Human Contact & The Beginnings of Domestication

Others have noted the extreme difficulty humans must have encountered in domesticating the auroch (Wall, 2012). While domesticated cattle are general docile and submissive, aurochs likely exhibited behavior similar to this. However, unlike bulls used in modern bullfighting, male aurochs were taller than the average human (see below). Also notice in the below image the highly athletic body of the male auroch (top left). Its body in some ways resembles a horse’s, but with a more muscular build and, of course, horns. It may seem surprising, then, that there were as many as three–and possibly four (Origins of cattle farming in China uncovered, 2013)–independent instances of domestication that occurred in geographically distant regions during roughly the same time period (Ajmone-Marsan, Garcia, & Lenstra, 2010). This may suggest the value extractable from aurochs and cattle was especially high to warrant domesticating an animal that was likely quite resistant to human influence.


Depiction of the auroch (top) and heck cow (bottom). Males appear on the left and females on the right.

The extent of contact humans made with aurochs prior to domestication is difficult to uncover, aside from presence of numerous cave paintings created in Eurasia 15 to 20 thousand years ago (Velton, 2007). The fact that aurochs appear so frequently in cave paintings suggests a strong relationship between the auroch and the psychological development of pre‑civilized human populations. Simply by chance, it is likely that humans and their prehuman ancestors encountered aurochs frequently,beginning around 300,000 years ago when aurochs began moving into Eurasia. Prehuman ancestors did not migrate from Africa until roughly 600,000 years ago (Finlayson, 2005), so encounters prior to this were not possible. Once humans encountered aurochs, a relationship between them was inevitable. While difficult to hunt for sure, aurochs may have been a more manageable intermediary between the challenging swiftness–and little meat–of antelope and the size of bison and buffalo. Providing food and protection from the cold, our early ancestors found the perfect animal to provide basic needs in large quantities, beginning the track toward a sedentary lifestyle. Despite its usefulness, aurochs managed to continue living for many thousands of years until 1627 when the last of them were extinguished in Poland (Maas, 2011).

The story of taurine cattle domestication really begins with the Natufian Culture, existing between 13,000 and 9,800 BCE in the Eastern Mediterranean near Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq. Natufians were the first “semi-sedentary” culture to have appeared on Earth, as they existed before the development of agriculture, a primary enabler of sedentary living. Evidence suggests the majority of the 1.3 billion cattle on Earth today is an ancestor of one of as many as 80 aurochs in Mesopotamia (Southeastern Turkey) in 8500 BCE (Bollongino et al., 2012). This occurred during the time of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic Cultures (8500 BCE – 6000 BCE). To add some perspective, the settlement of Jericho in this area was thought to be the world’s very first town (Jericho, 2014).

However, the first archaeological evidence of actual domestic cattle does not appear until between 5000 and 6000 BCE in southwestern Pakistan (Ajmone-Marsan et al., 2010). These cultures began controlling and using aurochs in ways that would lead to domestic forms about two thousand years before they were consider “domestic” by archaelogists. In other words, evidence suggests humans were controlling and transporting pre-domestic cattle from the Far East into Southern Europe before technical nomenclature would label them truly domesticated (i.e., exhibiting morphological changes, like reduced body and cranium size, that suggest a domesticated form). A popular control mechanism was castration (Velton, 2007), because (a) bulls tend to be more aggressive than cows, and (b) the testes are the source of (most) testosterone production; by thwarting testosterone production, cattle could be artificially tamed prior to the development of genetic tameness. Furthermore, their noses were often pierced and ropes passed through the holes. Multiple cattle could be controlled by a single individual by binding them with the same rope.

This and similar processes of control may have begun after the first cattle were captured–perhaps young or weak “crop robbing” aurochs who were placed in captivity (Velton, 2007). Given the immense value of the auroch, it would not be surprising, however, if many separate, and mechanistically different, attempts were made to capture aurochs; having one’s own, captive group of resource-delivering organisms was no doubt an attractive prospect for many landowners. It follows, then, that there was perhaps quite a lengthy period of time dedicated to the collective development of auroch-capturing skills and tools (e.g., tying their hind legs together when distracted), in opposition to the prior period of primarily hunting. Once landowners were able to not only capture but keep captive groups of aurochs, the processes of domestication, and of milk and cheese production, would begin.

For clarity, I will define a “domesticated” population as one that has been crafted by humans in such a way that their most salient processes and functions (e.g., milk production) serve the needs of humans and whose genetic behavioral dispositions (e.g., tameness, submission) allow these processes to be carried out. Moreover, the domesticated animal exists in a dependent or nearly dependent bond with humans that may preclude their ability to survive without humans, and possibly vice versa.

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