The moo of the wild

In a sense, Pleistocene megafauna are still with us even in post-industrial England. It may not seem like it but the humble heifer is probably the most successful species of megafauna on the planet, outnumbering all the elephants, rhinos, whales, lions, tigers, and hippos put together! The simple cow (1.5 billion and counting), shaped by millennia of domestication into a (mostly) docile and manageable creature is a direct descendant of something so fearsome, and so deadly, that Julius Caesar (himself no slouch in the bellicosity department) described them as “a little below the elephant in size and of the appearance, colour, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary. They spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied.”

A beast that terrified the legendary Caesar must have been impressive indeed.

This is the aurochs (Bos taurus primigenius), the wild ancestor of our domestic cattle.

Danish Aurochs (Bos primigenius) in the National Museum of Denmark. Image author's own.

Danish Aurochs (Bos primigenius) in the National Museum of Denmark. Image author’s own.

We know a fair bit about the aurochs. Obviously it’s possible to extrapolate a lot from the modern cow, but there are other lines of evidence too. Aurochs are common in cave art, which show them as active, formidable creatures with sinuous forward-pointing horns and muscled bodies. Sexually dimorphic colour is suggested in these paintings with black bulls and reddy-brown cows. Fossil evidence has aurochs a component of Palaeolithic and later diets, with cutmarked bones found at many sites. Complete skeletons are known, with large males standing up to six feet tall and females only slightly smaller. Unlike the mammoth, woolly rhino, or Irish elk, the aurochs survived into the historical period and so we also have written accounts and woodcuts done by people who knew the living animal. Herodotus, the old testament, and Caesar, all talk about living aurochs. The Iron Age Gundestrup cauldron has a beautifully pictured scene with a dead aurochs surrounded by exhausted hunting dogs and a swordswoman. The very last wild aurochs lived in the Jaktorów forest in Poland before its death in 1627. These animals were kept in a royal hunting preserve (the conservation program of its day) where poaching was punishable by death.

Paintings_from_the_Chauvet_cave_(museum_replica) T0jY3H7

Bottom: Section of the Gundestrup Cauldron showing aftermath of Aurochs hunt. Public Domain. Top: 16th century engraving of an aurochs from Conrad Gesner's Icones Animalium. Public Domain

Top: Cave art of three aurochs with horses and rhino from Chauvet cave, France. Public Domain Middle: Section of the Gundestrup Cauldron showing aftermath of aurochs hunt. Public Domain. Bottom: 16th century engraving of an aurochs from Conrad Gesner’s Icones Animalium. Public Domain

It’s no surprise given the immense economic and cultural significance of the cow in the modern world that its extinct ancestor has been the subject of many ancient DNA studies. In fact (although I may be biased), some of the most interesting things we know about the aurochs come from genetic analysis of their remains. We’ve learned something about Neolithic husbandry practises from aurochs DNA.  They were first domesticated in the near east and imported into Europe, but once in Europe the early domesticated cattle were crossed with local bull aurochs (something similar was also done with domestic pigs). Essentially, once the domesticated animals were transported, the first farmers thought “we can do this at home for nothing”! We have mitochondrial genomes of aurochs, and recently the first nuclear genome was sequenced too (from a Derbyshire aurochs!). By comparing the aurochs genome to modern cow genomes we can see that artificial selection has had a major effect on genes responsible for growth and disease resistance: both of prime importance to the farmer.

One other region that shows signs of selection in the aurochs genome has to do with neurobiology. Possibly as a result of breeding for tameness and trying to pacify the wild species ferocious nature. It may be a truism that more people are killed each year by cows than sharks, but that hasn’t stopped people actually trying to recreate the savage aurochs. Perhaps the best known attempt was instigated by Herman Goering, via two zoologist brothers: Lutz and Heinz Heck. The story of the Heck cattle is fascinating and the parallels between a misguided project to recreate a mythical German Ur-cow, and the atrocities of the Nazi war machine when they applied this thinking to humans are all too obvious. The brothers took a range of modern cattle breeds (including Highland cows, Spanish bullfighting bulls) and bred them together to create something that bore a passable resemblance to an aurochs. They are still around today, where you can see them in zoos and wildlife parks. Me, I’d rather just hang out at the farm.

