Origin of Cow

ByDr. Girish Chandra

ORIGIN AND ANCESTRY OF THE COW

(Prof. Girish Chandra)

       Two species of cows exist today in the world, the humpless taurine cow, Bos taurus which is domesticated in Europe and North America and the humped Jebu cow, Bos indicus that occurs in India and Asian countries.  Genetic analysis of mitochondrial DNA reveals marked differences between these two species although they interbreed and produce viable hybrids.   Cows are found only under domestication and not in the wild.  While there are wild counterparts of all other domesticated animals such as dog, horse, buffalo, camel, elephant, sheep, goats etc., there is no counterpart of cows in the wild today.  That brings us to the central question how the cows originated and from which wild ancestor.   Were they domesticated by capturing some wild bovine ancestor or did they evolve by cross breeding or genetic manipulation of some wild ungulate that was similar to cow.

        The only wild animal that comes closer to being cow’s ancestor was extinct wild Auroch or Bos primigenius, which was abundant in the forests of Asia, Europe and Africa during Pleistocene to Holocene epochs.  The last known surviving wild Auroch died in the Jaktorow Forest in Poland in 1627.  Geneticists believe that modern cows descended from this wild auroch by simple domestication process by ancient primitive civilisations.

The Wild Auroch Ancestry

        Archaeologists and biologists believe that evidence is strong enough to indicate two separate domestication events of cows: one of B. taurus in the near east and the other of B. indicus in the Indus valley area, about 8,000 to10,000 years ago, from just 80 heads of cattle.  “Importantly, the two sites showing these domestications ( Dja´de and Çayönü)  are less than 250 km apart,” says Ruth Bollongino of the University of Mainz, Germany.  These genetic studies were conducted by an international team of scientists from Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz in Germany, the French National Centre for Scientific Research, the Museum of Natural History in Paris and the University College, London.  But “Wild aurochs were very different beasts from modern domestic cattle,” writes Joachim Burger, an author of the study based at the University of Mainz, Germany.  “They were much bigger than modern cattle, and did not possess the domestic traits of modern cows.  So capturing these animals in the first place would not have been easy, and even if some people did manage to snare them alive, their continued management and breeding would still have presented considerable challenges until they had been bred for smaller size and more docile behaviour.”  

        Wild Aurochs were about 2.00 metres tall, weighing about a ton.  They had 30 inches long sharp horns that dangerously pointed forward.  To top it all they had ferocious and aggressive temperament and fearless disposition.  Males were black while females and calves were reddish with a pale stripe running on the back.

        Aurochs were giant beasts and such ferocious animals that Julius Caesar wrote about them while giving an account of the Black Forest in Germany,  “They are but a little less than elephants in size, and are of the species, colour, and form of a bull. Their strength is very great, and also their speed. They spare neither man nor beast that they see. They cannot be brought to endure the sight of men, nor be tamed, even when taken young. The people, who take them in pitfalls, assiduously destroy them; and young men harden themselves in this labour, and exercise themselves in this kind of chase; and those who have killed a great number – the horns being publicly exhibited in evidence of the fact – obtain great honour.”

Auroch – The Unlikely Ancestor

        It is widely believed that modern cows evolved from the wild Aurochs (Bos primigenius) by simple domestication of an initial population of just 80 heads (R. Bollongino et al., 2012).  Also, it is claimed that cows evolved from this wild animal by simple domestication process and not by cross-breeding to get desired traits, since cross-breeding requires two different but closely related species, which did not exist at any time and advanced genetic techniques were not known to the primitive societies of that time.  Moreover, Auroch was too large, too strong and too aggressive an animal to be suitable for domestication and for use in agriculture.   In size, strength and ferocious temperament it was no less than the African elephant of today.  But African elephant could not be domesticated even now, although its cousin, the docile Asiatic elephant is under domestication for at least 5,000 years.

        If cows were produced by simple domestication of Auroch, how could they get transformed from a highly aggressive giant into a small and docile animal that is half the size of auroch, and that also in such a small period of just 8,000 years, which is too short a period for a large linear evolutionary change to take place without interbreeding?   Other animals such as dogs, sheep, goats, horses, elephants etc. which were also domesticated at the same time or earlier, do not show such drastic changes in their size and behaviour.   Genetic studies also reveal that cows were almost impossible to domesticate (Archeology, 2012).

      DNA studies by Alasdair Wilkins et al. (2012) revealed that modern cows descended from an initial population of just 80 cattle. They argue that  “80 initial cattle would have given their human breeders pretty much or no margin for error in terms of maintaining genetic diversity, and yet the billion cows alive today reveal just how remarkably well they succeeded in growing the population.  The fact that all cattle seemingly descend from a single domestication event is also unusual”.  Hence genetic studies raise doubt that cows evolved by simple domestication of Auroch by ancient primitive settlers.

