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Modern cattle are descended from two species — wild cattle (“Bos taurus” ) of Europe and the humpbacked (zebu) cattle of Asia (“Bos Indicus” ). Most species in Europe, Oceania and the Western Hemisphere evolved from two subspecies of “Bos taurus” — the long horned aurochs (“taurus primegenius” also known as “Bos primigenius” ) and to a lesser extent from the relatively small short-horned Celtic Ox (“taurus longifrons”).

Members of the even-toed ungulate family and cousins of buffalo, musk oxen, wild oxen and yaks, aurochs were huge animals, standing two meters at the shoulder, with long horns. Bulls were black with a white stripe running down their back. Cows were slightly smaller and reddish brown in color. Domesticated cattle are much smaller than aurochs.

Auroch ranged across Africa, Asia and Europe. Early men hunted them and depicted them in 30,000-year-old rock paintings. Their bones have been found at many early human settlements. Small shrines made from their horns were erected in 8,000-year-old settlements in Turkey. They endured until the 17th century when were made extinct by hunting and deforestation. The last auroch died in Poland's Jactorowka Forest in 1627.

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Domestication of Cattle

Cattle are believed to have been domesticated from aurochs from Western Asia between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago. Evidence of domesticated cattle has been found in archeological sites dated to 6400 B.C. Cattle appears to have been domesticated separately in Africa — with the earliest evidence of this happening occurring in northwestern Sudan about 8,000 years ago.

The bones of early domesticated cattle are thought to be from domesticated animals rather than wild ones based on the fact that the bones were mostly from males roughly the same age. If the animals were wild they would a wider range of ages and more female bones would have been present (herders often slaughter males and keep females because they produce offspring). There was also wear and tear on the vertebrae which likely indicates they had been used as beasts of burden

African cattle

DNA studies indicate that most cattle from Europe, northern Asia and Africa have closely related DNA sequences that correspond closely to “Bos taurus” from the Middle East, while the DNA of humped zebu cattle, originally from India and Pakistan, is closest to zebu-like versions of the wild ox and the DNA of cattle from Africa is closest to the North African version of the wild ox. DNA studies of European cattle have found that their DNA is more similar to ancient aurochs from the Middle East than Celtic Oxen cattle from Europe.

Domesticating cattle must have been a more difficult than domesticating sheep and goats because aurochs are so large Over time the aurochs were tamed and cattle were created that could live with humans through breeding desired characteristics. Among the first developments were beasts of smaller size that were easy to control.

One of the oldest surviving breeds of domestic cattle is found in a walled park at Chillingham in the Cheviot Hills in Britain. Batting back to the 13th century, these animals are smaller than aurochs but still retain an element of wildness. The males are still very aggressive. If they are threatened they form a ring and charge any perceived threat. One dominate male rules the herd, mates with the females and fights off male rivals. Each dominant male hold his place for two or three years.


Aurochs (Bos primigenius) are extinct cattle, regarded as the wild ancestor of modern domestic cattle. Members of the even-toed ungulate family and cousins of buffalo, musk oxen, wild oxen and yaks, aurochs were huge animals with long horns. Bulls were black with a white stripe running down their back. Cows were slightly smaller and reddish brown in color. Domesticated cattle are much smaller than aurochs. Auroch bulls stood up to 180 centimeters (71 inches) at the shoulder while cows stood 155 centimeters (61 inches). They were one of the largest herbivores in during the Ice Age periods. Their broad horns reached 80 centimeters (31 inches) in length.

Auroch ranged across Africa, Asia and Europe. Early men hunted them and depicted them in 30,000-year-old rock paintings. Their bones have been found at many early human settlements. Small shrines made from their horns were erected in 8,000-year-old settlements in Turkey. They also showed up in Neolithic petroglyphs, Ancient Egyptian reliefs and Bronze Age figurines. They are believed to be have symbolized power, sexual potency and prowess in religions of the ancient Near East. Their horns were used in votive offerings, as trophies and drinking horns. They endured until the 17th century when were made extinct by hunting and deforestation. The last auroch died in Poland's Jactorowka Forest in 1627.

Aurochs probably evolved in Asia and migrated west and north during warm interglacial periods. The oldest known aurochs fossils found in India and North Africa date to the Middle Pleistocene (1.26 million to 780,000 years ago) and in Europe to the Holstein interglacial period (421,000 to 395,000 years ago). Based on fossil remains in Northern Europe, it reached Denmark and southern Sweden during the Holocene (11,700 years ago to present day).

