Sunday, 23 December 2018

The Origin of Maronesa

Back in a 2013 post, I called Maronesa a “relict breed” from Portugal. Not because of an alleged isolated ancient origin, but for its flawlessly aurochs-like colour make-up, the well-expressed sexual dimorphism and the inwards-facing horn curvature. 
Now there is a kind of quarrel on the English Wikipedia page regarding the origin of this draft breed. While enthusiasts of the breed claim a separate origin that is strongly influenced by local aurochs, others are convinced that it has its origins among other local breeds and is closely related or descends from Barrosa and Mirandesa. So here is my take-on to this subject based on literature references, old photos and the phenotype of Portuguese cattle breeds. 

First off, Maronesa has traditionally been considered a crossbreed of Mirandesa and Barrosa because of historic evidence [3]. It has been considered a mix population until it was categorized as a separate breed in 1835[1]. A genetic study from 1998 found a genetic distance to other Portuguese breeds [2]. However, another study from 1993 found it to be genetically intermediate between Barrosa and Mirandesa [4], which is in line with the historic evidence. Another study from 2004 found Maronesa to group closely with Barrosa [5]. 
The claim, however, that Maronesa has an isolated origin (even from from local aurochs) is not based on any genetic or archaeological evidence. Advocates of this scenario base it solely on the ground of physical traits plus the one study from 1998 that places Maronesa apart from other Portuguese breeds. The physical traits of Maronesa are not a good argument for an isolated origin. At one point, all domestic cattle had a very aurochs-like appearance since all of them descend from the aurochs. In cladistics you would say: you cannot base relationships on plesiomorphies. Furthermore, the aurochs-like morphology of Maronesa mainly concerns the coat colour scheme, the well-marked sexual dimorphism and the horn shape. While the dimorphism is indeed exceptionally good, you also find these traits in other breeds. 

Looking at the external appearance, it also becomes apparent that Maronesa has striking similarities to Barrosa (and the closely related Cachena), Mirandesa and also Arouquesa – all of them are neighbouring breeds from the same region. The similarities concern body shape, horn shape and face shape. Actually, many Arouquesa in fact look like a lighter-coloured and slightly more bulldoggish version of Maronesa. Thus, the striking phenotypic similarities plus the geographic and genetic proximity of these breeds suggest a common origin for these breeds to me. Phenotypic similarities can be misleading in domestic animals, but those of these five cattle breeds look very diagnostic and when you look at retriever dog breeds, the Irish setter and spaniels, you would also suggest a common origin or mutual influence between those breeds based on their looks – and this is exactly what is documented in their breeding history. 
Maronesa is slightly more aurochs-like than the others because of its colour – the colour is way darker than in the other breeds, making primitive colour traits like the eel stripe or sexual dichromatism more visible in Maronesa than in others. But this can be caused by only one or two alleles alone, so the difference is not that considerable. 
However, the darker colour would be an argument against a hybrid origin of Mirandesa and Barrosa for Maronesa: it is coloured darker than both of its alleged parent breeds. Also, the morphology of both Barrosa and Mirandesa is way more over-bred than in Maronesa. Thus, Maronesa seems to be more primitive and therefore cannot descend from two more derived breeds. But you have consider the origin date for Maronesa: it has been considered a separate breed since 1835, thus the origins of this breed must date back at least to the first half of the 19thcentury. All of the breeds were less-derived than today. There is a photo of old Barrosa in black and white where you can clearly see that Barrosa was way less derived than today (the individual in the front seems to be a steer). This goes for the colour (the steer seems to have a rather dark colour) as much as for body shape and skull shape. This, on the other hand, makes it credible again that Maronesa is indeed a crossbreed of Barrosa and Mirandesa. 

And even if it does not directly descend from a mix of those two breeds, I think it is very likely that the breeds Maronesa, Barrosa/Cachena, Mirandesa and Arouquesa share a common origin from the same region of Portugal somewhere in around 1800. The phenotypic similarities and the geographic proximity are striking and there is also genetic evidence backing it up. 
Thus, the scenario of Maronesa being an isolated relict breed that is somehow more closely tied to the aurochs than other Portuguese breeds is romantic and tempting looking at its colour and horns, but evidence suggests otherwise. And personally, I consider the similarities between aurochs and Lidia more deep-going than in Maronesa (see here or here). 


[1] Marleen Felius: Cattle breeds: An Encyclopedia. 2005. 
[2] Fernandez, Iglesias & Sanchez: Genetic variability and phylogenetic relationships between ten cattle breeds from Galicia and the north of Portugal. 1998
[3] Porter, Alderson, Hall, Sponenberg: Mason’s world encyclopedia of livestock breeds and breeding. 2016. 
[4] Iannuzzi & Figueiredo: Frequency and distribution of rob (1;29) in three Portuguese cattle breeds. 1993 
[5] Mateus et al.: Genetic diversity and differentiation in Portuguese cattle breeds using microsatellites. 2004


