The Domestication of Cattle and Eurocentrisity in Regards to Heritage Breeds

1 May 2019
The Domestication of Cattle and Eurocentrisity in Regards to Heritage Breeds
By Eben van Tonder

The Ancient Aurochs

Bos primigenius
The aurochs (Bos primigenius)


I am fascinated by Nguni cattle!  From very early I knew about them as “the cattle of the black people.”  In my lack of interest and respect form them I have been guilty of Eurocentricity, the same attitude of many people who saw them as a kind of a second-rate animal.  Nor did I ever had any close dealings with them till I met one of the greatest herds on earth on Eastwich Stud Farm of Etienne Lotter against the slopes of the Magaliesburg mountains.

This initiated a search for the origins of the Nguni which took me on a fascinating journey around the world and into the prehistoric past.  In the process, I gain respect for the evolutionary forces of nature and the ingenuity of our ancestors.  It introduces me to genetics and the diversity of domesticated breeds.  It allows me to re-evaluate Africa to the north of us where some African brothers and sisters are grappling with questions like the optimal cattle breeds and how to ensure the best possible beef, pork and other meat.

It unlocked an important frontier which I never considered.  In my search for African technology, I never considered the ability of the native African to manage cattle as technology.  My study of the Nguni showed me that they not only took the breeding and raising of herds to heights seldom achieved in the rest of the world but they managed to change this into a distinct art which is characteristic of the preservation of all other ancient technologies in the artisan guilds who were the custodians of the ancient sciences in Europe.

The task started with the cold and mechanical attempts to understand the classification of cattle and their lineage.  This journey proved to be far more difficult than I ever imagined but as I persevered, it turned into the experience of a lifetime!  The mechanical changes in art in front of my eyes!

Classification of Cattle

My search started with understanding different cattle species and the origin of domesticated cattle.  The first major roadblock was the classification itself. After a week of confusing and seemingly contradictory information, I was still battling to get my head around a basic classification of ancient and contemporary breeds.  The evolutionary progression seemed to be obscured in mystery and I realised that various classifications for cattle have been proposed since the 19th century until recently and that evolutionary progression is all but certain with new discoveries being made every day at lightning speed which seems to re-write the textbooks.

“The first classifications were inspired by Linnaean taxonomy and emphasized cranial or horn morphology. Subsequent classifications were based on coat color, geographic origin or molecular markers. Several theories were developed that linked breed characteristics either to a supposed ancestral aurochs subspecies or to a presumed ethnic origin.”  (Felius, 2011)   It is now known that the older classifications have had serious shortcomings.  Part of the confusion is that it introduced several Latin terms that remain in use even if the original understanding evolved. “The most systematic classification was proposed in 1995 by Felius, which emphasized the geographic origin of breeds and is largely in agreement with the breed clusters indicated by biochemical and molecular genetic analyses.”   (Felius, 2011)

This is a logical starting point because classification is intended to infer evolutionary relationships.  It describes the diversity of organisms which is the core activity of the science of systematics.  Linnaeus in 1758 laid the foundation of the modern biological classification with the introduction of a binary nomenclature (genus name followed by species name) and a definitive species concept. By creating a hierarchy of orders, families, tribes, genera, species, and subspecies for all sorts of organisms known at the time, Linnaeus founded the sciences of systematics and taxonomy.”  “After the Darwinian revolution, it became common to interpret the classification of a group of organisms in the same group as an indication of common ancestry. The classification of domestic animals with their wild ancestor species—like Bos taurus and Bos indicus with Bos primigenius and Bos namadicus, respectively—is most obvious. The lower-level classification of the various types of cattle is less unambiguous.”  (Felius, 2011)

It is important to keep in mind when determining ancestry that “differences between breeds are not as absolute as between species, as for instance the clear-cut difference between cattle, yak, and bison. Breeds not only originated relatively recently from a common gene pool, but genetic isolation is rarely absolute. Even the demarcation of zebu and taurine cattle, which evolved from two different sources and are clearly different in morphology, adaptation, and behavior, is arbitrary since many intermediate types are known and several breeds have been developed by taurine-indicine crossbreeding.”  (Felius, 2011)

The task seems daunting, but the reason for starting with the classification of cattle is that I am seeking to understand the connection between different cattle breeds.  I already realise that it will give me an appreciation for local breeds which requires less intervention than high-intensity farming breeds.  At my first introduction to cattle in Nigeria, I thought the best they could do was to introduce genes from reputable beef herds, designed to produce good beef.  I realise the folly in such thinking!   Classification allows me to understand the characteristics of local breeds and to understand its importance in a regional and local context.  I realised that gene flow between different regions occurred regularly and that the history of cattle is replete with cross-influences.

