Aurochs: Characteristics, Habitat and Diet

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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, curved 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.

Aurochs, also known as wild Eurasian oxen, 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).

Aurochs, A Favorite Stone Age Meat Source

Aurochs were a favored meat source. Some of the early people that ate its first consumed the bone marrow and then the ribs. Jennifer Viegas wrote in Discover News: ““Aurochs must have been good eats for Stone Age human meat lovers, since other prehistoric evidence also points to hunting, butchering and feasting on these animals. A few German sites have yielded aurochs bones next to flint tool artifacts. Aurochs bones have also been excavated at early dwellings throughout Europe. [Source: Jennifer Viegas, Discover News, June 27, 2011 ***]

“Bones for red deer, roe deer, wild boar and elk were even more common, perhaps because the aurochs was such a large, imposing animal and the hunters weren't always successful at killing it. At a Mesolithic site in Onnarp, Sweden, for example, scientists found the remains of aurochs that had been shot with arrows. The wounded animals escaped their pursuers before later dying in a swamp. ***

Today there are over 1.5 billion cows in the world and all — or at least nearly all — of them are believed to be descended from the aurochs. 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.

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.” *\

Decline and Extinction of Aurochs

aurochs in ancient cave art
Aurochs ranged across Asia, Europe and parts of the Middle East. 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. Wietske Prummel, an associate professor of archaeozoology at the University of Groningen, told Discovery News: "It became extinct due to the destruction of the habitat of the aurochs since the arrival of the first farmers in Europe about 7,500 years ago. These farmers used the area inhabited by aurochs for their dwellings, arable fields and meadows. The aurochs gradually lost suitable habitat."

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: “ Aurochs were considerably more impressive beasts than domesticated cattle. Julius Caesar described them as being just “a little below the elephant in size,” with “strength and speed” that was “extraordinary.” (It is unlikely that he ever actually saw one.) More recent estimates suggest that males were nearly six feet high at the withers and females five feet. By Roman times, humans had so diminished the aurochs’ numbers that the animals were missing from most of their former habitat. [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker , December 24 & 31, 2012 ||*||]

“By the fifteen-hundreds, the only place they could still be found in the wild was in the Polish Royal Forests, west of Warsaw. The animals there were understood to be extremely rare, and special gamekeepers were hired to protect them. But their numbers continued to dwindle. In 1557, some fifty aurochs were counted. Forty years later, only half that many remained, and by 1620 only one aurochs—a female—was left. She died in 1627. The aurochs thus earned, as the Dutch writer Cis Van Vuure has put it, “the dubious honor of being the first documented case of extinction.” (The next case was the dodo, four decades later.)” ||*||

Heck Cattle: a Nazi Effort to Bring Aurochs Backs

auroch bones
Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: “The aurochs was essentially forgotten until the early twentieth century, when a spate of scientific papers on the animal appeared. In the nineteen-twenties, two German brothers, Heinz and Lutz Heck, both zoo directors, decided to try to breed back the aurochs, using the genetic material that had been preserved in domesticated cattle. This was, of course, long before DNA testing—or even the discovery of DNA. To guide their efforts, the brothers mainly relied on old pictures of aurochs, many of them drawn by people with no firsthand knowledge of the animal. The brothers chose different kinds of cows for their breeding efforts: Heinz, who directed the zoo in Munich, crossed, among other breeds, Scottish Highland cattle and German Anglers, while Lutz, the director of the Berlin Zoo, mixed Spanish fighting cattle with Corsican and Camargue cattle. Nevertheless, the two claimed that their efforts had produced similar results, which, they argued, proved that “the fundamental principle of breeding back was correct.” Even though he continued to crossbreed his crossbreeds, Heinz decided that the project had been successfully completed. “The wild bull, the aurochs, lives again,” he wrote. [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker , December 24 & 31, 2012 ||*||]

“Not long afterward, the project became tangled up in German politics. In 1938, Lutz, a committed Nazi, was appointed to the Third Reich’s Forest Authority. His idea of breeding back the aurochs dovetailed neatly with the Nazis’ scheme of restoring Europe, through selective human breeding, to its mythic, Aryan past. Lutz sent some of his “aurochs” to the Rominten Heath, in East Prussia—now Poland—where Hermann Göring had his favorite hunting lodge. Other Heck-bred cows were installed on the grounds of Göring’s estate north of Berlin. Most—perhaps all—of these animals were killed toward the end of the Second World War. (According to Clemens Driessen, a Dutch academic who has studied the Heck brothers, Göring personally shot some of the cattle on his estate as the Soviets bore down on Berlin.) But some Heck cattle at the Munich zoo and in parks in Augsburg, Münster, and Duisburg survived. ||*||

