During the Neolithic Revolution, which occurred during the early Holocene, there were at least two aurochs domestication events: one related to the Indian subspecies, leading to zebu cattle; the other one related to the Eurasian subspecies, leading to taurine cattle. Other species of wild bovines were also domesticated, namely the wild water buffalo, gaur, and banteng. In modern cattle, numerous breeds share characteristics of the aurochs, such as a dark colour in the bulls, with a light eel stripe along the back with the cows being lighter, or a typical aurochs-like horn shape.
The aurochs was variously classified as Bos primigenius, Bos taurus, or, in old sources, Bos urus. However, in 2003, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature "conserved the usage of 17 specific names based on wild species, which are pre-dated by or contemporary with those based on domestic forms", confirming Bos primigenius for the aurochs. Taxonomists who consider domesticated cattle a subspecies of the wild aurochs should use B. primigenius taurus; those who consider domesticated cattle to be a separate species may use the name B. taurus, which the Commission has kept available for that purpose.
The words aurochs, urus, and wisent have all been used synonymously in English. However, the extinct aurochs/urus is a completely separate species from the still-extant wisent, also known as European bison. The two were often confused, and some 16th-century illustrations of aurochs and wisents have hybrid features. The word urus (/ˈjʊərəs/; plural uruses) is a Latin word, but was borrowed into Latin from Germanic (cf. Old English/Old High German ūr, Old Norse úr). In German, OHG ūr was compounded with ohso "ox", giving ūrohso, which became early modern Aurochs. The modern form is Auerochs.
The word aurochs was borrowed from early modern German, replacing archaic urochs, also from an earlier form of German. The word is invariable in number in English, though sometimes back-formed singular auroch and innovated plural aurochses occur. The use in English of the plural form aurochsen is nonstandard, but mentioned in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. It is directly parallel to the German plural and recreates by analogy the same distinction as English ox vs. oxen.
During the Pliocene, the colder climate caused an extension of open grassland, which led to the evolution of large grazers, such as wild bovines. Bos acutifrons is an extinct species of cattle sometimes claimed to be the ancestor of aurochs, but it was a species with very long, outward-facing horns. The oldest aurochs remains have been dated to about 2 million years ago, in India. The Indian subspecies was the first to appear. During the Pleistocene, the species migrated west into the Middle East (western Asia) as well as to the east. They reached Europe about 270,000 years ago. The South Asian domestic cattle, or zebu, descended from Indian aurochs at the edge of the Thar Desert; the zebu is resistant to drought. Domestic yak, gayal and Javan cattle do not descend from aurochs.
Three wild subspecies of aurochs are recognized. Only the Eurasian subspecies survived until recent times.
- The Indian Aurochs (Bos primigenius namadicus) once inhabited India. It was the first subspecies of the aurochs to appear, at 2 million years ago, and from about 9,000 years ago (BP), it was domesticated as the zebu cattle. Fossil remains indicate there were wild Indian aurochs besides domesticated zebu cattle in Gujarat and the Ganges area until about 4,000-5,000 years ago. Remains from wild aurochs, 4,400 years old, are clearly identified from Karnataka in south India.
- The Eurasian Aurochs (Bos primigenius primigenius) once ranged across the steppes and taigas of Europe, Siberia, and Central Asia. It is noted as part of the Pleistocene megafauna, and declined in numbers along with other megafauna species by the end of Pleistocene. The Eurasian aurochs were domesticated into modern taurine cattle breeds around the 6th millennium BC in the Middle East, and possibly also at about the same time in the Far East. Aurochs were still widespread in Europe during the time of the Roman Empire, when they were widely popular as a battle beast in Roman arenas. Excessive hunting began and continued until the species was nearly extinct. By the 13th century, aurochs existed only in small numbers in Eastern Europe, and the hunting of aurochs became a privilege of nobles, and later royal households. The aurochs were not saved from extinction, and the last recorded live aurochs, a female, died in 1627 in the Jaktorów Forest, Poland from natural causes. Aurochs were found to have lived on the island of Sicily, having migrated via a land bridge from Italy. After the disappearance of the land bridge, Sicilian aurochs evolved to be 20% smaller than their mainland relatives.
- The North African Aurochs (Bos primigenius africanus) once lived in the woodland and shrubland of North Africa. It descended from Aurochs populations migrating from the Middle East. The North African aurochs was morphologically very similar to the Eurasian subspecies, so that this taxon may exist only in a biogeographic sense. However there is evidence that it was genetically distinct from the Eurasian subspecies. Depictions indicate that North African aurochs may have had a light saddle marking on its back. This subspecies may have been extinct prior to the Middle Ages.
The appearance of the aurochs has been reconstructed from skeletal material, historical descriptions and contemporaneous depictions, such as cave paintings, engravings or Sigismund von Herberstein’s illustration. The work by Charles Hamilton Smith is a copy of a painting owned by a merchant in Augsburg, which may date to the 16th century. Scholars have proposed that Smith's illustration was based on a cattle/aurochs hybrid, or an aurochs-like breed. The aurochs was depicted in prehistoric cave paintings and described in Julius Caesar's The Gallic War.
