Ancient DNA analyses of goose fossils in Russia lead to some surprising results.
Geese are amazing guard dogs. According to the historian Livy, geese alarmed the Roman soldiers when the Gauls tried to invade the Capitoline hill. This story indicates that geese were already domesticated in Roman times. The exact time and locations of goose domestication, however, is unknown. There are some indications that it happened in Egypt during the Old Kingdom (2686-1991 BCE) or in Mesopotamia (2900-2350 BCE). In general, not much is known about the domestication history of geese. A recent study in the journal Genes focuses the medieval period (4th – 18th century) in Russia by sequencing fossils from archaeological sites.
In Russia, a large collection of domestic goose bones has been found in several archaeological sites. It is, however, challenging to discriminate between wild and domestic geese based on the excavated bones. Therefore, Johanna Honka (University of Oulu) and her colleagues sequenced part of the mitochondrial DNA of these fossils. The genetic analyses revealed three main groups: the D-group with domestic greylag geese, the F-group with both domestic and wild greylag geese, and group comprising another species, the taiga bean goose.
The D-group unequivocally points to domesticated greylag geese. But what about the mixed F-group? Several scenarios are possible here: they could represent a mixture of domestic and hunted wild birds or there could have been hybridization between domestic and wild geese.
The presence of taiga bean geese was a surprising finding. It could be bones from wild birds that were hunted. Or maybe the Russians were starting to domesticate bean geese? Or could it point to hybridization between domestic greylag geese and wild bean geese? There are still many questions on goose domestication waiting to be answered.
In Europe, the domestic geese are descended from wild greylag geese (Anser anser). The pink coloration of the bill suggests that it was likely the eastern subspecies rubirostris that was domesticated. Geese have also been domesticated in southeast Asia, but these birds are derived from another species, the Swan Goose (A. cygnoides). Some European breeds have been crossed with the Asian ones, but the present study did not find any evidence for this in their analyses.
Honka, J., Heino, M.T., Kvist, L., Askeyev, I.V., Shaymuratova, D.N., Askeyev, O.V., Askeyev, A.O., Heikkinen, M.E., Searle, J.B. & Aspi, J. (2018) Over a Thousand Years of Evolutionary History of Domestic Geese from Russian Archaeological Sites, Analysed Using Ancient DNA. Genes 9, 369.