Everything comes from somewhere. It’s a statement so preposterously obvious it’s rarely worth even making. And yet the implications of it are rarely explored. Where do you come from? Finding the precise time and place that humans began is no easy feat, and it’s the same for most life forms. But there are some things we can trace back with a fair degree of accuracy, often with surprising results.
10. Modern Cattle Can Be Traced Back to One Herd About 11,000 Years Ago
The average American eats 55lbs of beef per year, so there’s a lot of love for cow meat there. Our ancient ancestors never had that pleasure because, while there were herds of animals like aurochs back in the day, the modern cow as we know it never existed in the wild. We can actually trace our current world-wide cattle family back to a herd of 81 female animals that were bred nearly 11,000 years ago.
Researchers from across Europe analyze DNA samples from living cattle as well as from DNA extracted from bones taken from archaeological sites that date back to the beginning of farming as we know it. The differences in genetics seen in modern cattle could only exist if the original herd was limited to a size of about 80 animals which descended from the ancient aurochs which was kind of similar to a modern cow, but not exactly the same thing and certainly much bigger and wilder.
9. Domesticated Hamsters All Trace Back to One Pair in Syria
A lot of attention is paid to the domestication of both cats and dogs, the two most common house pets in the world. Most of us know that dogs were domesticated long ago from wolves, and cats seem to have domesticated themselves alongside mankind as an almost strategic move that ensured food and shelter. But humans do keep a lot of other animals as pets, like hamsters for instance.
A wild hamster is probably not something most of us have ever come across, but they do exist and the modern domesticated hamster can be traced back to a specific breeding pair from Syria. Their story is a curious and remarkable one.
Jewish biologist Israel Aharoni had made it his mission to identify the animals listed in the Torah. The problem was that the animals didn’t have names, just very vague descriptions. And one animal that he had a special interest in had a name that translated to English as “Mr. Saddlebags.” The only description of it stated it was golden. Not much to go on.
In 1930, Aharoni traveled to Syria and hired a hunter. They traveled the countryside looking for clues and then, on a farm, dug a hole and discovered a nest of small, golden animals. He had discovered hamsters. Mr. Saddlebags.
Aharoni took the hamsters, and things quickly spiraled out of control. The mother ate several babies. A handful more escaped and were never found. But one pair of siblings bred, as hamsters tend to do. They became the Adam and Eve of the modern hamster world. That pair had 150 babies. They were transported to labs around the world and continued to breed. Today if you see a hamster in a pet store anywhere in the world, it’s almost guaranteed to be a descendent of that breeding pair.
8. White Mushrooms Can Be Traced to a Pennsylvania Farm in 1925
If you go to the grocery store looking for mushrooms right now, you will probably have a small handful of options, depending on how much variety your store has. But if they sell fresh mushrooms at all, then they’re going to be those white mushrooms sometimes called table or button mushrooms. They’re probably the most common type in the Western world and they can all be traced back to a single Pennsylvania farm in the year 1925.
Prior to 1925 mushrooms were chiefly brown. Your local store may sell brown cremini mushrooms next to white button mushrooms today and they look identical except for the color. That’s because they basically are.
Louis Ferdinand Lambert was growing brown mushrooms at Keystone Mushroom Farm when he discovered a white one in the mix. It was a mutation, just a random chance. But he was an amateur mushroom scientist in the making, so he took that one back to his lab and cultivated the spores.
The white mushrooms grew faster and were more uniform in shape and size. By 1933 it was the leading mushroom crop in the country and soon tens of millions of pounds were being produced each year. Customers were more attracted to the color and shape and it’s still the most popular mushroom today, all thanks to one little mutant in 1925.
7. 200 Million Rabbits in Australia Came From Just a Handful in the 1800s.
Australia is home to a wild rabbit population of around 200 million. Is that a lot of rabbits for a country the size of Australia? Definitely, when you consider it’s supposed to have none. As one of the many invasive species that has caused problems down under, rabbits were never meant to be there in the first place. Those 200 million all come from a handful that were released in the year 1859.
Though the animals had been on the continent as early as 1788, it’s believed that either 13 or 24 of them were let loose in 1859 from the farm of settler Thomas Austin. He had let the animals run in his yard and may have set them free for hunting. Obviously he didn’t manage to hunt them all.
Australians have been fighting the losing battle against rabbits ever since. In the late 1800s they were killing two million per year and getting nowhere. Most famously they tried to erect a rabbit-proof fence across the entire country which is effective against larger animals but did not work on the rabbits. They were already on the far side of the fence before construction was finished.
