In a sense, cows sometimes seem a little bit too convenient – we eat their meat, use their milk for drinking and to produce dairy, and leather is produced from cowhide. Additionally, their dung can be used as fertilizer, and various items are made from cattle horns. These animals seem to be so in line with the wants of human beings, that you might sometimes wonder:
Are cows man-made? While they have not been created in laboratories by mad scientists waving beakers and bunsen burners, due to the long process of domestication, cattle have developed more and more in line with what human beings want from them. So, yes, cows are sort of man-made. It was about 10 000 years ago that paleolithic people began domesticating wild aurochs – the ancestor of domestic cattle.
Cattle is the word with which we describe all contemporary species of cows (female) and bulls (male). We can still see the importance of aurochs in the prevalent place it occupies in cave paintings.
By comparing the genetic material from different species of cattle, scientists were able to find out that the first cattle were domesticated in the Middle East, in the so-called Fertile Crescent, a region which covered modern-day Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Israel and is often known as the “Cradle of Civilization” since it is the location of the earliest known human civilizations.
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Human civilization and cows sure seem to go hand in hand!
Like today’s cattle, aurochs belonged to the family of Bovidae which includes both wild and domesticated cattle, including for example yaks, buffalos, or bison. The paleolithic humans selected aurochs that were comparatively easy to tame – not too big or aggressive.
Auroch skeletons in museums show that these creatures must have been quite impressive and intimidating! After some generations of domesticating aurochs, certain things that their human captors favored, like a mildness of temper, shorter horns, or more meat on their bones, came to the foreground more and more, leading to a species that was significantly different in looks and habits from wild aurochs.
Aurochs, also known as urus or ure, got extinct in the early 1610s and 1620s due to hunting and the competition for feeding grounds with domesticated cattle, as well as diseases transmitted by domesticated cattle. The last recorded living aurochs died in 1627 in Poland. Some breeds of modern cattle still retain visual characteristics of the aurochs, like a light stripe along the back, or the form of their horns.
Are Cows Native to the Whole World?
No, cattle are not native to the whole world. The aurochs from which our modern cattle descends were native to Europe, Asia, and North Africa. Thus, cattle had to be imported, for example, to the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand.
It was Christopher Columbus who brought cattle to the Carribeans in 1493 and Spanish colonizers brought more in their subsequent expeditions.
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How Many Varieties of Cows Are There?
There are more than 1000 breeds of cattle recognized worldwide. They are adapted with regards to their environment, like the highland cow with its long and fluffy coat of fur, but also with regards to their use for human beings.
Holstein cows, for example, are known to have the highest milk production in the world, and for this practical reason, they are now the most common breed in the world. The Black Angus is the breed most favored for its beef in the United States, and the Japanese Black cattle produce the famous Kobe beef, the most expensive beef in the world.
Some breeds occur naturally when specimens of different breeds mate in nature, but some have been established by the purposeful crossing and interbreeding of the species that have the favored traits. For small family farms, for example, miniature breeds like the Dexter Cow or the Miniature Jersey Cow have been reared.
All existing breeds of cattle fall into one of two categories:
- two subspecies of taurine cattle, and
- indicine cattle.
Indicine cattle – also called zebus – are adapted to a hot climate and frequent drought and they originated in tropical parts of the world like India, China, or sub-Saharan Africa. You can recognize them by the humps on their shoulders, their prominent dewlap, and droopy ears. Taurine cattle originated mostly from Europe and are adapted to colder environments.