A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE IBERIAN PIG
The Iberian pig is unique in that it has undergone very little change for hundreds of years. It was selected centuries ago to provide high quality cured pork while thriving on the rugged oak savannahs of southwest Spain and eastern Portugal. And that is still its primary purpose today. Thus the breed stability of this heritage pig represents a valuable genetic resource in a swine industry that has been plagued with declining genetic diversity.
Recent evidence from the DNA analysis of fossils suggests that the ancestors of modern pigs (Sus scofia domesticus) were first domesticated about 15,000 years ago in the Tigris River basin of the Middle East, around current day Lebanon. Phoenician pigs from this area were believed to have been brought to southern Europe and the Iberian Peninsula where they mated with the European wild boar. These pigs evolved as prolific omnivores that thrived in the forest with little or no attention from their human caretakers.
The Romans loved pork and played a vital role in the development of the Iberian pig. The Romans transformed the barren rocky lands of modern day southwestern Spain and eastern Portugal by planting the oaks that have become the vast oak savannahs now characteristic of the region. These oaks provided the acorns that fattened their pigs. The Romans learned to preserve the meat by curing it with salt.
The Visigoths, who followed the Romans on the Iberian Peninsula, also loved pork. They continued to improve the husbandry and breeding of the native pigs, contributing to the rise of the modern Iberian pig and the special oak-grass habitat and dry curing techniques which still characterize the breed today.
Spanish Pigs in the Americas
Iberian pigs and their cousins on the Canary Islands played a little-known but vital role in the settling of the Americas by Europeans. The long voyages, exhaustive overland marches, and isolated settlements all required a stable and dependable source of food. Pigs provided both cured meat that would last for months at ambient temperature and a quickly reproducible food supply for the New World explorers and settlers. Besides, there were no domesticated large animals for meat sources in the Americas, as Columbus quickly noted on his first voyage. In fact, there were few large animals at all.
On his second voyage in 1493, Columbus loaded eight pigs during a stop in the Canary Islands. He refused to let his crew eat them and left them for breeding stock in the West Indian islands. Other voyages also brought livestock, including both Iberian and Canary Island pigs. No doubt, these pigs of similar origin crossbred when they reached their new homes. There were no oaks in the Indies, but the pigs thrived on the lush tropical vegetation.
Soon there were thousands of pigs in the West Indies. Cortez, Pizarro, Soto and other Spanish explorers all used these pigs to support their explorations and conquests in the Americas. Some expeditions included over 1000 live pigs. They were herded behind the soldiers where they provided fresh meat, all the while foraging on the surrounding forest and reproducing themselves on the long journeys through uncharted territory.
In 1538, Hernando de Soto brought 200 pigs from Spain to Cuba. De Soto became the “father of the U.S. pork industry,” when he took 13 pigs from Cuba to Tampa Bay in 1539. There he commenced his exploration of Florida and the southeastern U.S. By the time of his death three years later near the Mississippi River, de Soto’s herd had grown to 700 pigs, not counting the few he allowed his soldiers to eat, what escaped into the southeastern forests, and those he gave to the Native Americans to try to keep the peace. In fact, some of the most vicious attacks the explorer faced came from Indians who wanted his pigs.
So what happened to the Spanish pigs de Soto, along with other Spanish explorers and missionaries, brought to the U.S? It appears that most of them lost their genetic identity. English and northern European settlers also brought pigs—lots of them. These slippery animals also escaped into the forest, crossed with the Spanish pigs and soon diluted their genetic influence. Perhaps modern DNA techniques will identify substantive Spanish genetic reservoirs, such as the Ossabaw Island pigs of Georgia (thought to have originated in the Canary Islands)— or maybe the feral but hardy and resilient “razorbacks” and “piney woods rooters.” Currently, the general consensus is that the famed Iberian (or Iberico) pig has been extinct in the Americas for over 200 years. All that changed in 2014.
Reintroduction of Iberian Pigs in the U.S.
On August 5, 2014, a small group of Spanish entrepreneurs, called AcornSeekers, brought 149 purebred Iberian pigs into the USDA quarantine station at Rock Tavern, NY. Thirty days later, these pigs were moved to a farm in southern Texas, farrowing their first litters in February 2015. Also in the Spring of 2015, a second contingent of 30 purebred Iberian pigs entered the U.S., making their way to a South Georgia farm. The two imported herds represent six breeding lines of Iberian pigs. Considering the fecundity of pigs, these two import groups will, no doubt, provide a strong foundation for the growth of a modern U.S. Iberian swine industry.