Uncovering African Goat Origins in America’s Favorite Breeds

How Common Goat Breeds in America Came Across the Sea

Uncovering African Goat Origins in America’s Favorite Breeds

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Where do goats come from? Goat breed origins are notoriously difficult to fathom because, from the times of early explorers, goats have traveled around the world on sea voyages. They were chosen as a food source due to their adaptable and manageable nature. Sailors stopped over at seaports along the way and took on local goats. As a result, goats’ genetic make-up was already mixed up centuries ago. Genetics researchers have recently been able to analyze parts of the genome to identify the likely origins of some of our modern breeds. Surprisingly, America has more breeds with African goat origins than we realize.

How Goats Spread Through Africa

Northern Africa is geographically close to the Near East where goats were first domesticated over 10,000 years ago. Consequently, many African breeds have ancient origins. Firstly, goats from the southwest region of the Fertile Crescent migrated to northeastern Africa through the Isthmus of Suez 6000–7000 years ago. Then, they rapidly spread west and south, reaching the Sahara and Ethiopia 5000 years ago and sub-Saharan regions 2000 years ago. Meanwhile, they adapted to their new environments and evolved into different kinds of landraces. In addition, there were probably introductions from southwest Asia after the seventh century.

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Multicolored and speckled local goats herded by Banna people in Ethiopia. Photo credit: Rob Waddington/flickr CC BY 2.0.

African goat breeds generally typify their regions with local types. In the northeast, you’ll find lop-eared goats related to those of southwest Asia, reminiscent of Nubian goats. In West Africa, the native breeds belong to the West African Dwarf group, the source of Pygmy and Nigerian Dwarf breeds. Moving to the southeast, you will find small, short-eared goats, forming the Small East African group. Then, in the far south, the native goats are speckled, red, and white with lop ears. These goats formed the basis of the recently developed meat goat breeds: Boer, Savanna, and Kalahari Red.

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African goat migration routes (land routes: blue arrows 5000–0 BCE; sea routes: solid 1400s—1800s; dashed 1900s; Canary and Cape Verde islands marked green).

Early Migrations to America: Creole Goats

Spanish settlers brought goats from Spain and Portugal from the end of the fifteenth century. There was already an exchange of goats between this part of Europe and West Africa. Furthermore, goats settled in the Canary Islands 2200 years ago from Africa, and in Cape Verde from the Canaries, West Africa, and Portugal in the fifteenth century. These islands were important stopover ports for Atlantic travelers, and goats most likely came on board.

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Creole buck on Margarita Island, Venezuela. Photo credit: Wilfredor/Wikimedia Commons.

Spanish, Myotonic, and San Clemente Island Goats

Spanish and Portuguese colonists brought goats who became ancestors to the Creole breed group of South, Central and North America, including Spanish goats, Myotonic goats, and San Clemente Island (SCI) goats. However, genetic analysis reveals that they are not totally “Spanish”. Indeed, SCI goats share 45% of their ancestry with Canarian and West African goat breeds. Moreover, Spanish and Myotonic goats have 60% of their ancestral genetic contributions from multiple regions of Africa. Early exchanges between Spain/Portugal and Africa do not entirely explain these high percentages. So, it is supposed that goats were frequently introduced from Africa through the trade routes that were set up after the early explorations.

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Creole goats in Chile. Photo credit: Marco Antonio Correa Flores/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA.

Slave traders from Africa brought ships from West and southwestern Africa to Brazil, the Caribbean, and Florida, which may have also carried goats. In addition, a regular trade route from Portugal called in at the Canaries and Cape Verde before navigating to Brazil, then around South Africa and up the eastern coast to Goa, India, before returning to Portugal.

These early imports have inhabited the Americas for over 500 years and have adapted to the various climates of their regions. They make up the native landraces of the Americas. They are hardy, thrifty, and well able to take care of themselves. As a result, they need minimal management and feeding and are ideal for ranching, conservation, and free-range living.

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Modern Imports: Nubian Goats

In the first half of the twentieth century, Nubian goats were imported from England and developed into the great milk suppliers we know today. Their distinctive lop-ears, roman noses, and tall, elegant stature are actually inherited from their north African and Middle Eastern ancestors. British breeders imported goats from Egypt, India, and Pakistan, and crossbred them with native English goats to develop the Anglo-Nubian breed. These goats lent themselves to high fertility and productivity, leading to worldwide fame as production goats. Their origins have given them excellent adaptations to keep cool in hot weather, such as large ears and flat flanks. Like all high-yielding breeds, they need good management to ensure that they receive adequate nutrition and preventive healthcare.

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Egyptian goats have features in common with the Nubian breed. Photo credit: Chris Barnes/flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.

Dwarf Goats: Adaptable Survivors

West African Dwarf goats are hardy, adaptable animals that are a vital food source in West and Central Africa. In their homeland, they are farmed for both milk and meat. They have adapted to varying African conditions, including damp tropical, sub-humid, and drier savanna climates. In fact, their small size has helped them to survive in harsh conditions where food and water can be scarce. Moreover, they are resistant to barber pole worms and trypanosomiasis (a devastating disease in West and Central Africa and a serious threat to its agriculture).

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West African dwarf goats scavenging in Senegal. Photo credit:
Vincenzo Fotoguru Iaconianni/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA.

In the nineteenth century, the British imported West African Dwarf goats into Europe, from where they came to the United States in the late fifties. Initially, they lived in zoos and research facilities, later gaining popularity as pets. In America, breeders noticed the variety in their conformation and developed some into milkers, forming the Nigerian Dwarf breed, while the stockier varieties became the Pygmy breed. These hardy little goats easily adapted to the various climates of the United States and have become popular pets and homestead milkers, being thrifty and easy to care for.

Latest Imports: South African Meat Goat Breeds

In the 1990s, Boer and Savanna meat goats were imported into the United States. South African breeders had focused on improving their local landraces for meat since the early twentieth century.

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Tswana goat of Botswana: an example of the kind of landrace used to develop South African meat goat breeds. Photo credit: Mompati Dikunwane/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA.

They selected prolific, fast-growing goats who thrived in the tough conditions of the veld. Does had to raise kids successfully while roaming long distances and seeking out sparse grazing. Consequently, they are good mothers, sturdy, and well adapted to hot, dry weather.

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Boer goats herded in Botswana. Photo credit: Peter Grobbee/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA.

South African improved breeds soon earned worldwide fame as meat goats. As with all improved production breeds, they require appropriate feeding and management.

References: Colli, L., Milanesi, M., Talenti, A., Bertolini, F., Chen, M., Crisà, A., Daly, K.G., Del Corvo, M., Guldbrandtsen, B., Lenstra, J.A. and Rosen, B.D. 2018. Genome-wide SNP profiling of worldwide goat populations reveals strong partitioning of diversity and highlights post-domestication migration routes. Genetics Selection Evolution, 50(1), 1–20.
Sevane, N., Cortés, O., Gama, L.T., Martínez, A., Zaragoza, P., Amills, M., Bedotti, D.O., de Sousa, C.B., Cañon, J., Dunner, S. and Ginja, C. 2018. Dissection of ancestral genetic contributions to Creole goat populations. Animal, 12(10), 2017–2026.

Lead photo “Grain Storage, Karo, Ethiopia” by Rod Waddington/flickr CC BY 2.0.

Originally published in the July/August 2020 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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