence for Syrian Elephant from after the Pleistocene upto 4000 YBP is non-existent.

  8. 2100 BCE and the next 3-4 centuries is around the time when the so called Steppe/Aryan,etc migration started to happen into NW South Asia.

    One possibility of this could be as people from North descended into NW South Asia, many locals remained and the subsequent mixing took place, many went East into Gangetic plains but a few possibly left Westwards towards the Near East along with their domestic livestock like these Zebu and all.
    Double pincer of of resource-pressure from Climate issues and New populations also possibly fleeing said climatic issues and complicating issues.
    This could also somewhat explain the lack of evidence for large scale skirmishes/battles because people were just coming and going since they barely had organisation left, at Scale.

    Razib, thoughts?

    1. not crazy. but i think the date is just a little early (the aryans).

      seems more likely to be IVC-near eastern trade. also, there were tigers in places like the caspian until very recently. possibility there were elephants further west than we know.

  9. Scorpion Eater,

    The sudden appearance of Asian Elephant in the Syrian-Anatolian region around the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC in the fossil record and in the depictions is well-accepted.

    I agree that focusing on it to the detriment of other IVC imports in the Near East makes little sense. But it nevertheless is a vital evidence in determining the kind of exchange the Syro-Anatolian region was having with the IVC.

    Also more uniquely the ‘Syrian’ elephant bones are largely found in the regions that were under the Indo-Iranian Mitanni empire. So those who speculate that the Mitanni rulers had nothing to do with South Asia but were from the steppe need to explain the presence of Asian Elephants in the Mitanni domain.

    1. the earliest date i’ve seen for the mitanni is 1750 (most of the records are after 1500 BC due to the records we have, but there is some reference to 1750 i saw somewhere).

  10. Numinous,

    The Syrian Elephant of the Bronze Age suddenly appears in the fossil records and depictions of LBA Syrio-Anatolian region and dies off around 8th century BC.

    The Elephants brought by Seleucus from India around 300 BC have no relation to them other than that both of these temporally separated populations of Elephants have their likely origins in South Asia.

  11. TrueEast,

    Thanks for the excerpt.

    Well here is the point –

    Horse bones and horse figurines are known from several Mature Harappan sites and not just from Surkotada. Have you read this detailed paper that catalogues all of these discoveries ?


    So the presence of horse is well-attested in Harappan era and we are now going to get a confirmation from ancient DNA for this.

    The problem is, the AIT camp for long has flat out tried to deny the presence of horse during Harappan period. For them, presence of horse = arrival of Indo-Aryans. So the presence of horse during Harappan era makes a mockery of their bogus claims. Therefore the likes of Joseph are trying to change the goalposts.

    Horses could have probably come to IVC from outside but there is no reason why it should have come necessarily from the steppe. Horse was also present in the BMAC in Central Asia. And we now have a chariot burial from Sanauli in West UP where warriors with swords and other weapons were buried and dating to around 2200-2000 BC. This is right in the heart of the Vedic homeland and the warrior burial has significant parallels with the warrior culture of Vedic India.

    Also, it is potentially older than Sintashta from where supposedly the Indo-Aryans came to South Asia.

    1. “Have you read this detailed paper that catalogues all of these discoveries ?

      Some of your other sources are more acceptable, but this site, despite its misleading neutral name, it is not a academic effort. It is a propaganda leaning website trying to push their view of history and are not participants in the wider academic debate.

      You might be see yourself as a OIT camp vs everyone else, but there is no AIT camp,there are academic institutions such as Harvard who have no reason to push a agenda, and are just publishing peer reviewed research and facts. Genetics itself has already given us amazing data along with other fields, and gives us a much clearer picture of the past.

  12. Interesting information Jaydeepsinh_Rathod.

    I am curious if you are making a broader point. Are you suggesting that we grossly underestimate the influence that Indic societies had on the Near East?

    1. JT,

      In a way yes. But even more so I am against the BS assumption that all the cultural tools, traditions etc in the subcontinent has come from outside.

      This is such a pernicious propaganda that if you raise a contrary viewpoint people start thinking there is something wrong with you 😁

      1. I can’t see what the problem with this is. Aryans came 4000 years ago and they are now, in fact, the oldest Indians. I see them as SA and Indians. Even, if they came with Serbian genes, language and mythology, the last two things changed, adapted over time and became the local. Probably many other tribes, steppes and cowboys came after them and they are true blue Indians now but Aryans are not allowed to. It seems that recent English colonisers are more entitled to influence Indian history comparing to much earlier Euro migrants. It is preposterous to assert that none came to SA for thousands of years while Indians moved in all directions. Genetics, at least, already dismissed such constructions.

        OIT guys could accept and champion my theory in discussions with western scholars who for 200 of years, believed in own propaganda, in a quest for elusive Indo-Europeans. In this way, you could come on the top of this issue and direct this historical narrative. JR, forget these elephants, pls send me an email and take a leadership, I can provide all info I have. You can be the first in the world to start putting the world history back on the right track. MMK, who works hard to discover the previous name of the river Ind, can also help. Don’t miss it, the window of opportunity is short.


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