From before the time when formal breeds were created in the industrial era of the 18th century, gene flow between neighboring regions was in all likelihood a common occurrence.  This clearly did not stop when cattle were partitioned into breeds.  “More often than not, the history of breeds mentions deliberate upgrading in order to improve production characteristics by using bulls of other populations from the same or a different country.  For instance, the British Shorthorn was a popular breeding sire for many European breeds in the 19th century. Now the Dairy Shorthorn has itself been crossed with Red Holstein and Danish Red, resulting in the Blended Red and White Shorthorn, while only few traditional Beef Shorthorn lines have remained pure. In other cases upgrading was minimal and transitional, like the use of British Shorthorn in the French Charolais, now one of the foremost beef breeds, or the introgression of Brown Swiss in Danish Red.”  (Felius, 2011)

“In the early 19th to the late 20th century, the Linnaean style of taxonomy with its emphasis on differences in morphology led to classifications that were based on cranial shapes and the length and curving of the horns. This could be linked to comparisons of excavated fossilized cattle skulls by archaeologists and zoologists of the 19th century. In this period presumed basic forms were granted Latin names, several of which are still in use.

The most influential cranial classifications were from the German-speaking school. Coat color was used as a criterion for classifications from 1896 and this continued until 1993. Around 1900 the morphological classifications of cattle were correlated with a supposed historic origin, assuming that different peoples or tribes kept their own types of cattle.

For Iberian cattle breeds, standards were hardly defined until the mid-20th century with the Lidia fighting cattle being the only exception. Breeds were classified according to external type, color pattern, and regional origin. Iberian authors assumed a descent from various types of aurochs in order to explain the different types of cattle.  In the 20th century, attention shifted to the economic importance of breeds. European breeds were described per country or continental region and those considered of little value were ignored. A limited number of highly productive breeds expanded at the cost of many local breeds. It was not before the late 1960s that new interest arose in local breeds and the conservation of genetic resources. This led to the compilation of livestock breed databases (reviewed by Groeneveld et al.). In 1995 Felius published a nearly complete cattle breed encyclopedia with a classification based on a combination of geographic origin and morphological type. Meanwhile, progress in genetics led to molecular classifications. After the biochemical studies of Baker and Manwell from 1980, based on limited numbers of genetic markers, the last decade saw the analysis of more comprehensive breed panels with DNA-based markers. These are now being superseded by high-throughput SNP genotyping and even genomic sequencing.  These are not only interesting from a historical point of view, but also reflect the diverse regional or national perceptions of the diversity of cattle.”  (Felius, 2011)

The Tribe, Bovidae

“Domesticated cattle have been derived from wild species of the genus Bos which is one of the largest genera of the family Bovidae. The members of this family, like all ruminating mammals, possess hoofs with an even number of toes. Among the noticeable features which separate them from other ruminants are the persistent horns with a bony horncore.

The earliest traces of hoofed animals are fragments of bones discovered in New Mexico, which were found embedded in deposits formed in the geological period known as the Eocene. It is difficult to distinguish the forerunners of these herbivorous animals with hoofs from the carnivorous species that had claws. Both walked on the soles of their feet, provided with digits that might answer either for claws or for hoofs. Before the close of the Eocene period, typical hoofs had developed in animals living in both North America and in Europe. As hoofs developed some of the digits were lost. In later Tertiary formations, many changes of the skeleton took place, which led to the inference that small marsh and forest dwelling animals feeding on succulent vegetation had gradually changed into hard-hoofed quadrupeds fitted for life on grass plains and provided with powerful grinding teeth capable of masticating coarse and dry herbage. A thickening of the braincase, often bearing horns, the disappearance of the incisor and canine teeth from the upper jaw, an increasing height of the molar crowns, and a reduction of digits from five to two, were some of the important skeletal modifications which may be correlated with the incoming of grasses as a dominant feature of the landscape (Woodward, 1898).” (Morse, 1912)