        R. Bollongino et al. (2012) opined, “A large number would be expected if cattle domestication was a technologically straightforward and unexacting region-wide phenomenon, while a smaller number would be consistent with a more complex and challenging process”.   Does that imply that a more complex breeding process or advanced genetic engineering technique was employed to produce cow because the initial number was just 80 cattle heads and that also at a small place of the planet.   And the product of their efforts, the cow, turned out to be a wonder animal that proved so useful to man in agriculture, animal husbandry, nutrition, medicine etc. that it was accorded the status of God, worshiped and its killing banned by the inhabitants of Indus Valley.  Evidence of domestication and veneration of Bos indicus dating back to about 7,000 years is available in Harappan sites in Indus Valley.

        The cow is an animal of extraordinary qualities and early societies depended heavily on cow for these traits and even now one and a half billion cows are under domestication all over the world.  Were these desired traits deliberately introduced in cows by advanced breeding or genetic engineering techniques and by whom?   Small initial population of animals and domestication done only at one place of the world, point towards this possibility.

         In the journal, Molecular Biology and Evolution researchers mentioned that the “differences between the ancient DNA sequences and those of modern cattle were so minute that the only way to explain them would be if the original cattle population was extremely small, with about 80 cattle the most likely number”.  This clearly shows that cow was produced at a small place by using few initial cattle, for the desired traits needed by ancient settlers that took to agriculture as their preoccupation.  And they succeeded in producing small number of cattle with desired traits, may be by a difficult and laborious process.   Hence they took extra care to protect them and crossbred them to increase their number.

Reasons for Banning Cow Slaughter

        The reason for banning cow slaughter and eating beef by the ancient societies was perhaps to save the animal that they had obtained by painstakingly tough experimentation and hard work.  It is not surprising that cow is still worshipped by Hindus, Budhists, Sikhs and Jains in India and is called Gau Mata (mother cow), and beef eating is taboo.  Cow slaughter was banned not only in India but also in several other countries from time to time.  Cow is the national animal of Nepal which is a Hindu kingdom.  Cow slaughter is banned in Iran, which is also perhaps the place of its origin. The ancient Egyptians sacrificed animals but not the cow, because it was sacred to goddess Hathor.

        The beef ban is fairly widespread in Burma in Buddhist community.   Burma has a State Religion Promotion Act, 1961 which bans slaughtering of cow nationwide.

        In ancient China, beef eating was taboo, which was called, niú jiè in Chinese morality.     Several Chinese morality books mention about cow protection and beef taboo.  There has been beef taboo in Ancient Japan owing to Buddhist influence and to protect this highly useful animal.

        In many parts of Indonesia Muslims do not slaughter cows or eat beef because their ancestors were Hindus who worshipped cow and called it mother cow.

       According to Technology Review magazine, Cuba recently passed a law under which cow slaughter was made punishable with a jail term.

        The widespread ban on cow slaughter in different countries indicates that cow was produced by special efforts by advanced civilisations at one place and then carried to different parts of the world along with migrating populations with the message that it should be protected and not used as food.

Involvement of Advanced Civilisations

         All studies point to the origin of cow at a small place stretching from Indus Valley to Iran and that also from a small number of just 80 cattle heads.  This cannot happen by catching a ferocious giant like Auroch from the wild and taming it to become docile and half the original size.  An advanced genetic manipulation must have been necessary to produce such drastic changes not only in size but also in behaviour and temperament of the animal.   History does not give us any evidence about the scientific capabilities of ancient civilisations that flourished 10,000 years ago.  They were perhaps the earliest settlers that left the nomadic hunting life and began cultivation and domestication of animals.  These people wanted an animal that could yield high quality milk and also help them in agriculture.  It appears quite unlikely that the wild and aggressive animal like Auroch would have been the ideal candidate to domesticate and subjugate to the extent of being used in ploughing fields.  However, some kind of genetic manipulation could have produced desirable traits in Aurochs and made possible their domestication. 

        Did ancient human populations have such advanced knowledge of genetics?  There are evidences around the world that point to the existence of advanced civilisations that attained extraordinary feats such as building pyramids, Nezca lines, statues of Easter Islands and stone henge to name a few.  Sumerian civilisation existed at around the same time when cow evolved, and archaeological evidences indicate that Sumerians possessed advanced knowledge of science and astronomy.  Thousands of clay tablets on which they inscribed their advanced knowledge of the world and space are housed in various museums across Europe.  Sumerians mentioned on clay tablets that they were assisted by Gods (extraterrestrials) who descended from heaven and gave them advanced knowledge of science and astronomy, and also genetically manipulated plants and animals that were useful to mankind.   Was cow produced by genetic manipulation of wild Auroch by these Gods?   Or was it brought from some other planet by these extraterrestrials to be given as a gift to mankind here.  The fact that cow was treated by subsequent civilizations as a precious animal that must be protected and worshipped, indicates that it was not akin to other domesticated animals that still exist in the wild, but was more important  as it was procured by extraordinary efforts.   In mythology cow attains a very high status, almost similar to Gods, so much so that in Hindu mythology it is mentioned that cow was brought to earth from “Golok” or planet of cows and is associated with Gods such as Krishna and Shiva.  

            Cow and silkworm are two animals which do not exist in the wild and whose ancestry is unknown.  Also, both these animals find mention in the earliest of human history, and in mythology they are both associated with Gods.

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