Bos taurus: How the cow?

With nearly one cow alive now for every four people on earth, the nagging question is how did this happen? The short answer: luck and persistence.

It seems fitting that Mission Steak, devoted as it is to its meaty subject, should begin with an entry on the animal responsible for it all, Bos taurus, the noble cow. Cows have been a human “client species,” to misappropriate a term coined by the strange and brilliant speculative fiction author David Brin, for nearly 10,000 years. We can imagine how dogs became domesticated (probably first in what is  now China), their highly socialized pack behavior in many ways mirroring our own; and pigs, teams of their progenitors loitering on the edges of early human settlements looking for food; and chickens (again probably in China) and goats, stolen from their herds as kids, then raised indentured. But cows?

Enormous as they are―Angus bulls, for instance weighing close to 2,000 pounds―their pre-domesticated ancestors, the mighty auroch, typically weighed twice that amount. Unlike deer, their cervid cousins of the woods, Auroch remained exclusively grassland grazers, and evolved to evade top predators not with the antelope’s speed (though they were not exactly slow, if an average cow’s 40 km/h top speed is any indication), but with girth, muscle and ferocity.

Auroch (Bos primigenius) were not only well-known to early humans, they were revered perhaps more than any other wild beast. Ancient and remarkably sophisticated paintings on the walls of the caves in Lascaux, in southwestern France, depict the auroch with more prevalence and with greater status than any other animal, defining its role within a pantheon of lesser gods, as much part of the cosmos as the stars themselves.

Auroch from ancient painting in the "Hall of Bulls" in the caves of Lascaux, their positions signifying constellations and seasonal cycles.
Auroch from ancient painting in the “Hall of Bulls” in the caves of Lascaux, their positions signifying constellations and seasonal cycles.

Majesty aside, auroch were held in such high regard by Paleolithic humans partly because they were a highly important food source. Human-hunted auroch remains have been found all over Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and India. It is hard to say why the auroch were prized (assuming they were) more than other animals for their meat. If they were not simply more delicious than ibex or giraffe, as Mark Schatzker muses in Steak: One Man’s Search for the Tastiest Piece of Beef, then perhaps it was their specific adaptations that were their downfall. In the natural world, size, which the auroch certainly had in abundance over other undulates, matters when it comes avoiding predators. If speed or inconspicuousness weren’t options, you could simply outgrow your predators. Unless, that is, your predator happens to be human.

Like the woolly mammoth, giant sloth, mastodon and other extinct mega-fauna, The auroch’s numbers dwindled relatively quickly because their size was not a reliable defense against the spear and evolved, cooperative hunting tactics. In the end, the expansion of farmland and pastureland (ironically, partly for cows), certainly added to the pressures on the auroch population, ending with the death of an auroch cow, the last known remaining example of her species, in the woods in East Central Poland in 1627.

But as our ancestors’ taste for auroch meat played a role in its demise, it was also crucial for the preservation of it’s genome, at least in its domesticated descendants. The first domestication event for the taurine cattle on farms around the world today (as opposed to indicine cattle―Bos indicus―which roam the streets of India largely unharassed) probably occurred about 10,500 years ago in what is now Iran. University of Mainz Paleogeneticist Ruth Bollongino led the 2012 study that famously discovered that all of the taurine cows on the planet right now descended from a herd of just around 80.

This accomplishment, undoubtedly attempted by Neolithic societies on multiple occasions before finally succeeding, becomes more impressive when we consider that the animals they were trying to tame were anything but docile, incredibly powerful, had extended horns on both males and females, and were just a little smaller than an elephant. It stands to reason that these earliest of ranchers must have really, really wanted the results they sought.

Ten millennia and billions of cows later, a group of Dutch-funded scientists are trying to bring the auroch back into currency with an ambitious retro-breeding program called the Tauros Programme, part of an overall European re-wilding project. It’s a strange reversal of fate for a species extinct for seven centuries, and that would remain locked out by history save for an unlikely deviation from the trajectory of 80 of its descendants.






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