The aurochs (Bos primigenius) (/ˈɔːrɒks/ or /ˈaʊrɒks/) is an extinctcattle species that was first described in 1827. With a shoulder height of up to 180 cm (71 in) in bulls and 155 cm (61 in) in cows, it was one of the largest herbivores in the Holocene; it had massive elongated and broad horns that reached 80 cm (31 in) in length.
Two aurochs domestication events occurred during the Neolithic Revolution. One gave rise to the taurine cattle (Bos taurus) in the Fertile Crescent that was introduced to Europe via the Balkans and the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Hybridisation between aurochs and early domestic cattle occurred during the early Holocene. Domestication of the Indian aurochs lead to the zebu cattle (Bos indicus) that hybridised with early taurine cattle in the Near East about 4,000 years ago. Some modern cattle breeds exhibit features reminiscent of the aurochs, such as the dark colour and light eel stripe along the back of bulls, the lighter colour of cows, or an aurochs-like horn shape.
The use of the plural form aurochsen in English is a direct parallel of the German plural Ochsen and recreates the same distinction by analogy as English singular ox and plural oxen. "Aurochs" is both the singular and the plural term used to refer to the animal.
Illustration by Sigismund von Herberstein captioned: Urus sum, polonis Tur, germanis Aurox. Ignari Bisontis nomen dederant; translated: "I am Urus, Tur in Polish, Aurox in German; the ignorant ones gave me the name Bison.
According to a 16th century description by Sigismund von Herberstein, the aurochs was pitch-black with a grey streak along the back; his wood carving made in 1556 was based on a culled aurochs, which he had received in Mazovia. In 1827, Charles Hamilton Smith published an image of an aurochs that was based on an oil painting that he had purchased from a merchant in Augsburg, which is thought to have been made in the early 16th century. This painting is thought to have shown an aurochs, although some authors suggested it may have shown a hybrid between an aurochs and domestic cattle, or a Polish steer. Contemporary reconstructions of the aurochs are based on skeletons.
Remains of aurochs hair were not known until the early 1980s. Depictions show that the North African aurochs may have had a light saddle marking on its back. Calves were probably born with a chestnut colour, and young bulls changed to black with a white eel stripe running down the spine, while cows retained a reddish-brown colour. Both sexes had a light-coloured muzzle, but evidence for variation in coat colour does not exist. Egyptian grave paintings show cattle with a reddish-brown coat colour in both sexes, with a light saddle, but the horn shape of these suggest that they may depict domesticated cattle.
Some primitive cattle breeds display similar coat colours to the aurochs, including the black colour in bulls with a light eel stripe, a pale mouth, and similar sexual dimorphism in colour. A feature often attributed to the aurochs is blond forehead hairs. According to historical descriptions of the aurochs, it had long and curly forehead hair, but none mentions a certain colour. Although the colour is present in a variety of primitive cattle breeds, it is probably a discolouration that appeared after domestication.
Drawing based on an aurochs bull skeleton from Lund and a cow skeleton from Cambridge, with characteristic features of the aurochs
Speculative profile of an Indian aurochs
The proportions and body shape of the aurochs were strikingly different from many modern cattle breeds. For example, the legs were considerably longer and more slender, resulting in a shoulder height that nearly equalled the trunk length. The skull, carrying the large horns, was substantially larger and more elongated than in most cattle breeds. As in other wild bovines, the body shape of the aurochs was athletic, and especially in bulls, showed a strongly expressed neck and shoulder musculature. Therefore, the fore hand was larger than the rear, similar to the wisent, but unlike many domesticated cattle. Even in carrying cows, the udder was small and hardly visible from the side; this feature is equal to that of other wild bovines.
The aurochs was one of the largest herbivores in Holocene Europe. The size of an aurochs appears to have varied by region, with larger specimens in northern Europe than farther south. Aurochs in Denmark and Germany had an average height at the shoulders of 155–180 cm (61–71 in) in bulls and 135–155 cm (53–61 in) in cows, while aurochs bulls in Hungary reached 160 cm (63 in).
The African aurochs was similar in size to the European one in the Pleistocene, but declined in size during the transition to the Holocene; it may have also varied in size geographically.
The body mass of aurochs appears to have shown some variability. Some individuals reached around 700 kg (1,540 lb), whereas those from the late Middle Pleistocene are estimated to have weighed up to 1,500 kg (3,310 lb). The aurochs exhibited considerable sexual dimorphism in the size of males and females.
Because of the massive horns, the frontal bones of the aurochs were elongated and broad, reaching 80 cm (31 in) in length and between 10 and 20 cm (3.9 and 7.9 in) in diameter. Its horns grew from the skull at a 60° angle to the muzzle facing forwards and were curved in three directions, namely upwards and outwards at the base, then swinging forwards and inwards, then inwards and upwards. The curvature of bull horns was more strongly expressed than horns of cows. The basal circumference of horn cores reached 44.5 cm (17.5 in) in the largest Chinese specimen and 48 cm (19 in) in a French specimen. Some cattle breeds still show horn shapes similar to that of the aurochs, such as the Spanish fighting bull, and occasionally also individuals of derived breeds.
Landscapes in Europe probably consisted of dense forests throughout much of the last few thousand years. The aurochs is likely to have used riparian forests and wetlands along lakes.Pollen of mostly small shrubs found in fossiliferous sediments with aurochs remains in China indicate that it preferred temperate grassy plains or grasslands bordering woodlands. It may have also lived in open grasslands. In the warm Atlantic period of the Holocene, it was restricted to remaining open country and forest margins, where competition with livestock and humans gradually increased leading to a successive decline of the aurochs.
In southern Sweden, the aurochs was present during the Holocene climatic optimum until at least 7,800 years BP.
