The Aurochs: The Once and Future King of Cattle

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Podcast Transcript

Tens of thousands of years ago, early paleolithic humans painted on cave walls the most important things to them and with which their entire lives revolved.

One of the most prominent images which have been preserved are animals that look like an enormous bull.

That animal has gone extinct, but while it was alive, it played an important role in the development of humanity, and its genetic descendants still play an important role today. 

Learn more about the aurochs, the once and future king of the cattle, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The aurochs were basically an ancient species of giant cattle. 

They weren’t as big as an elephant but definitely bigger than modern cattle.

The aurochs existed alongside humans for most of humanity’s existence. 

The earliest evidence of humans and aurochs are auroch bones found in Israel, which have cut marks on them made by human tools. These bones date back 120,000 years. 

If you go and look at some of the very earliest human artwork, you will find images of aurochs. In fact, you will probably find as many images of aurochs by early humans as you will of any other animal.

The famous cave painting in Chauvet and Lascaux in France both show images of aurochs on the walls. These date back as far as 36,000 years. A recently discovered limestone carving in France depicts an aurochs, and that has been dated to 38,000 years ago.

The cave paintings of Altamira in Spain date about as far and also depict aurochs as well as other large herbivores. 

However, the aurochs wasn’t just paleolithic animal. Images of aurochs found on rock art near the Nile River date back about 15-16,000 years. These are the oldest rock carvings that have been found in Africa. 

Images were also found in Egyptian tombs dating about 3000-4000 years.

Likewise, in the Indus Valley Civilization in India, official seals used sign documents were found with images of aurochs on them. 

As we move closer to the present, we find yet more examples of aurochs.

Julius Caesar spoke of wild aurochs in his commentaries, which where then known locally as uri, which he wrote about while he was in Gaul. He wrote:

“…those animals which are called uri. These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied. These the Germans take with much pains in pits and kill them. The young men harden themselves with this exercise, and practice themselves in this sort of hunting, and those who have slain the greatest number of them, having produced the horns in public, to serve as evidence, receive great praise.” 

There were also reports of Romans capturing wild aurochs and using them in gladiatorial fights. 

As late as the year 1200, the German epic poem Der Nibelungenlied mentions a hero named Sigurd, who kills four aurochs.

So, what is the deal with these animals? What were they like, why were they so important, and where are they now?

To start with, as Caesar mentioned, aurochs were huge. Far larger than any other breed of cattle that exists today. They were also meaner and stronger as well.

Perhaps their most defining characteristic was their very large and tall set of horns. Horns could grow as long as 80 centimeters or 31 inches.

Males were larger and had more of a black color, whereas females were smaller with more of a reddish-brown color. 

There were three subspecies of aurochs: one in Eurasia, one in India, and one in North Africa. 

The North African subspecies were the first to go extinct several thousand years ago. This was probably due to the Sahara grasslands becoming a desert, which I covered in a previous episode. 

So what relevance did these big cows, which is what they basically were, have to humans? 

Before the rise of agriculture, humans were often referred to as “hunter-gatherers.” That term sort of implies that there were equal parts hunting and gathering. In reality, there was a whole lot more hunting than there was gathering. 

This was the case for several reasons. First was the fact that edible plants were only often available for a few weeks each year. Outside of that window, there weren’t many options. The second was just a matter of physics.

Hunting very large animals were the most efficient way to get calories. A single large animal could be hunted in a day or less and provide enough food for a small tribe to last for a week or two. 

By far, the most sought-after animals to hunt were large herbivores. Almost all cave paintings of animals are of large herbivores. Deer, antelope, wooly rhinoceroses, mammoths, and, of course, aurochs. 

Herbivores were not only easier and safer to hunt, but the meat was also much cleaner than a carnivorous animal such as a tiger or a bear. 

So, the reason why aurochs were appearing on cave walls and on rock carvings is that the aurochs was an incredibly vital animal to early hunting humans. 

However, that isn’t the full story. 

Eventually, humans shifted from being hunter-gatherers and became more sedentary. 

In addition to domesticating crops for agriculture, around the same time, people began domesticating animals. One of the first animals which were domesticated was the aurochs. 

The aurochs were believed to have been domesticated in two different locations, independently, around 10-11,000 years ago.  

One of the domestication events occurred in the Indus Valley. This occurred with the Indus subspecies, which existed in the region. 

The other domestication event occurred in what is today northern Iran or southeastern Turkey.  This domestication was with the Eurasian aurochs. 

These first domesticated aurochs might have been quasi-hunted animals where they were kept in a limited area but then hunted like wild aurochs. 

