Before Cows were Cowed

One of the comments below a youtube video showing water buffalo (Syncerus caffer) defending a calf from lion predation expressed ridicule toward the big cats for being chased away by “a bunch of cows.”  The word, cow, used as a verb, descends from the Old Norse word, Kuga, meaning to oppress, intimidate, or easily herd; and the word, coward, originates from the Latin word, cauda, meaning tail or tail between the legs.  The origins of the 2 words might be interrelated, though the noun form of cow is likely a verbalization of the lowing sound cows make.  Modern cows were bred to be cowed, as in easily herded.  However, the ancestor of the cow, the aurochs, (Bos primigenius), was anything but easily herded.  They were larger and fiercer than modern cattle and readily attacked man on sight.  Nevertheless, they became extinct.  The last known aurochs was killed in Poland during 1627.  For propaganda reasons the Nazis bred primitive cattle in an attempt to bring the aurochs back, creating a breed known as the Heck.  Although the Heck never reached the size of the aurochs, some individuals are so aggressive that modern farmers find them impossible to raise.  Wild cattle are dangerous, and a more informed person would not ridicule lions trying not to get trampled and gored.

Prehistoric cave painting of an aurochs, the much larger and more aggressive ancestor of modern cattle.

Amazingly, humans somehow began to tame and breed the aurochs, probably about 8,000 years ago.  The early herdsmen selected individuals for smaller size, reduced aggression, easier herding, and better disease resistance.  Genetic evidence from a 6700 year old cow bone found in Derbyshire, England suggests the early domesticated cattle occasionally back bred with the aurochs.  Domestication of the aurochs took place in 2 different geographical regions.  Aurochs, tamed and bred in eastern Europe, are the ancestors of Bos taurus, and the Indian aurochs was bred into Bos indica.

Florida cracker cattle descend from cows brought to North America by the Spanish in the 1500s.

Bos indica.  They descend from a geographically separate population of aurochs than Bos taurus.

Texas longhorn cattle are Bos taurus x Bos indica hybrids.  Wild longhorns are tough animals capable of fighting off wolves, bears, and cougars.  Hundreds of thousands ranged Texas and Mexico from ~1700-~1900.

Early Spanish explorers and settlers brought cattle to North America during the 16th century.  They were let loose in the woods and fields to forage, and soon there were large herds of feral cattle wandering southeastern North America.  Wayne Van Horne critically reviewed all of the early accounts of bison in the region, and he determined most of these were probably referring to feral cattle rather than bison.  European colonists used the term, buffalo, interchangeably for either wild cattle or bison.  Most had never seen a bison, and there were no field guides that could’ve aided a correct identification.  Van Horne thinks the “buffalo” General Oglethorpe, the man who founded Georgia, hunted in 1746 were actually feral cattle.  The Great Buffalo Lick, located in central Georgia, may be misnamed because feral cattle were licking the soil there, not bison.  William Bartram saw great mixed herds of feral cattle, horses, and deer but never saw a buffalo when he traveled through the south from 1773-1776.  He did see bones of buffalo, but these could’ve been the bones of wild cattle.  However, Van Horne does note 3 credible accounts of bison in the deep south.  Mark Catesby correctly described bison ranging near Fort Moore along the border of central Georgia and South Carolina.  John Lawson reliably reported bison migrating through a mountain pass to the Cape Fear River in North Carolina.  And some early Spanish explorers saw bison feeding in abandoned Indian fields located on the panhandle of Florida.  The historical evidence suggests bison were very rare in the post-Pleistocene deep south, but the population of feral cattle here exploded during European colonization.  By the Civil War the cattle population of Florida was 700,000 vs. 140,000 people, and most of these herds were feral.

The longleaf pine savannahs that supported large herds of wild cattle in the deep south were also excellent habitat for sandhill cranes, Canadian geese, and turkeys.  Cattle grazing improves habitat for burrowing owls and caracaras.  Payne’s Prairie in central Florida is a remnant of habitat where bison, Florida cracker cattle, and a rich diversity of birdlife can still be found.  Some day, I hope to visit Payne’s Praire, but I can’t get other family members interested in it as a vacation destination.

References:

Park, Stephen; et. al.

“Genome Sequencing of the Extinct Eurasian Wild Aurochs, Bos primigenius, Illuminates the Phylogeography and Evolution of Cattle”

Genome Biology 2015

Van Horne, Wayne

“A Critical Assessment of Evidence Relating to the Range of the American Bison (Bison bison) in Georgia”

Early Georgia 40 (2) 2013

 

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2 Responses to “Before Cows were Cowed”

  1. Marco Says:

    Wonder why the ancestral cows never made it across to the new world like the bison.

    • markgelbart Says:

      Bison are hardier than the aurochs. Bison can travel long distances across arid environments without water. The aurochs preferred river valleys because they required daily access to water. They couldn’t make it through arid regions.

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