The ancestor of our farmed cattle was the aurochs which, after the Ice Age, was very common from Spain and Portugal to China, across north Africa, and down into India. The aurochs was a fearsome beast. Bulls stood two metres at the shoulder – almost twice the height of the Chillingham cattle. Perhaps to ensure safety in the hunt, wonderful cave paintings of aurochs were made, and many finds of hunted aurochs exist.
In the Sedgwick Museum of archaeology and anthropology in Cambridge you can see the skull of a bull aurochs illustrated below. There is a stone axe head stuck in it … presumably the animal had been caught in a pitfall trap and then killed.
Somehow, around 10,000 years ago in west Asia, India, China and north Africa people managed to domesticate the aurochs and enfold it into their societies.
Domestication is not the same as taming. Any wild mammal or bird can be tamed if it is very young. It respects the dominance of humans but when it grows up its species-specific adult behaviours will be expressed. In contrast, domesticated animals retain this acceptance of human domination – and this characteristic is inherited. But of course, a harshly treated domesticated animal may behave like a wild one, but this is a learned response. We don’t know exactly how all this works, or how the first farmers managed to – effectively – genetically engineer wild animals into farmed livestock.
A breakthrough it certainly was. Once the aurochs (and other animals) were domesticated it was possible to control their breeding and choose which characteristics to develop. In all cases, a first step was to select for docility, smaller size, and a tendency to retain juvenile behaviour patterns into adult life. So before too long the fearsome, giant aurochs had become mild-mannered, rather small cattle – a walking larder.
And of course any land that could support the aurochs could support cattle. So it’s no surprise that not long after farming began, the aurochs died out. In Britain, this was around 1500 BC.