  1. Only a old 1993 cytogenetic study, suggested that Maronesa was a cross between Mirandesa/Barrosã
    Recent data suggest that Maronesa is very likely not a cross between Mirandesa and Barrosã, because of this 2014 study:
    And to be honest, I find some similarities between those breeds and also with Arouquesa, but there are also some differences...
    It´s possible that they got different levels of influence from other breeds, different isolation and also different amounts of aurochs input.
    Aurochs influence in Iberian breeds seems to be well supported for some years already (via paternal influence, mainly but some studies suggest that there could have been aurochs cow influence as well, in breeds like Arouquesa, for example).
    Iberian aurochs display both Y1 and Y2 and curiously even mtDNA T, like T3 (and probably some more different haplogroups) which complicates the distinction between domestic and wild.
    Apparently, it were the unique Y1 (and even Y2) haplogroups found in some Iberian breeds that suggest European aurochs bull input. For the aurochs cow, some very rare Q haplogroups, which were also suggested to derive from the aurochs cow. Some T3 could also possibly represent it.
    What seems strongly supported, is that many Iberian breeds also display many aurochs specific alleles.
    A good question is: did they did got it, during their pre-historical migration to Iberia or in Iberia? For some it may matter, not much to me to be honest. Taurine aurochsen seem all closely related to me.
    But, probably we will know the answer on the next years.
    Wageningen University will cooperate with Iberian cattle researchers, also to help to solve this mystery.

    1. The haplotypes in Iberian breeds are nice but they say nothing about the relationship of Maronesa to other Iberian breeds, particularly those neighbouring with the considerable phenotypic resemblance. Occasional local influence from aurochs was probably present in Iberia as much as elswhere.
      As regards to the 2014 study, it's in a language I do not speak, but it might be the case that it does suggest that the three breeds are genetically distinct, but that does not contradict a sister relationsip, not even descendance - one could do a similar analysis for the flat coated retriever, the irish setter and the border colie and all three would probably come out as three distinct breeds. That doesn't say much about the actual breed history (the flattie was bred using border collies and irish setters). That is not to say that I believe that Maronesa necessarily was bred using Barrosa and Mirandesa, I am just saying that there is good reason to believe that Barrosa/Cachena, Auroquesa, Maronesa and Mirandesa share a common origin somewere in the 19th century and same region, among other reasons because of the obvious phenotypic similarities.

    2. The unique haplotypes that I was talking were regarded by the article author, as possible evidence of aurochs interbreeding with the local domestic cattle.
      I wasn´t saying that it proves that Maronesa is different because of that.
      Regarding a possible old connection of Maronesa with Barrosã, I only know that they share one paternal ancestor (but also with Iberian Fighting cattle).
      Arouquesa, have both unique maternal and paternal haplotypes, so I can´t comment on a possible relationship between it and the others.
      The 2014 article actually mentions that people have been very likely making erroneous connections of these breeds based on phenotypical traits, when genetic studies really don´t support those connections.
      Regarding the evidence that the 3 breeds mentioned on this 2014 study may in fact be 3 distinct cattle, genetically speaking, is on page 28 and it´s written in English. Mitandesa seems clearly separated from Barrosã and Maronesa. Barrosã and Maronesa are closer to each other, but still in well distinct positions.
      I agree with you though that´s possible that Barrosã/Cachena and Maronesa may have important influences from a common branch.
      I hope that future studies will give us more light on that.

    3. In any case, I consider those four breeds very likely to be closely related/of common origin for their obvious phenotypic similarities, genetic markers are not always that significant, especially when comparing domestic breeds.


    4. Probably there´s some reason behind what you say, but it doesn´t seem to be shared by the cattle geneticists that wrote these articles.
      Also these cattle didn´t always looked like today (at least, many of it) and only the less derived individuals may somehow correspond to a old common connection.
      I agree though, that genetic markers are not always that significant, mostly when compare domestic breeds, but if these breeds were very closely related, it´s also possible that these studies would suggest a connection.
      Personally, I think that at least,there´s some scientific basis to support that Barrosã/Cachena and Maronesa, MAY partly derive from a common branch. With all the others, that doesn´t really seem evident (but it´s not impossible).
      So only future studies probably should clarify this subject.

    5. I doubt that the study explicitly rules out a common origin for those breeds, and even if, genetic markers are not reliable enough for such questions, especially in domestic breeds. And even if there was not a common origin between those four breeds, there was obviously a lot of mutual influence afterwards, otherwise those breeds would not look that much alike. See my example with the retriever-setter-spaniel group.

