You’ve probably never wondered where domestic cattle come from, but wow, you’re in for a treat.
With a name that means “original ox”, the aurochs was a hefty bovine beast of Europe, north Africa and parts of Asia, but I’ll let Julius Caesar paint a picture for you:
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[…]those who have slain the greatest number of them, having produced the horns in public, to serve as evidence, receive great praise.
It’s obviously a bad sign that I’m using an eye-witness account from thousands of years ago. So coupled with the mention of pit-fighting and horn trophies, it’ll come as no surprise that the aurochs was the first ever recorded extinction.
There were three different species; the Eurasian (Bos primigenius primigenius), Indian (Bos primigenius manadicus), and north African (Bos promigenius mauretanicus), and they enjoyed a good romp in swamp, woodland, river deltas and open plains.
The brownish-red cows and their calves lived separately from the larger, blacker bulls until it was time for the other type of romp in August and September, and they could live as long as 20 years. While some of the Indian’s descendants became modern day zebu cattle, it’s the Eurasian that’s especially famous.
Until recently, France’s 17,000 year-old Lascaux cave paintings were believed to be the oldest in existence, and in the famous “Hall of the Bulls”, there are several depictions of aurochs. The largest has a curious pattern of dots over its shoulder, which are believed to be the Pleiades, a group of seven stars beside the constellation Taurus. According to astronomer Dr. Michael A. Rappenglück, this may have been an important celestial marker of the beginning of spring and autumn. Unfortunately, not all aurochs-associated legends are heavenly. Well, at least in a good way.
In Greek mythology, Zeus was believed to transform himself into an aurochs with large horns so he could seduce and kidnap Princess Europa. Whether this was actually an aurochs or just a domestic bull is probably the least awkward question on your list, but the aurochs’ story is full of unhappy and equally awkward situations.
A royal effort
You’d think a tough grazing animal with a huge range would be safe, but its meat and fancy horns, competition with horses, bison, and the additional kicker – its domesticated relatives (Bos taurus) – saw it reduced to just one forest in Poland by the 16th century. For once, however, we actually tried to save it.
The population in said forest was well managed for a time. By this point only nobles and royalty were allowed to hunt them, and according to a royal decree, killing an aurochs got you a response in kind. We also bothered to feed and shelter them during the winter, but when the monarchy lost its political clout, their time was up. The last wild aurochs ever recorded, a female, was confirmed dead in 1627. But as you can glean from earlier, all wasn’t entirely lost.
We think the aurochs was first domesticated about 10,000 years ago in the Near East, and that most modern day cattle are descended from 80 or so female aurochs. Would it be possible, then, to “breed” them back into existence? Well, a couple of Nazi Party friends gave it a try.
In the 1920s, zoo director brothers Lutz and Heinz Heck wanted to resurrect the aurochs by back-breeding modern cattle. Although they studied cave paintings and ancient eyewitness accounts, they seemed more focused on its size and aggression than its looks, even throwing some Spanish fighting bulls into the mix. Lutz himself was the hunting buddy of Hitler-crony and Nazi Party heavyweight Hermann Goehring, and when they declared the aurochs “resurrected” after 12 years, now known as “Heck” cattle, several were released on to Goehring’s private land for hunting.
As if they hadn’t suffered enough as Nazi propaganda (I couldn’t find any examples of this, which is probably a blessing), the “pseudo-aurochs” were all killed at the end of the Second World War, with only some of the captive-bred Heck cattle remaining in Munich zoo. They were then spread out amongst other zoos or nature reserves, but popped up again in the British press relatively recently, for different reasons.
In 2012, a battle between two Heck bulls at Edinburgh Zoo saw one of them smashed into the fence, creating a hole for the other one to take a huffy stroll in the park. In 2015, Derek Gow, who had imported some Heck cattle to his farm in Devon, claimed he had to slaughter six of them because they became too aggressive for his staff to handle. But their ancestor may have a happy ending yet.
Born to be wild
Rewilding Europe’s Tauros Programme hopes to recreate the aurochs and release it back into its former habitat. If that sounds like a horrendous idea based on the previous paragraph, fear not: this attempt at resurrecting the beast is informed by both a genuine wish to help an ecosystem devoid of large grazers, and a fully mapped aurochs genome (great job, University College Dublin!). So rather than going after a monstrous horned battle bovine, they’re focusing on breeds that do actually share some of its traits, such as the Maronesa cow, and mingling them accordingly.
So far, those released into specialised areas have managed to hold their own against packs of wolves. By the end of 2017 there were 600 animals in the programme, and it’s thought the final “version” will be up and romping by the seventh generation in 2025.
So it seems the aurochs went to the heavens, and is gradually making its way back again. Think about what could have been, and what might still be in the future, next time you see a herd of bored-looking cows chewing cud in a field.
Latin: Bos primigenius
What? Buff extinct bovid with huge horns, and the ancestor of domestic cattle.
Where? Europe, north Africa, and parts of Asia, in both swampy areas, woodlands and plains.
How big? 1.8 metres / 6 feet at the shoulder, with horns 1 metre / 3.2 feet (males) or 0.7 metres / 2.2 feet (females) long.
Probable motto: I guess there’s always one dodgy relative that spoils everything.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
“The aurochs – Europe’s defining animal“. No date. Rewilding Europe.
Bawden, Tom. 2015. “Nazi super cows: British farmer forced to destroy half his murderous herd of bio-engineered Heck cows after they try to kill staff“. The Independent.
Cai, Dawei et al. 2018. “Ancient DNA reveals evidence of abundant aurochs (Bos primigenius) in Neolithic Northeast China“. Journal of Archaeological Science 98(October 2018):72-80.
Keats, Jonathon. 2017. “Return of the aurochs“. Discover.
2016. “From ‘Nazi Cows’ to Cosmopolitan ‘Ecological Engineers’: Specifying Rewilding Through a History of Heck Cattle“, Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 106(3):631-652.
Monks, Kieron. 2017. “The wild, extinct supercow returning to Europe“. CNN.
Rappenglück, Michael A. 1997. “The Pleiades in the ‘Salle des Taureaux’, grotte de Lascaux. Does a rock picture in the cave of Lascaux show the open star cluster of the Pleiades at the Magdalénien era (ca 15.300 BC?“.
Rosengren, Erika. 2014. “Aurochs (Bos primigenius)“. In “Sven Nilsson and the postglacial fauna of Scania”. Lund University Historical Museum.
Strauss, Bob. “Auroch: Facts and Figures.” ThoughtCo.com.
Tanasescu, Mihnea. 2017. “The quest to revive extinct Aurochs to restore ancient lands“. The Conversation.
Tikhonov, A. 2008. “Bos primigenius. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species” 2008: e.T136721A4332142.
Upadhyay, M.R. et al. 2017. “Genetic origin, admixture and population history of aurochs (Bos primigenius) and primitive European cattle“. Heredity 118(2017):169-176.
“Visitors tell of Edinburgh Zoo panic after Nazi cattle bull flees pen“. 2012. The Scotsman.
Featured image credit: “Lascaux II – Hall of the Bulls” by Adibu456.