The aurochs was one of the largest herbivores in postglacial Europe, comparable to the wisent, the European bison. The size of an aurochs appears to have varied by region: in Europe, northern populations were bigger on average than those from the south. For example, during the Holocene, aurochs from 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 populations in Hungary had bulls reaching 155–160 cm (61–63 in). The body mass of aurochs appeared to have showed some variability. Some individuals were comparable in weight to the wisent and the banteng, reaching around 700 kg (1,500 lb), whereas those from the late-middle Pleistocene are estimated to have weighed up to 1,500 kg (3,300 lb), as much as the largest gaur (the largest extant bovid). The sexual dimorphism between bull and cow was strongly expressed, with the cows being significantly shorter than bulls on average.
Because of the massive horns, the frontal bones of aurochs were elongated and broad. The horns of the aurochs were characteristic in size, curvature and orientation. They were curved in three directions: upwards and outwards at the base, then swinging forwards and inwards, then inwards and upwards. Aurochs horns could reach 80 cm (31 in) in length and between 10 and 20 cm (3.9 and 7.9 in) in diameter. The horns of bulls were larger, with the curvature more strongly expressed than in cows. The horns grew from the skull at a 60° angle to the muzzle, facing forwards.
The body shape of the aurochs was 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. 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 coat colour of the aurochs can be reconstructed by using historical and contemporary depictions. In his letter to Conrad Gesner (1602), Anton Schneeberger describes the aurochs, a description that agrees with cave paintings in Lascaux and Chauvet. Calves were born a chestnut colour. Young bulls changed their coat colour at a few months' old to a very deep brown or black, with a white eel stripe running down the spine. Cows retained the reddish-brown colour. Both sexes had a light-coloured muzzle. Some North African engravings show aurochs with a light-colored "saddle" on the back, but otherwise there is no evidence of variation in coat colour throughout its range. A passage from Mucante (1596), describing the “wild ox” as gray, but is ambiguous and may refer to the wisent. 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 domestic cattle. Remains of aurochs hair were not known until the early 1980s.
Colour of forelocks
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. Historical descriptions tell that the aurochs had long and curly forehead hair, but none mentions a certain colour for it. Cis van Vuure (2005) says that, although the color is present in a variety of primitive cattle breeds, it is probably a discolouration that appeared after domestication. The gene responsible for this feature has not yet been identified. Zebu breeds show lightly coloured inner sides of the legs and belly, caused by the so-called Zebu-tipping gene. It has not been tested if this gene is present in remains of the wild form of the zebu, the Indian aurochs.
Ecology and behaviour
Like many bovids, aurochs formed herds for at least one part of the year. These probably did not number much more than thirty, and were probably composed of cows with their calves and some young bulls. Older bulls probably wandered solely or in small bull herds outside the mating season. If aurochs had similar social behaviour as their descendents, social status was gained through displays and fights, in which cows engaged as well as bulls. As in other wild cattle, ungulates that form unisexual herds, there was considerable sexual dimorphism. Ungulates that form herds containing animals of both sexes, such as horses, have more weakly developed sexual dimorphism.
During the mating season, which probably took place during the late summer or early autumn, the bulls had severe fights, and evidence from the forest of Jaktorów 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, according to Schneeberger. Calves were born in spring. The mother stayed at the calf's side until it was strong enough to join and keep up with the herd on the feeding grounds.
Calves were vulnerable to wolves, while healthy adult aurochs probably did not have to fear these predators. In prehistoric Europe, North Africa and Asia, big cats, like lions and tigers, and hyenas were additional predators that probably preyed on aurochs.
Historical descriptions, like Caesar’s De Bello Gallico or Schneeberger, tell that aurochs were swift and fast, and could be very aggressive. According to Schneeberger, aurochs were not concerned when a man approached. But, teased or hunted, an aurochs could get very aggressive and dangerous, and throw the teasing person into the air, as he described in a 1602 letter to Gesner.
There is no consensus concerning the habitat of the aurochs. While some authors think that the habitat selection of the aurochs was comparable to the African Forest Buffalo, others describe the species as inhabiting open grassland and helping maintain open areas by grazing, together with other large herbivores. With its hypsodont jaw, the aurochs was probably a grazer and had a food selection very similar to domestic cattle. It was not a browser like many deer species, nor a semi-intermediary feeder like the wisent. Comparisons of the isotope levels of Mesolithic aurochs and domestic cattle bones showed that aurochs probably inhabited wetter areas than domestic cattle. Schneeberger describes that, during winter, the aurochs ate twigs and acorns in addition to grasses.
After the beginning of the Common Era, the habitat of aurochs became more fragmented because of the steadily growing human population. During the last centuries of its existence, the aurochs was limited to remote regions, such as floodplain forests or marshes, where there were no competing domestic herbivores and less hunting pressure.
