A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What did cows evolve from?

March 23, 2004

Dear Straight Dope:

What, evolutionarily speaking, are cows? As far as I can tell they're big, slow, fat creatures that eat grass and would be easy prey in the wild. Friends claim they were bred purely for human consumption, but if so, when and what from?

Your puzzlement is understandable, Courtney, since the wild ancestor of domestic cattle, unlike those of pigs, sheep, goats, and most other domesticated species, became extinct several centuries ago. While this beast looked like modern cattle, it was much bigger, swift, powerful, fierce, and very dangerous.

The aurochs (Bos primigenius), also known as the urus, originally ranged through much of Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa. The English name is derived the German Auerochse or Urochs ("Ur-ox"), meaning "primeval ox," or "proto-ox," as does the Latin name. Males, which were about one-fourth larger than females, ranged up to six feet tall at the shoulder (compared to a typical height of less than four feet for most domestic breeds), and weighed over a ton. The curved, sharp-pointed horns could be over 30 inches long. The great impression made by these massive creatures on our own ancestors (probably often a fatal one) is attested to by their frequent depictions in cave paintings, such as those of Lascaux and Chauvet in France, as well as in carvings from the same period. These early art works suggest that the aurochs was imbued by Cro-Magnon hunters and shamans with great magical and symbolic import. This mystical significance persisted into the Iron Age and even later in what is now modern Turkey and the Near East, where the aurochs was worshiped as a sacred animal, the Lunar Bull, which was associated with the Great Goddess and later with the cult of Mithra.

The aurochs disappeared in southern Asia in early historical times, and from Great Britain before the Romans arrived, but survived in parts of western and central Europe until much later. Julius Caesar wrote of them in an account of the Black Forest in Germany: "They are but a little less than elephants in size, and are of the species, color, and form of a bull. Their strength is very great, and also their speed. They spare neither man nor beast that they see. They cannot be brought to endure the sight of men, nor be tamed, even when taken young. The people, who take them in pitfalls, assiduously destroy them; and young men harden themselves in this labor, and exercise themselves in this kind of chase; and those who have killed a great number - the horns being publicly exhibited in evidence of the fact - obtain great honor." Due to such intense hunting, as well as conversion of land to agriculture, the aurochs herds of Europe dwindled till by the Middle Ages there were few left. Although efforts were made to preserve the species, the last known surviving wild aurochs, in the Jaktorow Forest in Poland, died in 1627.

Caesar's remarks notwithstanding, some varieties of the aurochs were capable of domestication, which is thought to have occurred 8,000-10,000 years ago. Two distinct kinds of domestic cattle have long been recognized: European cattle, known as Bos taurus, and humped Indian cattle (or zebu), known as Bos indicus. Recent genetic studies suggest that these two groups represent independent domestication events, involving different subspecies of aurochs, in Europe/western Asia and in south Asia. African breeds, which outwardly resemble zebu, are in fact hybrids of the European and south Asian lineages. Since they can interbreed, all these forms, including the aurochs itself, should probably be considered a single species under the name Bos taurus. Other species of wild cattle in Asia include the guar (Bos guarus), banteng (B. javanicus), kouprey (B. sauveli), and yak (B. grunniens). All are threatened in the wild, and the kouprey is on the verge of extinction. It was once thought some of these Asian species were ancestors of the zebu, but that's now discounted. However, all except the kouprey have been independently domesticated. Feral herds of cattle derived from domestic stock may be found in several parts of the world. More distantly related are the water buffalo (Bubalus bubalus), African buffalo (Syncerus caffer), and American and European bison (Bison bison and B. bonasus respectively).

Several primitive domestic breeds resemble the aurochs in some of their external features. These include Spanish fighting bulls, Corsican country cattle, Scottish highland cattle, and English park cattle. Attempts have been made to recreate the aurochs by "breeding back" from some of these stocks, most notably in the 1920s by two German zookeepers, the brothers Heinz and Lutz Heck. These "Heck cattle" resemble the aurochs in external appearance except for size, being not much bigger than most domestic breeds. However, their genetic makeup undoubtedly differs greatly from a true aurochs, and they cannot be considered an actual reincarnation of this majestic beast.

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