    6. It doesn´t rule out but also doesn´t support it either.
      Anyway, like I said, yes it´s possible to that there was probably a share of breeders, like it could have happened between Barrosã and Maronesa, or they just simply have a old paternal connection.
      Like I said, to have a definitive answer, we need something more than this.
      Barrosã appears (maybe) a bit more mixed than Maronesa, by the way. But that´s only discernible to me, at the paternal level.
      Maronesa also doesn´t seem to be more mixed at the maternal level, but data is too scanty by now to know it.
      I only remember that Mirandesa have been placed very close to Allistana-Sanabresa. Some individuals are in fact very alike and some authors suggested that they stem from the same population.
      Arouquesa don´t remind me particularly of any other cattle in Portugal, except that some cows look a bit like Maronesa, but they have a more domesticated look overall (longer trunk, smaller muzzle, smaller horns, etc...) and some cows with higher horns, look a bit like some Barrosã cows.
      Barrosã and Maronesa, don´t look very alike to me, except maybe some cows. Bulls are very different in general. Some Cachena bulls (dark colored ones) may have some similarities with Maronesa bulls though.
      Anyway, it´s possible that there was some crossbreeding in the past or share of breeders. Haplotype studies only suggest that one paternal ancestor was shared between Iberian Fighting cattle, Maronesa and Barrosã.
      Nuclear DNA studies probably would help to solve the mystery.

    7. I think that the similarities between Maronesa, Auroquesa (particularly this breed and Maronesa), Barrosa/Cachena and Mirandesa are quite obvious. The biggest difference is that Maronesa has a more melanized coat colour (which depends only on one allele or two and is thus not that considerable) and that the other breeds are more bulldoggish but that is only a difference of degree. A continuum between Mirandesa and Alistana-Sanabresa is plausible too and would not touch the discussion on the other hand.

    8. Ok, but I also note a difference in the horns (configuration and size), particularly between Barrosã and Arouquesa. In Barrosã horn grows more upwards than any other of these breeds and are also bigger. Arouquesa bulls have quite short horns, by the way.
      Maronesa also sport more short trunk and a bigger hump on average, but this can be due to the type of management. Some are very alike Lidia cattle on this regard.
      Regarding the claim that Maronesa can derive directly from a type of aurochs, I guess it stems from Maronesa association website. But you also see similar claims around Sayaguesa and Iberian Fighting bull. And probably about some more other cattle breeds. By the way, if you are familiar with Iberian Fighting bull world, you probably should come across several claims... One is done by the people which breed this cattle, on which they sometimes say that they are protecting a species, the aurochs descendent and not a proper domestic cattle breed. Some also simply say that lidia bulls comes directly from the aurochs and that they survived until our times.

  2. I have seen Maronesa and Lidia, or what we call here in Portugal: «Lide/Touro bravo». Have seen also spanish toros bravos...
    Lide or Lidia has actually a diverse range of appearance, seems much less homogenous than Maronesa, Barrosã or Raça Preta. Rarely Lide cows, have decent horns like the Wild Cattle, they tend to move sideway a lot and to be very fragile. Some are barely evident. Most cows are too dark, too small. They just tend to have a slender face. Their built can be atletic like a deer, but so Maronesa and Cachena, for example.
    Lidia Bulls have lots of type of coat colors and body configuration. Many are getting too fat and bulky, bulls may be tall as your belly or at best chest, horns not that great but some have aurochs like type, plus they usually are very small sized bulls, much smaller than Maronesa and Barrosã.
    Only thing, that could add something is body proportions seen in some bulls, which seem closer to the aurochsen.
    But you can get that in other breeds, if you select it. Barrosã may have actually a piggy like face, but some have long muzzle, like I have seen on the semen collection stations, which is more evident in some regions. Maronesa is more like a bigger version of Lidia, but closer to the aurochs in about everything, except maybe in face/head size.
    How easy is to select against or in favor, of certain features is beyond my knowledge. Maybe what you need in Lide is easier to select? Or maybe not, since seems so varied. Maybe if someone has the good idea to select a good herd of it, we´ll see.
    But I agree with your idea that Iberian Fighting cattle, deserve to be chosen as well, towards a type closer to wild cattle.

  3. «Apparently, it were the unique Y1 (and even Y2) haplogroups (it should be read haplotypes instead of haplogroups)»

    Sorry for the inconvenience.

  4. I think that there´s someone trying to select on good primitive Iberian fighting bull, here in Portugal! Don´t know if there´s already a herd of it, I should ask him, first.

    Since this article is so long, the reference that suggests that Barrosa, Mirandesa and Maronesa are 3 distinct cattle breeds genetically speaking, is on the page 28:


  5. Very good post, Daniel!

    I agree that Maronesa is also not derived from crossbreeding of Mirandesa and Barrosã, but I also find hardly credible that it derives directly from Iberian aurochs domestication. Probably it´s influenced by Iberian aurochs, though.
    How do you think that Middle Eastern domestic cattle was, when first arrived at Europe? Like some Corsican cattle, but way bigger? Domestic cattle maybe took more time to reach Iberia, than Balkans or even Italy.
    But I think that probably it got enough time to pick aurochs DNA from somewhere before getting into Southwest Europe and later probably got more influence from the Iberian aurochs.
    Well, only time will tell what´s right or wrong.


  6. Like in Maronesa, there are some variations in Arouquesa (of course that Maronesa seems to be more complete if we compare with wild cattle.
    Here are some cows:

  7. More:


  9. What about pajuna ? The closest breed to auroch according to DNA ?


    1. I guess that I have read somewhere, that we don´t know which breed is closest to the aurochs, genetically speaking. To know, you would need LOTS of aurochs samples from different locations and fully sequence all of them.