Comparison of life appearance of aurochs and Heck cattle. Image by

Comparison of life appearance of aurochs (top) and Heck cattle (below). Image by DFoidl via Wikimedia Commons

Written by Ross Barnett (@DeepFriedDNA)

Further Reading:

Achilli, A., A. Oliveiri, M. Pellecchia, C. Uboldi, L. Colli, N. Al-Zahery, M. Accetturo, et al. “Mitochondrial Genomes of Extinct Aurochs Survive in Domestic Cattle.” Current Biology 18, no. 4 (2008): R157-R58. [Abstract]

Caesar, Julius, Carolyn Hammond, and Aulus Hirtius. Seven Commentaries on the Gallic War. The World’s Classics. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.[Book]

Edwards, C. J., D. A. Magee, S. D. Park, P. A. McGettigan, A. J. Lohan, A. Murphy, E. K. Finlay, et al. “A Complete Mitochondrial Genome Sequence from a Mesolithic Wild Aurochs (Bos primigenius).” PLoS One 5, no. 2 (2010): e9255.[Full Text]

Gotherstrom, A., C. Anderung, L. Hellborg, R. Elburg, C. Smith, D. G. Bradley, and H. Ellegren. “Cattle Domestication in the near East Was Followed by Hybridization with Aurochs Bulls in Europe.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London: Series B 272 (2005): 2345-50.[Full Text]

Orlando, L. “The First Aurochs Genome Reveals the Breeding History of British and European Cattle.” Genome Biol 16 (2015): 225.[Full Text]

Park, S. D., D. A. Magee, P. A. McGettigan, M. D. Teasdale, C. J. Edwards, A. J. Lohan, A. Murphy, et al. “Genome Sequencing of the Extinct Eurasian Wild Aurochs, Bos Primigenius, Illuminates the Phylogeography and Evolution of Cattle.” Genome Biol 16 (2015): 234.[Full Text]

Zeyland, J., L. Wolko, J. Bocianowski, M. Szalata, R. Slomski, A. M. Dzieduszycki, M. Ryba, H. Przystalowska, and D. Lipinski. “Complete Mitochondrial Genome of Wild Aurochs (Bos Primigenius) Reconstructed from Ancient DNA.” Pol J Vet Sci 16, no. 2 (2013): 265-73.[Full Text]



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12 Responses to The moo of the wild

  1. kerberos616 says:

    Reblogged this on Kerberos616.

  2. neighsayer says:

    Super cool. Thanks for the education.

  3. MartynWing says:

    A great read. Thanks!

  4. MartynWing says:

    Was just thinking about this earlier today. I see that aurcoch is Bos taurus primigenius and the modern cow is Bos taurus, so i was wondering if the aurochs were bred into the modern cow as we know it today, or if the modern cow (Bos taurus) was just a sub species that was deemed easier to tame, less ferocious etc and was therefore domesticated, i’m just wondering because we often find medieval cow remains as well auroch remains in the zooarchaeological record from around the same sort of time.

  5. Hi Martyn.
    Good question! We know that aurochs were first domesticated from at least two sources in the Near/Middle East. One form (taurine) led to the familiar western cow, and the other form (indicine) to the zebu. For Europe, the domestic cattle were first imported from near eastern sources and so would have been (probably) a different subspecies from the local aurochs. Whether the ancestral taurine/indicine aurochs were more docile and easy to tame than european aurochs Im not really sure. But there is genetic evidence in the modern cows genome for mixing with local aurochs.

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  7. Ben's Lab says:

    This is one of my favourite blogs. I love how something as innocuous as the humble cow belies such a proud and interesting history- and lineage. Good scicomm can show us the most amazing things beneath the most bland veneers and make you want to explore further.

  8. Ben's Lab says:

    Reblogged this on Ben's Lab and commented:
    Not just about cows! But mostly about cows. Real cows.

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