All Cattle Descended From 80 Aurochs That Lived 10,500 Years Ago?

All cattle are descended from as few as 80 animals that were domesticated from wild ox in the Near East some 10,500 years ago, according to a new genetic study. University College London reported: “An international team of scientists from the CNRS and National Museum of Natural History in France, the University of Mainz in Germany, and UCL in the UK were able to conduct the study by first extracting DNA from the bones of domestic cattle excavated in Iranian archaeological sites. These sites date to not long after the invention of farming and are in the region where cattle were first domesticated. The study is published in the current issue of the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution. [Source: University College London, March 28, 2012 *]

“The team examined how small differences in the DNA sequences of those ancient cattle, as well as cattle living today, could have arisen given different population histories. Using computer simulations they found that the DNA differences could only have arisen if a small number of animals, approximately 80, were domesticated from wild ox (aurochs). Dr Ruth Bollongino of CNRS, France, and the University of Mainz, Germany; lead author of the study, said: “Getting reliable DNA sequences from remains found in cold environments is routine. “That is why mammoths were one of the first extinct species to have their DNA read. But getting reliable DNA from bones found in hot regions is much more difficult because temperature is so critical for DNA survival. This meant we had to be extremely careful that we did not end up reading contaminating DNA sequences from living, or only recently dead cattle.” *\

auroch bones
“The number of animals domesticated has important implications for the archaeological study of domestication. Prof Mark Thomas, geneticist and an author of the study based at the UCL Research Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment: “This is a surprisingly small number of cattle. We know from archaeological remains that the wild ancestors of modern-day cattle, known as aurochs, were common throughout Asia and Europe, so there would have been plenty of opportunities to capture and domesticate them.” *\

“Prof Joachim Burger, an author of the study based at the University of Mainz, Germany, said: “Wild aurochs are very different beasts from modern domestic cattle. “They were much bigger than modern cattle, and wouldn’t have had the domestic traits we see today, such as docility. So capturing these animals in the first place would not have been easy, and even if some people did manage snare them alive, their continued management and breeding would still have presented considerable challenges until they had been bred for smaller size and more docile behavior.” *\

“Archaeological studies on the number and size of prehistoric animal bone have shown that not only cattle, but also goats, sheep and pigs were all first domesticated in the Near East. But saying how many animals were domesticated for any of those species is a much harder question to answer. Classical techniques in archaeology cannot give us the whole picture, but genetics can help – especially if some of the genetic data comes from early domestic animals. *\

“Dr Jean-Denis Vigne, a CNRS bio-archaeologist and author on the study, said: “In this study genetic analysis allowed us to answer questions that – until now –archaeologists would not even attempt to address. “A small number of cattle progenitors is consistent with the restricted area for which archaeologists have evidence for early cattle domestication ca. 10,500 years ago. This restricted area could be explained by the fact that cattle breeding, contrary to, for example, goat herding, would have been very difficult for mobile societies, and that only some of them were actually sedentary at that time in the Near East.” Dr Marjan Mashkour, a CNRS Archaeologist working in the Middle East added “This study highlights how important it can be to consider archaeological remains from less well-studied regions, such as Iran. Without our Iranian data it would have been very difficult to draw our conclusions, even though they concern cattle at a global scale”.” *\

Two Auroch Domestication Events

Two aurochs domestication events occurred during the Neolithic Revolution. One gave rise to the domestic cattle (Bos taurus) in the Fertile Crescent in the Near East that was introduced to Europe via the Balkans and the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Hybridisation between aurochs and early domestic cattle occurred during the early Holocene around 10,000 years ago. Domestication of the Indian aurochs led to the zebu cattle (Bos indicus) that hybridised with early taurine cattle in the Near East about 4,000 years ago. Some modern cattle breeds exhibit features reminiscent of the aurochs, such as the dark colour and light eel stripe along the back of bulls, the lighter colour of cows, or an aurochs-like horn shape. [Source: Wikipedia]

The earliest known domestication of the aurochs dates to the Neolithic Revolution in the Fertile Crescent, where cattle hunted and kept by Neolithic farmers gradually decreased in size between 9800 and 7500 B.C.. Aurochs bones found at Mureybet and Göbekli Tepe are larger in size than cattle bones from later Neolithic settlements in northern Syria like Dja'de el-Mughara and Tell Halula.[93] In Late Neolithic sites of northern Iraq and western Iran dating to the sixth millennium B.C., cattle remains are also smaller but more frequent, indicating that domesticated cattle were imported during the Halaf culture from the central Fertile Crescent region.