The Genus Bos

The tribe Bovidae is subdivided into six genera.  One of these is the genus Bos.  Bos Primigenius or Auruchs, Banteng (Bos javanicus), Gaur (Bos gaurus), Gayal (Bos frontalis, domestic gaur), Yak (Bos grunniens), Wild yak (Bos mutus), Bos palaesondaicus†, (extinct), Kouprey (Bos sauveli) and domestic cattle (Bos taurus) occurring as Taurine cattle, (Bos taurus taurus) and Zebu (Bos taurus indicus)

There are, however, however members of the Bos-family which are older than Bos Primigenius.  The oldest record of Bos, Bos primigenius, in Eurasia is at Venosa-
Notarchirico, Italy (w0.5 to 0.6 Ma). The oldest published evidence of modern Bos is a skull fragment from Asbole, Lower Awash Valley, Ethiopia (w0.6 to 0.8 Ma).  Two examples are Bos Acutifrons and Bos buiaensis, from Buia, Eritrea (1.0 Ma).

Bos acutifrons

The skull of Bos acutifrons

The most ancient representative of the genus Bos is Bos acutifrons.  Numerous records of B. acutifrons have been found in middle Pleistocene-aged strata of India and from the late Pliocene (Tatrot Formation) through the Pleistocene of the Siwaliks, Pakistan. It is accepted that the species is the mother from which all subsequent species developed.  The aurochs probably developed from Bod acutifrons, between 2 million and 1.5 million years ago. (Van Vuure, 2003, 2005) (Muhammad Akbar Khan, 2016)

Bos buiaensis

Bos buiaensis is a new species, Bos from Buia, Eritrea (1.0 Ma). B. buiaensis shows a combination of primitive characters of the African Late Pliocene and Early Pleistocene form Pelorovis sensu stricto and derived characters of B. primigenius. This new finding demonstrates that Bos has been part of the human ecological landscape since the beginning of the genus Homo in the African Late Pliocene.  A paper dealing with this discovery is A new species of bull from the Early Pleistocene paleoanthropological site of Buia (Eritrea): Parallelism on the dispersal of the genus Bos and the Acheulian culture.

The ancestors of domesticated species, Bos taurus, and Bos indicus are Bos primigenius and Bos namadicus, respectively.

Bos primigenius (Auruchs)

The aurochs (or urus or ure) (Bos primigenius), is an extinct species of large wild cattle that inhabited Europe, Asia, and North Africa.  Erika Rosengren from Lund University wrote that “the aurochs was 180 cm tall and weighed up to 1 ton. The bull was bigger than the cow. Both sexes had horns, the bull’s up to 107 cm long and the cow’s 70 cm. The bull’s colour was brownish-black with a light stripe along the back, while the cow and the calves were brownish-red.”

“The species lived in open woodland, in river plains, and on the edge of wetlands where it competed with wild horse and bison. It ate grass, herbs, acorns, and twigs of trees and bushes. Bulls and cows lived apart except in the mating season in August–September. The calves, which were born 10 months later, were hunted by wolves. Adults, on the other hand, had few natural enemies and could live as much as 20 years. The species lived in southern and eastern Europe in the last Ice Age. When the climate became milder it spread over virtually the whole continent from the Iberian Peninsula or the Carpathians. It was a very important prey for Stone Age hunters and it is depicted in cave paintings in southern Europe. Aurochs lived in Scania as early as 11,500 years ago. Bones from specially selected parts are found on settlement sites, showing that the species was mainly hunted for its meat. As the forest grew denser the aurochs became rarer, disappearing from Scania around 8600 years ago when human expansion and hunting forced it out of its former habitats.” (Rosengren, 2014)

Darwin writes that “this magnificent, well-known species was present in Switzerland during the Neolithic period.  Even during this early period, it varied a little having apparently been crossed with other races.  Some of the larger races on the Continent, as the Friesland, etc., and the Pembroke race in England, closely resemble in essential structure B. primigenius, and no doubt are its descendants.  This is likewise the opinion of Nilsson.  Bos primigenius existed as a wild animal in Ceasar’s time. . . ”  Bos primigenius inhabited Europe and Asia (Bos primigenius primigenius), India (Bos primigenius namadicus) and North Africa (Bos primigenius africanus).

