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What Did Cows Evolve From?

Last Updated: 22.04.24


If you are planning on establishing a cattle farm, you will also need to acquire cattle ear tags. In case you need more information about this, you can check it out here. Establishing such a farm also includes knowing a lot of things, and not just about the farm itself, but about the animals as well. If we take this from the very beginning, do you know what cows evolved from?



Did you know that aurochs, otherwise known as urus or ure, are members of an extinct species of large wild cattle that used to inhabit Europe, North Africa, and Asia? The aurochs are the ancestors of domestic cows. This species survived in Europe until 1627. The last recorded aurochs died in Poland, in the Jaktorow Forest.

At least two aurochs domestication events occurred during the Neolithic Revolution, in the early Holocene. One of them is related to the Indian subspecies which lead to the zebu cattle. The second one is related to the Eurasian subspecies that lead to the taurine cattle.

There are other species of wild bovines that have also been domesticated such as the water buffalo, the wild yak, the gaur, and the banteng. When it comes to modern cattle, most breeds share characteristics with the aurochs. For example, the bulls have a dark color and a light eel stripe along the back; cows have lighter stripes. Also, their horn shape is typically aurochs-like.



What Did Aurochs Look Like?

The aurochs’ appearance has been reproduced from historical descriptions, skeletal materials, cave paintings, engravings, or illustrations. These animals were some of the largest herbivores in postglacial Europe, comparable to the wisent or the European bison.

When it comes to their size it seems that it varied by region. In Europe, the northern populations were larger on average compared to those from the south. For example, aurochs from Germany and Denmark had an average height at the shoulders of 61-71 inches in bulls and 53 – 61 inches in cows. At the same time, the aurochs populations in Hungary had bulls reaching 61-63 inches.

The body mass has also shown some variability. There were aurochs comparable in weight to the wisent and the banteng, reaching about 1.540 pounds, while those from the late-middle Pleistocene were estimated to have weighed up to 3.310 pounds. Moreover, the cows were significantly shorter than bulls on average.

Due to the massive horns, the aurochs’ frontal bones were broad and elongated. To get a better idea of how they looked, their horns were curved in three directions, upward and outward at the base, then turning forward and inward, then inward and upward.

The horns of aurochs could reach 31 inches in length and between 3.9 and 7.9 inches in diameter. Bulls’ horns were larger than those of cows, with the curvature more strongly expressed. Also, these horns grew from the skull at a 60-degree angle to the muzzle and facing forward.

Compared to modern cattle, the proportions and body shapes of the aurochs were very different. Their legs were much longer and more slender which resulted in a shoulder height that could almost equal the trunk length. Due to the large horns, the skull was considerably larger and more elongated than in most cattle breeds.



Similarly to other bovids, aurochs formed herds for a part of the year at least. Researchers believe that there were no more than 30 individuals in a herd. It is uncertain if their social behavior is similar to their descendants, but if it is, social status was obtained through fights and displays.

The bulls had severe fights, especially during the mating season. It is believed that this took place during late summer and early autumn. According to some specialists, aurochs fed for the winter in autumn and got fatter compared to the rest of the year.

In the spring, the calves were born, and they stayed at the cows’ sides until they were strong enough to keep up with the rest of the herd on the feeding areas.



There is no consensus when it comes to the habitat of the aurochs. Some authors believe that the selection of the habitat was similar to the African forest buffalo. There are others who describe this species as inhabiting open grasslands and helping to maintain these areas by grazing with other large herbivores.

Due to the hypsodont jaw, aurochs are believed to have been grazers, and the food selection was very similar to that of domesticated cattle. Various studies also revealed that aurochs inhabited wetter areas than domestic cattle. Apparently, during the winter, they ate acorns and twigs, in addition to grass.

Due to the steadily growing human population during the Common Era, the habitat of the aurochs had become more fragmented. Following this period until the last centuries of their existence, these animals were limited to remote regions like floodplain forests and marshes, without any competing domestic herbivores and with less hunting pressure.



Archeological evidence reveals that the domestication of aurochs happened independently in the Near East and the Indian subcontinent some time between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago. Two major domestic bovine breeds appeared this way: the humpless Bos taurus or taurine, and the humped Bos indicus or zebu.

A third domestication event is believed to have occurred in Africa. A zebu-like cattle, the sanga cattle, has no back bump and is commonly considered to have originated from crosses between taurine and humped zebus breeds.

In the southern Caucasus and northern Mesopotamia, domestication of the aurochs began in the sixth millennium BC. In the past, domesticated cattle and aurochs were considered two separate species because they are so different in size.




By the fifth century BC, the aurochs had disappeared from southern Greece, but they remained common in the northern area and close to modern Thessaloniki. By the 13th century AD, the aurochs habitats were restricted to Poland, Transylvania, Moldavia, Lithuania, and East Prussia.

The right to hunt large animals was restricted to nobles at first, and later to the royal households. As the population of aurochs started to decline, hunting ceased. Also, in some areas, poaching aurochs was punishable by death.

According to a Polish royal survey from 1564, 38 animals were reported. In 1627 the last recorded live auroch was recorded in Jaktorow Forest, Poland. She was a female and died of natural causes. The major causes that lead to the extinction of this species were unrestricted hunting, the development of farming which narrowed their habitats, as well as diseases transmitted by domesticated cattle.


Did You Know?

The aurochs were important game animals that appeared in both Paleolithic European and Mesopotamian cave paintings. They existed into the Iron Age in the Near East and Anatolia where they were worshiped as sacred animals, called Lunar Bulls associated with the Great Goddess and with Mithras.

During antiquity, the aurochs were regarded as animals of cultural values. In Eastern Europe, where they survived until almost 400 years ago, the aurochs left traces in fixed expressions.

For example, in Russia, a drunk person that behaves badly was described as behaving like an aurochs. In Poland, big and strong people were characterized as being a bloke like an aurochs.



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