he Indian aurochs is thought to have been domesticated 10–8,000 years ago. Aurochs fossils found at the Neolithic site of Mehrgarh in Pakistan are dated to around 8,000 years ago and represent some of the earliest evidence for its domestication on the Indian subcontinent. Female Indian aurochs contributed to the gene pool of zebu (Bos indicus) between 5,500 and 4,000 years ago during the expansion of pastoralism in northern India. A third domestication event theorized to have occurred in Egypt's Western Desert is not supported by results of an analysis of genetic admixture, introgression and migration patterns of 3,196 domestic cattle representing 180 populations.

Hominins Ate Beef Steak 2.5 Million Years Ago?

aurochs in French cave art

In 2010, Discovery News reported: “The discovery of a new “missing link” species of bull dating to a million years ago in Eritrea pushes back the beef steak dinner to the very dawn of humans and cattle. Although there is no evidence that early humans were actually herding early cattle 2.5 million years ago, the early humans and early cattle certainly shared the same landscape and beef was definitely on the menu all along, say researchers. [Source: Discovery News, February 9, 2010 ^]

“The telltale fossil is a skull with enormous horns that belongs to the cattle genus Bos. It has been reassembled from over a hundred shards found at a dig that also contains early human remains, said paleontologist Bienvenido Martinez-Navarro of the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona, Spain. Martinez is the lead author of a paper reporting the discovery in the February issue of the journal Quaternary International. “This means that the humans have been eating Bos since the beginnings of the genus Homo,” said Martinez, referring to the genus to which humans belong. ^

“The million-year-old skull of the new Bos species, dubbed Bos buiaensis, has features of both earlier and later forms of Bos, which make it essentially a missing link between more modern cow-like species found in Eurasia and the earlier African cattle ancestors found alongside hominins and dating back 2.5 million years. “The most important point is that this Bos connects the African Bos with Eurasian bulls,” and so confirms the long, uninterrupted coexistence of humans and cattle from the earliest times, he told Discovery News. ^

“There are some researchers who might take issue with some of the details of the cattle family tree as Martinez and his colleagues have described it, but the overall conclusion seems sound, commented Sandra Olsen, curator of anthropology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. “One way or the other, hominins are associated with these creatures,” Olsen told Discovery News.

The distinctive horns of the new Bos also broach some other interesting matters, said Olsen. For one thing, this was an animal that had to live out in open areas, just like early humans. It’s very hard to imagine any animal with such long horns surviving in a forest, she said. Then there is also a tantalizing resemblance between the newfound Bos and depictions of bulls in ancient petroglyphs found in western Saudi Arabia — along the route once taken by humans out of Africa. The rock art shows exceptionally long-horned cattle being hunted by humans with bows, arrows and dogs, Olsen said. The petroglyphs are at least 5,000 years old, she said, but very hard to date exactly. (The new Bos species) look so much like the pictures in Saudi Arabia,” said Olsen, “which people have thought were exaggerations.” ^ “The ancient pictures also include depictions of some of the other animals known to have left Africa by the same route: lions, cheetahs and h The message from the new fossil echoes those being discovered about the prehistory of other domesticated animals, including horses, which Olsen has studied, in particular. “We’ve seen over and over again,” she said: “These are very long relationships.”“ ^

Red Deer Brought to Orkney Islands on Neolithic Ships as Livestock?

red deer

Research has shown that red deer were brought to the Orkney Islands off Scotland by humans — but not from Scandinavia, nor from the British mainland — who may have regarded the deer as livestock. Tim Radford wrote in The Guardian: “Scientists report in the Proceedings B of the Royal Society that they studied sequences of DNA from Cervus elephus on the Outer Hebrides and from Orkney to settle the question of origins. And they established that the island deer were not introduced from Scotland. That is, they were not related to red deer already roaming the mainland. Their results were also “inconsistent with an origin from Ireland or Norway.” So the only other possible answer is, they say “long distance maritime travel by Neolithic people … from an unknown source.” [Source: Tim Radford, The Guardian, April 6, 2016 -]

