The Domestication of Cattle

Cattle were some of the earliest results of domestication by humans. Genetic and archaeological records show that this may have begun as early as around 10,500 years ago. Aurochs (Bos taurus primigenius) were large wild bovines which ranged across the grasslands and forests of Eurasia and northern Africa. Ancient people gradually domesticated these animals and eventually this resulted in the modern cattle we know today.

Why was domestication useful?

Cattle have played an important role in the lives of humans for a very long time. Every part of an animal was important. Meat, milk and hides provided nourishment and material. Their strong build means they are very capable as draught animals or beasts of burden. Their bones and horns can form tools and their dung is a valuable fertiliser for crops. Cave paintings around the world show beautiful pictures of the cattle and aurochs that were such an important part of ancient peoples’ lives.

Cattle plough are still a common sight in many parts of the world.
Cattle ploughs are still a common sight in many parts of the world.

Their domestication allowed early humans to more efficiently farm the land and to grow more crops. This then allowed population growth and the increase in population densities. Having an easily available and reliable source of food from crops and meat allowed humans to build larger settlements. In turn, they could then move away from a more nomadic lifestyle. The development of agriculture was the primary driving force behind urbanisation and larger societies. It fundamentally changed the way people lived and so shaped civilisations.

Where did domestication happen?

Domestication of many crops occurred in the Fertile Crescent.
Domestication of many crops occurred in the Fertile Crescent.

Domestication likely begin in the Fertile Crescent, in what is now the Middle East. Similarly, many crop species, like wheat, barley and chickpeas, were first domesticated there. For cattle, however, some evidence suggests that multiple domestication events occurred independently in different areas. This means that various people were able to capture aurochs and breed for animals which were tamer and more useful. Cross-breeding between different populations of aurochs and different populations of domesticated aurochs led to more widespread similarity between domesticated animals.

What about modern cattle?

There are over 1 billion domesticated cattle in the world today. They make up a huge segment of the economies of many different countries. The global beef market alone is worth approximately $332.49 billion USD (approx. £250 billion) and that is forecast to increase over the next few years.

Zebu have a distinctive hump and dewlap.
Zebu have a distinctive hump and dewlap.

There are two distinct lineages in modern cattle. The taurine lineage (Bos taurus taurus) encompasses the majority of modern cattle breeds. The indicine (or zebu) lineage (Bos taurus indicus) have a hump on their backs and a large dewlap, and cope especially well in hot climates. Within these lineages, there are hundreds of different breeds. Breeds can be for milking, beef, beasts of burden, or for a mixture of purposes.

 

Culturally, cows were of great importance, and still are in many cultures around the world. People used cattle as currency for bartering. They were often par of dowries and bride-prices, rituals, gifts and many other important cultural functions as well. Even now many societies, especially where communities directly rely on cows for the majority of income, consider cattle to be an extremely important part of life. The agricultural and economic impact of cattle farming across the world is huge.