Origin of Cow Mystery


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 Bosprimigenius, 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.