Relationship with humans
The aurochs, which ranged throughout much of Eurasia and Northern Africa during the late Pleistocene and early Holocene, is widely accepted as the wild ancestor of modern cattle. Archaeological evidence shows that domestication occurred independently in the Near East and the Indian subcontinent between 10,000–8,000 years ago, giving rise to the two major domestic taxa observed today: humpless Bos taurus (taurine) and humped Bos indicus (zebu), respectively. This is confirmed by genetic analyses of matrilineal mitochondrial DNA sequences, which reveal a marked differentiation between modern Bos taurus and Bos indicus haplotypes, demonstrating their derivation from two geographically and genetically divergent wild populations. It is possible that there was a third domestication event from another form of the Aurochs in Africa. The Sanga cattle, a not-humped zebu like cattle type, is commonly believed to originate from crosses beween humped-zebus with taurine cattle breeds. However, there is archaeological evidence that these cattle were domesticated independently in Africa and that bloodlines of taurine and zebu cattle were introduced only within the last few hundreds years.
Domestication of the aurochs began in the southern Caucasus and northern Mesopotamia from about the 6th millennium BC. Genetic evidence suggests that aurochs were independently domesticated in India and possibly also in northern Africa. Domesticated cattle and aurochs are so different in size that they have been regarded as separate species; however, large ancient cattle and aurochs "are difficult to classify because morphological traits have overlapping distributions in cattle and aurochs and diagnostic features are identified only in horn and some cranial element."
A DNA study suggests that all domesticated taurine cattle originated from about 80 wild aurochs. Those animals lived in Iran 10,500 years ago.
Comparison of aurochs bones with those of modern cattle has provided many insights about the aurochs. Remains of the beast, from specimens believed to have weighed more than a ton, have been found in Mesolithic sites around Goldcliff, Wales. Though aurochs became extinct in Britain during the Bronze age, analysis of bones from aurochs that lived at about the same time as domesticated cattle showed no genetic contribution to modern breeds. As a result of this study, modern European cattle were thought to have descended directly from the Near East domestication. Another study found distinct similarities between modern breeds and Italian aurochs specimens, which suggested that the previously tested British aurochs were not a good model of the diversity of aurochs genetics. It also suggests possible North African and European aurochs contributions to domestic breeds. Further genetic tests have shown that domestic cattle in Europe are of Near Eastern origin. This indicates that the European aurochs was not domesticated, nor did it interbreed with the imported Near Eastern cattle.
Indian cattle (zebu), although domesticated eight to ten thousand years ago, are related to aurochs that diverged from the Near Eastern ones some 200,000 years ago. African cattle are thought to have descended from aurochs more closely related to the Near Eastern ones. The Near East and African aurochs groups are thought to have split some 25,000 years ago, probably 15,000 years before domestication. The "Turano-Mongolian" type of cattle now found in Northern China, Mongolia, Korea and Japan may represent a fourth domestication event (and a third event among Bos taurus–type aurochs). This group may have diverged from the Near East group some 35,000 years ago. Whether these separate genetic populations would have equated to separate subspecies is unclear.
The maximum range of the aurochs was from Europe (excluding Ireland and northern Scandinavia), to northern Africa, the Middle East, India and Central Asia. Until at least 3,000 years ago, the aurochs was also found in Eastern China, where it is recorded at the Dingjiabao Reservoir in Yangyuan County. Most remains in China are known from the area east of 105° E, but the species has also been reported from the eastern margin of the Tibetan plateau, close to the Heihe River.
Because some cattle breeds have been changed more than other breeds, certain breeds bear a greater resemblance to the aurochs. These breeds are not very productive from the economical point of view, as they do not give as much milk or meat as others. Most of the "primitive" phenotypes are facing extinction, because farmers give them up for economic reasons or crossbreed them with more productive dairy and meat cattle. Very hardy and robust, the primitive breeds are sometimes used in nature conservation programs, where they can fill the place of their wild ancestor in the ecology. Some have been integrated into the TaurOs Project, whose goal is to breed a cattle type phenotypically, genotypically and ecologically as close to the aurochs as possible. Primitive breeds include, for example: Caldela, Heck cattle, Limia Cattle, Maremmana primitivo, Maronesa, Pajuna Cattle, Rhodopian Shorthorn, Sayaguesa Cattle, Spanish Fighting Bull and Tudanca Cattle.
By the 13th century AD, the aurochs’ range was restricted to Poland, Lithuania, Moldavia, Transylvania and East Prussia. The right to hunt large animals on any land was restricted first to nobles and then, gradually, to only the royal households. As the population of aurochs declined, hunting ceased, and the royal court used gamekeepers to provide open fields for grazing for the aurochs. The gamekeepers were exempted from local taxes in exchange for their service. Poaching aurochs was punishable by death. According to the royal survey in 1564, the gamekeepers knew of 38 animals. The last recorded live aurochs, a female, died in 1627 in the Jaktorów Forest, Poland, from natural causes. The causes of extinction were hunting, a narrowing of habitat due to the development of farming, and diseases transmitted by domestic cattle.