In Denmark, the first known local extinction of the aurochs occurred after the sea level rise on the newly formed Danish islands about 8,000–7,500 years BP, and the last documented aurochs lived in southern Jutland around 3,000 years BP.
The latest known aurochs fossil in Britain dates to 3,245 years BP, and it was probably extinct by 3,000 years ago.
The African aurochs may have survived until at least to the Roman period as indicated by fossils found in Buto and Faiyum in the Nile Delta.
It was still widespread in Europe during the time of the Roman Empire, when it was widely popular as a battle beast in Roman amphitheatres. Excessive hunting began and continued until it was nearly extinct. By the 13th century, the aurochs existed only in small numbers in Eastern Europe, and hunting it became a privilege of nobles and later royals.
Fossils found in West Bengal indicate that the Indian aurochs may have survived until the early 12th century.
The gradual extinction of the aurochs in Central Europe was concurrent with the clearcutting of large forest tracts between the 9th and 12th centuries. The population in Hungary declined since at least the 9th century and was extinct in the 13th century.Subfossil data indicate that it survived in northwestern Transylvania until the 14th to 16th century, in western Moldavia until probably the early 17th century, and in northeastern Bulgaria and around Sofia until the 17th century at most.
The last known aurochs herd lived in a marshy woodland in Poland's Jaktorów Forest. It decreased from around 50 individuals in the mid 16th century to four individuals by 1601. The last aurochs cow died in 1627 from natural causes.
Behaviour and ecology
Aurochs formed small herds mainly in winter, but lived singly or in smaller groups during the summer. If aurochs had social behaviour similar to their descendants, social status was gained through displays and fights, in which both cows and bulls engaged.
With its hypsodont jaw, the aurochs was probably a grazer, with a food selection very similar to domesticated cattle feeding on grass, twigs and acorns.
Mating season was in September, and calves were born in spring. The bulls had severe fights, and evidence from the Jaktorów forest shows these could lead to death. In autumn, aurochs fed up for the winter, and got fatter and shinier than during the rest of the year. Calves stayed with their mother until they were strong enough to join and keep up with the herd on the feeding grounds. They were vulnerable to predation by grey wolf (Canis lupus), brown bear (Ursus arctos), while healthy adult aurochs probably did not have to fear predators. The lion (Panthera leo), tiger (Panthera tigris) and hyena (Crocuta crocuta) were likely predators in prehistoric times. According to historical descriptions, the aurochs was swift and could be very aggressive, but not afraid of humans.
Aurochs were hunted with arrows, nets and hunting dogs, and its hair on the forehead was cut from the living animal; belts were made out of this hair and believed to increase the fertility of women. When the aurochs was slaughtered, the os cordis was extracted from the heart; this bone contributed to the mystique and magical powers that were attributed to it.
In eastern Europe, the aurochs has left traces in expressions like "behaving like an aurochs" for a drunken person behaving badly, and "a bloke like an aurochs" for big and strong people.
The earliest known domestication of the aurochs dates to the Neolithic Revolution in the Fertile Crescent, where cattle hunted and kept by Neolithic farmers gradually decreased in size between 9800 and 7500 BC. Aurochs bones found at Mureybet and Göbekli Tepe are larger in size than cattle bones from later Neolithic settlements in northern Syria like Dja'de el-Mughara and Tell Halula.
In Late Neolithic sites of northern Iraq and western Iran dating to the sixth millennium BC, cattle remains are also smaller but more frequent, indicating that domesticated cattle were imported during the Halaf culture from the central Fertile Crescent region.
Results of genetic research indicate that the modern taurine cattle (Bos taurus) arose from 80 aurochs tamed in southeastern Anatolia and northern Syria about 10,500 years ago.
Taurine cattle spread into the Balkans and northern Italy along the Danube River and the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
Hybridisation between male aurochs and early domestic cattle occurred in central Europe between 9500 and 1000 BC.
Analyses of mitochondrial DNA sequences of Italian aurochs specimens dated to 17–7,000 years ago and 51 modern cattle breeds revealed some degree of introgression of aurochs genes into south European cattle, indicating that female aurochs had contact with free-ranging domestic cattle. Cattle bones of various sizes found at a Chalcolithic settlement in the Kutná Hora District provide further evidence for hybridisation of aurochs and domestic cattle between 3000 and 2800 BC in the Bohemian region.Whole genome sequencing of a 6,750-year-old aurochs bone found in England was compared with genome sequence data of 81 cattle and single-nucleotide polymorphism data of 1,225 cattle. Results revealed that British and Irish cattle breeds share some genetic variants with the aurochs specimen; early herders in Britain might have been responsible for the local gene flow from aurochs into the ancestors of British and Irish cattle. The Murboden cattle breed also exhibits sporadic introgression of female European aurochs into domestic cattle in the Alps. Domestic cattle continued to diminish in both body and horn size until the Middle Ages.
The Indian aurochs is thought to have been domesticated 10–8,000 years ago.
Aurochs fossils found at the Neolithic site of Mehrgarh in Pakistan are dated to around 8,000 years BP and represent some of the earliest evidence for its domestication on the Indian subcontinent. Female Indian aurochs contributed to the gene pool of zebu (Bos indicus) between 5,500 and 4,000 years BP during the expansion of pastoralism in northern India. The zebu initially spread eastwards to Southeast Asia.
Hybridisation between zebu and early taurine cattle occurred in the Near East after 4,000 years BP coinciding with the drought period during the 4.2-kiloyear event. The zebu was introduced to East Africa about 3,500–2,500 years ago, and reached Mongolia in the 13th and 14th centuries.
A third domestication event thought to have occurred in Egypt's Western Desert is not supported by results of an analysis of genetic admixture, introgression and migration patterns of 3,196 domestic cattle representing 180 populations.
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