The aurochs is the primeval form of our cattle.  “They have been domesticated in the Near East about 12,000 years ago and introduced to Scania about 5700 years ago and occurred in two types (Bos taurus frontosus Nilsson) and (Bos taurus longifrons Owen). As a protected species, the last aurochs died in a royal Polish forest park in 1627.”  (Rosengren, 2014)

The classification of the different types of skeletons found was done in 1834 based on the length of the horns.  “the long-horns, the middle-horns, the short-horns, and polled cattle.”  (Felius, et al, 2011)  “In 1843 Owen introduced the term brachyceros for short-horned cattle, but in 1846 renamed it Bos longifrons. The Neolithic short-horned cattle type was described in great detail by Rütimeyer (1867), who is considered as the founder of domestic animal archaeozoology. Rütimeyer examined many cattle fossils and identified two aurochs species: Bos primigenius and an early form of Indian aurochs denoted as Bos namadicus, which he (incorrectly) presumed to be the parental form of the Bos primigenius. He also proposed that short-horned cattle represented the oldest and most widespread form of domestic cattle (Bos taurus) of Neolithic Europe, the origin of which had to be sought in Asia. On the contrary, Adametz [19] considered in 1898 the brachyceros as a genuine European wild form, but Leithner (cited by, assumed in,  1926 a descent from local primigenius animals. In the course of time, it became clear that all European cattle have predominantly an Asian origin and that the brachyceros/longifrons phenotype emerged after domestication.”  (Felius, et al, 2011)

“The aurochs was variously classified as Bos primigenius, Bos taurus, or, in old sources, Bos urus. However, in 2003, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature “conserved the use of 17 specific names based on wild species, which are predated by or contemporary with those based on domestic forms,” ​​confirming Bos primigenius for the aurochs. Taxonomists who consider domesticated cattle a subspecies of the wild aurochs B. primigenius taurus; those who consider domesticated cattle to be a separate species may use the name B. taurus, which the Commission has kept available for that purpose.” (

Bos namadicus

It is the ancestor of domestic cattle; it has also been suggested as an ancestor genetically to the modern European bison, which have been crossbred with steppe bison. The species survived in Europe until 1627, when the last recorded aurochs died in the Jaktorów Forest, Poland.

During the Neolithic Revolution, which occurred during the early Holocene, at least two aurochs domestication events occurred: one related to the Indian subspecies, leading to zebu cattle, and the other one related to the Eurasian subspecies, leading to taurine cattle

Rosengren says that “Bos Auruchs have been domesticated in the Near East about 12,000 years ago and introduced to Scania about 5700 years ago and occurred in two types (Bos taurus frontosus Nilsson) and (Bos taurus longifrons Owen)

Bos frontosus: “By the side of a cast of the large-fronted ox of Scandinavia, in the case of fossil Bovidæ in the British Museum, is a specimen found in Bawdsey Bog, near Felixstow, in Suffolk, referred to that same species—the only example recorded in England, if exhibition in the cases of our national institution be a record, for it has been nowhere figured or described.

That the determination of the species is correct there can be little doubt, as the specimen was seen and examined by Professor Nilsson on his late visit to this country, and the correctness of the determination was verified by him. It is to this, one of the most interesting but least known species, that we now wish to draw attention. It is interesting because it was probably a species of higher antiquity that lived on to be coæval with the early human races whose relics are found in the deposits of that remarkable border-land between the last geological ages of the Prehuman era and the obliterated first chapters of Human History.” (The Geologist, 1862)

“By the term ” cattle ” we usually mean domesticated bovine animals, principally of two species — Bos taurus^ European cattle, and Bos indicuss the humped cattle of India and Africa, commonly called the zebu.

