According to Recent Research, America’s First Cowboys May Have Been Africans

In a surprising twist of history, DNA extracted from cattle suggests that some of America’s earliest cowboys may have been enslaved Africans who brought their cattle-handling expertise on slave ships.

The Arrival of Cattle in Pre-Columbian America

Before Christopher Columbus’s voyage in 1492, there were no cattle in America. Columbus, upon establishing a Spanish colony on the large Caribbean island of Hispaniola, which includes present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic, also introduced livestock to the continent.

For a long time, scientists believed that the original herds in the Americas had descended from European cattle brought to the Canary Islands, off the coast of Africa, and then transported to the American continent. These cattle rapidly multiplied in the Americas, with their offspring being sent to regions such as Mexico, Panama, and Colombia.

A cow tooth specimen found at Bellas Artes in Mexico has revealed a rare breed in Europe. Cows were probably imported directly from Africa in the first half of the 17th century. | Image Source: Nicolas Delsol

However, recent DNA research has cast doubt on this conventional belief. Instead, it suggests that some of the first cattle in America may have been directly imported from Africa, likely arriving on slave ships.

Unearthing DNA Clues

Dr. Nicolas Delsol, a postdoctoral researcher specializing in zooarchaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, and his team analyzed the DNA of 21 cattle specimens from five archaeological sites dating from the 16th to the 18th century.

As expected, seven of the oldest cattle samples from the Puerto Real region in Haiti, dating back to approximately 1500 to 1550, shared maternal DNA with European cattle, aligning with traditional thought.

Colonial map of the Bogota region in 1614 | Image Source: Archivo General de Indias

However, a sample from Bellas Artes in Mexico revealed a particularly rare lineage not commonly found in Europe. This finding strongly suggests that these cattle were likely imported directly from Africa in the early 17th century.

Delsol asserts, “This discovery supports the changing trends in the history of slavery and highlights the central role of African enslaved labor in the practice of cattle farming.”

The Rise of Cattle Ranching in 16th Century America

As cattle ranching expanded in 16th-century America, it eclipsed the small-scale versions that were popular in Spain and Portugal at the time. Historians speculate that slave traders specifically targeted West Africans who possessed the skill to manage cattle along with the animals themselves. Upon arriving in America, these skilled farmers may have innovated practices such as using custom saddles and lassos for cattle management.

A Crucial Role in Spanish Trade Networks

Tanya Peres, a zooarchaeologist from Florida State University not involved in the study, emphasizes the significance of this research in highlighting the importance of both Africans and cattle in Spanish trade networks. She states, “Without the knowledgeable and skilled labor of African herders, the Spanish cattle ranching industry may not have thrived as successfully.”

In summary, the synergy of a conducive environment, vast lands, and skilled African cattle farmers likely played a pivotal role in the expansion of cattle ranching in the Caribbean, Mexico, and the southern United States.


This groundbreaking research reshapes our understanding of America’s early cattle industry. It suggests that enslaved Africans may have been the unsung heroes of the cowboy era, contributing significantly to the development of cattle ranching in the Americas.

Source: Live Science. Oktober 03, 2023.

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