The finding also suggests that new stone age humans found a way to domesticate red deer. “Domestication is probably a misleading word for it,” said David Stanton, of Cardiff University, who led the genetic analysis. “We consider them to be wild animals, but wild could probably be put in inverted commas. There was a stronger relationship with these animals than we previously thought.” The Orkney and Hebridean invasions could only have happened after the retreat of the ice 10,000 years ago, and, says Jacqui Mulville, a bioarchaeologist at Cardiff University, red deer kept the first mainland Britons alive: they provided food, skins, sinews, bones and tools made of antler. -

“Almost no evidence survives of Neolithic sea-going craft. But the Scottish islands are separated from the mainland by deep waters, at distances beyond any deer’s swimming capability. “All terrestrial fauna must have been deliberately introduced by seafaring people,” Dr Mulville says. “These people were sophisticated, skilled farmers, with large settlements. The islands were popular places to settle, with sufficient resources to allow people to thrive. The coastal environments offered a wide range of marine, coastal, terrestrial and aerial resources and these people utilised them all.” -

Europe’s red deer probably survived the ice ages somewhere in the Iberian peninsula, and spread across the continent as the glaciers retreated. They were the ancient European’s first animal resource, until the arrival of farming from the Middle East. Although the genetic lineages of the island deer were unique, one at least matched deer fibre found in the clothing of Ötzi the Iceman, the copper age humanwho died on an Alpine glacier 5,000 years ago. “This evidence suggests we have misunderstood our relationship with this species. Perhaps humans managed deer, having long-term relationships with herds that allowed them to plan, capture and transport deer on longer voyages.” The study, the scientists say, presents “the first attempts to understand the deliberate translocation of faunal species into insular Britain and track the source for these introductions.” And, they concede, the antlered invaders came from “a currently unidentified source population.”“ -

Isotopes in Neolithic Cattle Teeth Suggests Different Herding Strategies

Analysis of strontium isotopes in teeth from Neolithic cattle suggest that early Europeans used different specialized herding strategies, according to a study published July 26, 2017 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Claudia Gerling from University of Basel in Switzerland, and colleagues, who also argue the rising importance of cattle likely promoted social stratification in early European societies [Source: PLOS, July 26, 2017 |=|]

The PLOS ONE article said: “Over the course of the Neolithic, secondary products from cattle such as milk, manure and animal power became more important. This led to larger herds, and the increased demand for grazing resources could have led to herding strategies that took advantage of grazing grounds away from the permanent settlement. However, until now there was little direct evidence for prehistoric cattle mobility. |=|

“To reconstruct cattle mobility and infer herding management, the researchers analyzed strontium isotopes in 39 molars from 25 cattle in a Neolithic settlement in what is now Switzerland. The settlement, which was occupied for 15 years, had 27 houses and the teeth could be assigned to 12 of them. Strontium signatures reflect local soil and plants, and can vary over relatively short distances. |=|

ancient Egyptian cattle

“The researchers found that the cattle molars had three strontium patterns, which likely reflected different herding strategies. The first pattern was consistent with the local strontium baseline, suggesting local cattle herding; the second pattern was a mix of local and non-local strontium signatures, suggesting seasonal movement; and the third was mostly non-local strontium signatures, suggesting year-round herding away from the site. |=|

“In addition, the researchers found that these three herding strategies were not uniformly represented in various areas of the settlement. This suggests differential access to the most favorable grazing grounds, which could have contributed to social inequalities between groups or households. Consequently, say the researchers, the increasing importance of cattle may have been a starting point for the socioeconomic differentiation that later became widespread during the European Bronze Age.” |=|

DNA Extracted from Medieval Auroch Drinking Horns

According to Archaeology magazine: The last aurochs, the wild ancestor of domesticated cattle and a favorite game animal up to the medieval period in Europe, died at a game preserve in Poland in 1627. Now a group of Scandinavian researchers are searching for the long-lost bovine’s genetic signature in medieval drinking horns. For the better part of the Middle Ages, well-heeled noblemen preferred to quaff their beverages from the horns of bulls — and the bigger the horn the better. [Source: Zach Zorich, Archaeology magazine, January-February 2019]

In fact, this may have been a contributing factor to the aurochs’ extinction. The researchers examined mitochondrial DNA that they had recovered from five medieval drinking horns. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is inherited from the mother’s side. They also looked at the horn of the last bull aurochs. Three of the drinking horns contained aurochs mtDNA, but two drinking horns and the horn of the last bull aurochs showed mtDNA from domestic cattle as well. This may be evidence of interbreeding between the two species. Future work will focus on recovering the rest of the aurochs genome.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2024

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