Over a period of about 2,000 years, the bones of domesticated aurochs became smaller, and they slowly became the domesticated species of cattle that we know today. 

Yes, almost all cattle breeds today are offshoots of aurochs domesticated thousands of years ago. 

As domesticated cattle breeds developed, plenty of wild aurochs roamed around. Many of them ended up breeding with domesticated cattle, causing insertions of wild aurochs genetics into domesticated populations over thousands of years. 

The new domesticated cattle breeds were smaller and much more docile than wild aurochs. 

Over in India, their domesticated aurochs became whare are known as zebu or humped cattle. These are the traditional Indian cows that you might have seen images of or seen in person if you had the opportunity to go to India. 

These zebu cattle eventually spread to East Africa and Brazil, as they are better suited to the climates due to their high tolerance to heat. 

Over time, the Indian and the Eurasian wild aurochs numbers began dwindling.  They suffered from several problems, including a loss of habitat due to expansions of agriculture and farmland, overhunting with improved weapons and techniques, and finally, interbreeding with domestic cattle caused a loss of genetics.

As I mentioned earlier, the North African aurochs probably died about 5,000 years ago, although it is possible that some could have survived into the Roman Empire.

The last Indian aurochs probably died around the year 1200 in what is today West Bengal. 

The very last aurochs died in 1627 in the Jaktorów Forest of Poland. It was a solitary female who died of natural causes. 

The aurochs were one of the first animals which had a hunting ban placed upon them due to their endangered status, however, by the time it was enacted, it was too late. 

If you remember back to my episode on the wooly mammoth, scientists have been working on trying to bring the wooly mammoth back to life now that they have a complete genetic sequence of the animal.

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that the same thing is being done with the aurochs. 

The process of bringing back the aurochs will be very different than bringing back the wooly mammoth. 

The closest relative to the wooly mammoth is the Asian elephant, which split apart from the mammoth over a million years ago. There are no descendants of the mammoth alive today.

However, the aurochs’ genetics are scattered across the many different breeds of cattle that have been developed over the millennia.

Instead of trying to manipulate aurochs DNA, the plan is just to cross-breed something that will be the approximate size and appearance of the extinct aurochs. 

This was first attempted 100 years ago by two German zoologist brothers by the name of Heinz and Lutz Heck. They took Spanish fighting bulls and other heritage breeds to develop what became known as Heck Cattle. 

Since then, other projects have started, including the Polish Foundation for Recreating the Aurochs and the Taurus Project in the Netherlands, which are working on bringing back something as close as possible to the aurochs. 

They are actually making progress, and they have created cattle that do bear a resemblance to an aurochs but still aren’t quite the same size. The breeders are confident that there will be an aurochs equivalent type of animal roaming free in Europe within a few years. 

The aurochs have been one of the most important animals over the entire course of humanity. They provided a vital food source for hundreds of thousands of years, and they served as the basis for all domesticated cattle today.

One day in the not too distant future, we might be able to watch them, or something like them, grazing and roaming across the open plains once again. 

Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Boournes,  over at Apple Podcasts in Canada. They write:

Annnnnndddd I’m done…until tomorrow.

Well, Gary, I’ve finally joined the club, I have finished the entire catalog of shows working in reverse. Am I to assume that the membership card and keys to the clubhouse are in the mail? 

The way you take small little topics that I may have never given a second thought to in my everyday life and condensed them into “bite-sized” morsels for my brain to digest makes the long days of driving (I’m a truck driver) just a little less mind numbing. 

Also, as a Newfoundlander, I am so thrilled to hear you pronounce my home province correctly, have you ever been? If not, I highly recommend it as there are plenty of interesting facts and history that I think would make great topics for the show, like the tradition of getting “Screeched in” or the Beothuk (pronounced:Be-oth-ick)Indians that used to inhabit the province before Europeans. I love what you’re doing, and thanks for keeping me entertained on my long days and even later nights behind the wheel.

Thanks, Boournes! I have most definitely been to your fine province several times. I have stood at the easternmost point of North America at Cape Spear, and I have traveled to the top of the island to the first European settlement in the Americas at L’Anse aux Meadows. I’ve been to Gross Morne National Park, stayed in Gander, and even got up to the forgotten half of your province in Labrador, where I Red Bay, Battle Harbor, Nain, Goose Bay, and Torngat Mountains National Park.

I even watched a live performance of Come from Away on Broadway with representatives of the provincial tourism board. 

As for the pronunciation, I just remember the rhyme that was told to me on the ferry as I came over from Nova Scotia: Understand Newfoundland

You should receive your keys to the completionist club shortly. You will be happy to know that every Friday at the Canadian clubhouse, we serve cod cheeks. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read the show.