6. Golden Retrievers Come From Two Dogs Named Nous and Belle
According to the American Kennel Club, the Golden Retriever was the third most popular dog breed in America in 2021. It’s consistently in the top ten breeds, in fact. They’re loveable and a bit goofy and they seem to make good family dogs. The entire breed can also be traced back to two specific dogs named Nous and Belle in the year 1868.
A Scotsman named Sir Dudley Courts Marjoribanks was the owner of the first of the breed, the dog named Nous who was said to be a yellow retriever of some kind. The original story was that Nous was a Russian circus dog but there’s no evidence of that being true. The real story seems to be that he was just out walking one day, saw the dog, and bought it off a cobbler.
Sir Dudley, as a breeder, kept detailed breeding logs. The records are still available today which show that he bred the dog with another named Belle, a Tweed Water Spaniel, in 1868 and they had a litter of four puppies. The resulting mix of Retriever and Water Spaniel made a light-coated sporting dog that clearly struck a chord with people.
5. South Dakota’s Mountain Goats Come From Six Escaped Canadian Goats
Mountain goats, more properly known as Rocky Mountain Goats, can be found across Western Canada and the United States. Their population estimate is somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000. The ones found in the Black Hills can all be traced back to six goats from Canada. They were gifted to Custer State Park back in 1924 but goats being goats; they were not content to stay in their pens.
The six goats escaped and made their way into the wild where they took up residence in the granite mountains. That number is up over 200 today with no sign of slowing down any time soon.
4. A Majority of Macadamia Trees Can Be Traced to One Australian Tree
Hawaii is famous for a lot of things from beautiful beaches to the luau. Macadamia nuts are also huge in the state with 40 million pounds being produced in 2019. While the bulk of macadamia nuts in the world come from Australia and South Africa, their origins are not so diverse. Seventy percent of all the macadamia nuts in the world can be traced to one single tree in Australia.
Biodiversity in plants is a big deal. The lack of diversity in bananas cause an entire strain of them to die out once already, so this field is of great interest to scientists. When trying to trace the origins of macadamia trees they tested samples from farmed trees in Hawaii and wild ones in Australia and found they all linked back to a very small population on a private island called Moloo. The genetic differences between trees was so small that they believe they all probably descended from the same individual tree.
3. Most Thoroughbreds Can Be Traced to the Darley Arabian
When a horse proves itself on the racetrack, it often gets retired to life as a stud where breeders try to continue and improve upon his genetic line. No horse seems to have done a better job of that than the Darley Arabian.
There are 500,000 Thoroughbred horses in the world. Thoroughbred, which is sometimes used as a synonym for “purebred,” is more properly a distinctive breed of race horse. These are typically considered the best racehorses in the world and nearly all half million can trace their lineage back to 28 specific horses. And among those, 95% of all males can be traced to one specific stallion – the Darley Arabian.
Thomas Darley was said to have purchased, or maybe stolen, the colt from a sheik in Syria. The horse’s name was Manak or Manica. Many famous horses were sired by the Arabian back in England and it’s said the horse lived to be 30, which is a pretty advanced age for a horse.
2. Almost 150,000 Faroese People Are All Descended From One Guy
The Faroe Islands are located in the North Atlantic Ocean near Iceland. There are about 158,000 people who live or have lived there and a stunning 149,000 of them can all trace their lineage back to the same man. The family reunions must be epic.
The prolific ancestor of most of the Faroese Islanders is known as Clemen Laugesen Follerup. Back in the 17th century he had 23 children. That turned into 66 grandchildren in 27 villages.
Back in 2006, the people of the island were registered in something called the Genetic BioBank, a sort of national registry of genetics for the Faroese people. The computer program kept reading errors because everyone it registered turned out to be a cousin of everyone else.
1. Blue Eyed People Can Be Traced to One Ancestor
Blue eyes are the second most common eye color in the world, though only about 10% of people have them. The color itself is a genetic mutation and scientists have traced it all the way back to a single common ancestor that lived between 6,000 and 10,000 years. Back then there were only brown eyed people. Mutation in a specific gene that governs eye color occurred in one individual and was passed down through the generations to the 10% of blue eyed people who exist today.
The gene mutation worked in a way that switched off the brown allele for the affected individual and their ancestors. Basically, the option for brown eyes was removed because the body’s ability to produce melanin is reduced due to the mutation. That means brown eyes can’t fully form and you get blue eyes instead. There’s no genetic advantage to the mutation, but there’s no disadvantage either, and it seems to be one of those random chance things that pops up in nature.