“Over the years, even as Heck cattle have been raised, uneventfully, in once Nazi-occupied nations like the Netherlands—it’s the descendants of the Munich-bred cows that now graze the Oostvaardersplassen—they’ve never managed to shake their Fascist associations. Many regard them as a sort of veterinary version of the “Hitler Diaries”—half horror, half joke. Not long ago, when a British farmer imported some Heck cattle from Belgium, the story made national news. |“NAZI ‘SUPER-COWS’ SHIPPED TO DEVON FARM,” the Guardian reported. “THE HERD REICH,” ran the headline in the Sun. ||*||

TaurOs; A Modern Effort to Bring Aurochs Back

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Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: “As more aurochs remains have been unearthed and more sophisticated research has been done on them, it’s become clear that the Heck brothers’ creation is a far cry from the original—Heck cattle are too small, their horns have the wrong shape, and the proportions of their bodies are off. All of which has led to a new, de-Nazified effort to back-breed the aurochs. This project is based in the Dutch city of Nijmegen, about fifty miles southeast of Amsterdam, and is entirely independent of the Oostvaardersplassen. Still, it reflects much the same can-do, “what is lost is not lost forever” approach to conservation. So while I was in the Netherlands I decided to go for a visit. [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker , December 24 & 31, 2012 ||*||]

Henri “Kerkdijk pointed to two black bulls bent over a patch of grass. The first was called Manolo Uno. He was two years old and not yet fully grown, but already he measured almost five feet at the withers. He had a grayish muzzle, a light stripe down his back, and forward-tilting horns that reminded me of Ferdinand’s. I have no idea how closely he resembled an actual aurochs; certainly, though, he seemed a very imposing beast, larger and more menacing-looking than the Heck cattle at the Oostvaardersplassen. The second bull, Rocky, was a year younger than Manolo but almost as big. This Kerkdijk took as a particularly promising sign. “That one’s going to be really tall,” he said.” ||*||

In 2008, “Kerkdijk teamed up with an environmental consultant named Ronald Goderie to start the TaurOs program, the stated goal of which is to give “the rebuilding of the aurochs a serious try.” (In a recent write-up of the effort, the two men dismiss Heck cattle as “considered by experts to be a failure.”) At the point that I met with them, the project had generated nearly a hundred calves, of which Manolo Uno and Rocky had been deemed the most aurochs-like. To create the calves, Kerkdijk and Goderie had crossed several so-called primitive cattle breeds—varieties developed hundreds, even thousands, of years ago, and therefore more likely to retain aurochs-like features. Manolo, for example, represents a cross between an Italian breed known as Maremmana primitivo and a Spanish breed known as Pajuna. At two, he was old enough to be crossbred himself. But he had refused to part with any of his semen for the purpose of artificial insemination, a demurral that Kerkdijk took as evidence of his virility and a further positive sign. ||*||

“Ninety years after the Heck brothers’ attempt, the basic idea behind back-breeding remains pretty much the same. If different breeds of primitive cattle preserve different stretches of the aurochs’s genetic material, then reassembling those stretches should produce something close to—though not exactly like—the original. (Kerkdijk and Goderie have decided that their new animal should be called not an aurochs but a “tauros.”) Scientists in England and Ireland have succeeded in sequencing a small subset of the aurochs’s DNA—its mitochondrial DNA—using a seven-thousand-year-old bone that was found in a cave in Derbyshire. Other scientists have been approached about sequencing the entire genome. When—or, really, if—this work is completed, it should be possible to gauge how close a calf comes to an authentic aurochs by analyzing a blood sample or a bit of saliva. ||*||

“According to the timetable Kerkdijk and Goderie have drawn up, herds of “tauroses” should be ready by around 2025. By that point, the two expect that large tracts of Europe will have been rewilded, and the animals will be allowed to roam across them. How the intervening years’ worth of breeding and crossbreeding and genetic evaluation will be funded remains a bit murky. Currently, the project is supported in part by renting cows to nature parks and in part by butchering them. The meat is marketed as “wild beef,” and it commands a premium in Amsterdam, where it is available only to customers who sign up for delivery in advance. Kerkdijk said that “wild beef” sales had risen dramatically over the last year or so, owing to interest in the tauros. I asked if I could try some.” ||*||

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, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2024

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