The variability of mtDNA was analysed in local sheep breeds reared throughout Turkey, for which a fragment of the D-loop region and the complete cytochrome b were sequenced. Phylogenetic analyses performed independently for the D-loop and the Cyt b gene revealed three clearly separated clusters indicating three major maternal lineages, two of which had been previously described as types B and A. The new type, C, was present in all the breeds analysed and showed considerable mtDNA variability. Divergence time was obtained on the basis of Cyt b gene and was estimated to be around 160 000–170 000 years ago for lineages B and A, whereas the divergence of lineage C proved to have occurred earlier (between 450 000 and 750 000 years ago). These times greatly predate domestication and suggest that the origin of modern sheep breeds was more complex than previously thought and that at least three independent sheep domestication events occurred. Our results, together with archaeological information and the current wild sheep populations in the Near East region support the high importance of this area in the sheep domestication process. Finally, the evidence of a third maternal lineage has important implications regarding the history of modern sheep.