June 6, 2009

Where Do Modern Cows Come From?

Modern Hereford Bull
I was watching Cosmos (Carl Sagan) on Netflix last night. During the discussion of natural and artificial selection of genetic traits, Dr. Sagan used modern cattle as an example. There are no "wild cows" because humans domesticated and began breeding them for desired traits so long ago. Naturally, I began to wonder, "Hey, where did domestic cows come from in the first place? What is the ancestor of the cow?" It took a bit of searching to find reliable sources, but I finally found out what the ancestors of domestic cattle were, where they lived, and when they became extinct.

Artist's depiction of a wild (now extinct) Aurochs
Cattle (bos primigenius taurus) have been domesticated for so long that they are considered to be an entirely separate species from their wild ancestor. Cattle recently became the first farm animals to have their genome mapped. The word cattle did not originate as the term for bovine animals. It was borrowed from Old French catel, itself from Latin caput, head, and originally meant movable property, or livestock of any kind. The word is closely related to chattel (a unit of personal property) and economic capital. In some parts of the world, personal wealth is still measured in head of cattle.

Skeleton of the last Aurochs
The ancestor of the domestic cattle that we see grazing in fields was called the Aurochs. It lived in Europe, Asia, and North Africa, but is now extinct. An adult stood about 2 meters (6.6 feet) tall at the shoulder and weighed in at 1,000 kilograms (2,200 lbs), so it was much bigger than a modern bull. Domestication of this mighty animal began in several different places at approximately the same time: about 8,000 years ago in the 6th millenium B.C. Drawings of Aurochs are featured in many ancient cave drawings. The demise of the great Aurochs came about through sport hunting, poaching, and loss of territory to humans. The last Aurochs was a female who died in Poland in the year 1627. It's skeleton (3rd image) can now be found in the Swedish Royal Armory (Swedish: Livrustkammaren) in Stockholm.

In the 1920s, two German zoo directors, brothers Heinz and Lutz Heck attempted to "breed back" the Aurochs. They managed to create an animal that looks similar to what is known of the Aurochs. The result is called Heck Cattle. Heck Cattle are somewhat like miniature Aurochs, but in appearance only. They are not actually the extinct Aurochs.
Heck Cattle


  1. That was really informative, one day while driving I saw some cows laying around. Suddenly I wondered where did cows come from and whether they had always looked like that. It took me a while to find something worth reading, until I found this. Thanks for the information.

    1. You are very welcome! We are glad to hear that you found this article on modern cow ancestry enjoyable and informative. --The Earthly Happenings Magazine Editorial Team

    2. Thank you for the information. I am getting older and wonder about a lot. If the Aurochs became extinct in 1627 how are they related to modern cattle? American bison can successively breed with cows from a continent away. Genetically, eons apart.

  2. funny the things that pop into a persons mind, glad im not the only one...lol. very cool thread

  3. I was just driving by cows and thought to myself it would suck to be a cow because they are born into a life that's not free. This made me wonder where they came from and if there was actually any cows that live free like wild horses. Thank you for your information!


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