This past weekend, I was in Vermont; my partner was taking part in a bike race up there. On our way back to Boston, we stopped at Billings Farm and Museum, a fully-operational dairy farm that also has many exhibits explaining the farming process.
I learned a lot about dairy farming AND got to see a lot of cute cows, some goats, some horses, and even a lamb.
Learning about the dairy farm got me wondering, though: where do cows come from? Is there wild cattle that exists somewhere?
The answer is… nope. There is no wild cattle. However, I did learn about the ancestor of cattle, the aurochs (Bos primigenius). These large herbivores were eventually domesticated into cattle, but for thousands of years they roamed across Europe and Asia.
Grammatical note: “Aurochs” works as both the plural and singular form of the word.
The OG Cattle
Aurochs are the original cattle and are considered to be the wild ancestor of the cattle we have today. They were one of the largest herbivores during the Holocene, the current geological epoch that began after the Last Glacial Period around 11,650 years ago.
Aurochs were found in Northern Africa, Mesopotamia, and throughout Europe. There were three subspecies of aurochs: the Eurasian aurochs, the Indian aurochs, and the North African aurochs. They preferred to live in temperate forests and semi-open grasslands. Their range was restricted by the savannah and desert to the south and steppes to the north.
Not your grandma’s cow
What made aurochs different from today’s cattle? Well, for one, they were shaped quite differently. For instance, an aurochs legs were longer and more slender than cattle legs; this made their shoulder height nearly the same as their trunk length. Aurochs also had much larger and more elongated skulls. This adaptation was necessary, since aurochs had much larger horns than cattle; their horns could reach 31 inches long and between 3.9 and 7.9 inches in diameter. Aurochs were bigger than today’s cattle and were an average of 5.75 feet tall compared to the average 5 feet of a large domesticated cow. The udders of aurochs cows were small and hard to see, unlike the udders of cows today.
Early humans began domesticating aurochs thousands of years ago, with some evidence pointing to domestication beginning 8000 years ago in central and western Asia. As we started keeping aurochs, they became smaller and more like the cattle we see today.
Most of today’s cattle can be classified in one of two categories: taurus or indicus. All cattle are part of the genus Bos, the same genus that aurochs were are part of. Given that taurus and indicus can interbreed, some people classify the two as related subspecies.
Bos taurus are the cattle you are probably most familiar with. Also known as taurine cattle, these cattle were originally domesticated in the Fertile Crescent in the Near East. Eventually, taurine cattle were introduced to Europe, and today are the most widespread species of cattle in the world.
While aurochs were being domesticated in the Near East, a separate aurochs domestication event was also occurring in India. Here, the Indian aurochs eventually became Bos indicus, also known as the zebu. Unlike taurine cattle, zebu have a fatty hump on their shoulders and a large dewlap hanging beneath their lower jaw. Zebu are often farmed in tropical countries because they are well-adapted to tropical climates.
A brief side note about American cattle
As I was researching aurochs, I had a question: where did American cows come from? Because remember, aurochs came from the Old World, not the Americas.
And as it turns out, cattle are indeed not native to America! Instead, they were brought to America from European colonizers. Spaniards brought the first cattle to Mexico in 1525; the first cows in the United States came over in 1624 and ended up in Plymouth Colony with the Pilgrims.
Aurochs unfortunately went extinct. We don’t know when exactly they went extinct outside of Europe because the data we have is spotty. However, we don’t have any records or bone findings of aurochs in these areas after the first millennium BC.
We have a lot more data for extinction in Europe. We know, for instance, that aurochs were found in Italy until at least the first century BC – they were popular battle beasts in the Roman amphitheaters, and Julius Caesar described aurochs in the Hercynian forest of Germania in 53 BC. Aurochs disappeared from the Netherlands and Denmark in the first century, from France in the 9th century, and from Germany and Russia sometime after. The last known population of aurochs lived in the Polish Royal forests. There were 38 aurochs in the Jaktorów forest in 1564; this decreased to 24 aurochs in 1599. By 1620, the last aurochs bull was dead. He was followed by the last aurochs cow in 1627.
Chillingham wild cattle
In addition to historical documents, we can gain information about aurochs by looking at the behavior of Chillingham wild cattle. These cattle live in a large enclosed park at Chillingham Castle in Northumberland, England, and have lived there virtually untouched since the Middle Ages. People living in Chillingham Castle would essentially use the cattle as a large game animal for hunting.
Because the Chillingham cattle are wild and untamed, they probably behave in a similar manner to aurochs. Chillingham cattle herds have a gender split of 50% male and 50% female, which is unusual for dairy cattle. They also have calves year-round, and have fierce, bloody (and sometimes deadly) competitions with each other using their horns.
One more fun fact: the Chillingham cattle are so inbred that all individuals are basically genetically identical. This is impressive since inbreeding usually results in extinction, either through deadly mutations propagating in the population or individuals not having gene diversity to respond to illness. We don’t know how or why the Chillingham cattle have survived inbreeding so far, but it’s pretty cool!
Bringing back the aurochs
Some people are trying to breed back the aurochs. Remember, they are the ancestors of cattle, so their DNA is relatively similar to cattle. We also know through historical records what an aurochs looks like. Heck cattle are the result of the earliest breed-back attempt by Heinz and Lutz Heck in the early 1900s. These cattle are the right color and horn shape as aurochs, but the wrong size and dimension. People have bred the Heck cattle with other aurochs-like cattle to better approximate an aurochs; they’ve used breeds like Sayaguesa cattle (which have the right coloration) and Chianina (which have the right sized-horns). Still, even though there are cattle that look like an aurochs, aurochs remain extinct. There is no breed that has the genes of a true aurochs.
I particularly like the aurochs because they were so important culturally. Aurochs exist in the primitive cave paintings at the Chauvet and Lascaux caves in southern France. Aurochs horns were prized in Greece and Rome as trophies, drinking horns, and offerings. There are aurochs in hunting scenes painted in the mortuary temple of Ramesses III and in a tomb in Thebes, Egypt. There’s an aurochs on Babylon’s Ishtar Gate.
Aurochs were everywhere, and so important to ancient humans. Heck, without aurochs, we wouldn’t have the cattle we have today! They are an important part of human history that no longer exists in our world. In fact, the aurochs may be the first historically documented animal extinction.
I wonder what other important animals may go extinct if we aren’t careful.