As an introduction to different kinds of aurochs, we turn to the work of Charles Darwin.  I quote from his work on the Variations of Animals and Plants under Domestication.  “Naturalists have generally made two main divisions of cattle:  the humped kinds inhabiting tropical countries called in India Zebus, to which the specific name of Bos indicus has; and the common non-humped cattle, generally indicated under the name Bos taurus.  The humped cattle were domesticated, as may be seen on the Egyptian monuments, at least as early as the 12th dynasty, that is 2100 B. C..”  Two prehistoric European species were Bos primigenius and Bos longifrons.

The differences between the humped (Zebu) and non-humped (Taurus) species include differences in habitat.  Indian cattle seldom seek shade and never go into water where they stand knee deep like European cattle.  Indian cattle can run wild and is able to maintain themselves in areas where tigers are found.  Darwin concludes the differences between humped and non-humped variants are so great and unlikely affected by domestication, that what we have are two distinct species.

Darwin lists the many different kinds of European breeds that exist.  Of the 55 breeds that were identified in his time, there are little significant differences between them.  There are two or three species of Bos close to the current cattle species.  “According to Rütimeyer, we have:

The evolutionary progression is from the aurochs (Bos primigenius) “to Bos longifrons (the first domesticated cattle leaving fossils found in archaeological excavations), to Bos taurus (modern cattle).”  (animalbiosciences)

Bos longifrons

Rosengren quotes Sven Nilsson, 1847, when he wrote, “I know of not a single example of any domesticated species – especially not of Ruminants – that became larger than its wild strain. All experience teaches the opposite. It is, therefore, my conviction that it is not the pygmean B. longifrons but the high-necked B. frontosus that is the origin of the latter. That two separate species, B. urus and B. frontosus, could produce offspring that can interbreed is at least not unlikely judging by data that I shall cite in the Fauna, which is, it seems to me, the only comprehensible explanation for the different breeds of our domesticated animals.” (Rosengren, 2014)


Introduction to Southern Africa

Iron Age nomads first introduced the Nguni cattle breed into South Africa in about 600 AD.


Darwin, C. 1988.  The Works of Charles Darwin, Volume 19: Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. Volume 1.  Edited by Barrett, P. H., and Freeman, R. B..  New York University Press.

Felius. M., Koolmees, P. A., Theunissen, B., Lenstra, J. A..  2011.  On the Breeds of Cattle—Historic and Current Classifications. Diversity 2011, 3, 660-692; doi: 10.3390/d3040660; ISSN 1424-2818;

The Geologist.  Bos Frontosus. (1862). The Geologist, 5(12), 441-442. doi:10.1017/S1359465600002173.  Cambridge University Press

Muhammad Akbar khan.  2016. Bos (Mammalia: Bovidae) from the Pinjor Formation of Sardhok, Pakistan. The University of Punjab, Department of Zoology.  (Bos_sardhok)

Martínez-Navarro, B., Rook, L., Papini, M., Libsekal, Y.. 2010. A new species of bull from the Early Pleistocene paleoanthropological site of Buia (Eritrea): Parallelism on the dispersal of the genus Bos and the Acheulian culture. Quaternary International 212 (2010) 169–175. (A new species of bull from the Early Pleistocene paleoanthropological)

Morse, E. W..  1912.  The ancestry of Domesticated Cattle.  Government Printing Office.

Rosengren, E..  August 2014.  Aurochs (Bos primigenius).  Lund University | LU · Department of Archaeology and Ancient History.

Van Vuure, Cis. 2003. De Oeros – Het spoor terug, Cis van Vuure, Wageningen University and Research Centrum / Ministry of the Flemish Community, Brussels & Wageningen.

Van Vuure, C. 2005. Retracing the Aurochs: History, Morphology and Ecology of an extinct wild ox. Sofia-Moscow:Pensoft Publishing.

Photo Credits:

Featured Image:  A Chillingham wild white cattle bull from

Bos acutifrons skull: