(Bos taurus primigenius
) was a very large type of cattle that was prevalent in Europe until its extinction
in 1627. The animal's original scientific name, Bos primigenius
, was meant as a Latin
translation of the German
, which was (possibly incorrectly) interpreted as literally meaning "primeval ox" or "proto-ox". This scientific name is now considered invalid by ITIS
, who classify aurochs under Bos taurus
, the same species as domestic cattle. In 2003, however, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature
"conserved the usage of 17 specific names based on wild species, which are pre-dated 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 should use B. primigenius taurus
; the name B. taurus
remains available for domestic cattle where it is considered to be a separate species.
English-language nomenclature variations
The word aurochs
(or /ˈɔrɒks/) comes to English from German, where its normative spelling and declension
today is Auerochs/Auerochse
(pl). The declension in English varies, being either aurochs
(pl) or aurochs
(pl). The declension auroch
(pl), acknowledged by MWU, is a back-formation analogous to pea-from-pease
derived from a misinterpretation of the singular form's ending in the /s/ sound (being cognate to ox/Ochs(e)
). The use in English of the plural form aurochsen
is not acknowledged by AHD4 or MWU, but is mentioned in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language
. It is directly parallel to the German plural and analogous (and cognate
) to English ox
The word urus (/ˈjʊərəs/) comes to English from Latin, but came to Latin from Germanic origins. It declines in English as urus (sg), uruses (pl)., The Germanic aurochs itself is from the combination of the urus root with Ochs(e), "ox". Although the aur-/ur- syllable has often been interpreted as being cognate with Germanic ur- meaning "original/proto-", it may have come from another root referring to water.
The words aurochs, urus, and wisent have all been used synonymously in English., However, the extinct aurochs/urus is a completely separate species from the still-extant wisent (the European bison).
According to the Paleontologisk Museum, University of Oslo, aurochs evolved in India some two million years ago, migrated into the Middle East and further into Asia, and reached Europe about 250,000 years ago. They were once considered a distinct species from modern European cattle (Bos taurus), but more recent taxonomy has rejected this distinction. The South Asian domestic cattle, or zebu, descended from a different group of aurochs at the edge of the Thar Desert in India; this would explain zebu resistance to drought. Domestic yak, gayal and Javan cattle do not descend from aurochs. Modern cattle have become much smaller than their wild forebears: the height at the withers of a large domesticated cow is about 1.5 meters (5 feet, 15 hands), whereas aurochs were about 1.75 meters (5.75 feet, 17 hands). Aurochs also had several features rarely seen in modern cattle, such as lyre-shaped horns set at a forward angle, a pale stripe down the spine, and sexual dimorphism of coat color. Males were black with a pale eel stripe or finching down the spine, while females and calves were reddish (these colours are still found in a few domesticated cattle breeds, such as Jersey cattle). Aurochs were also known to have very aggressive temperaments and killing one was seen as a great act of courage in ancient cultures.
At one time there existed three aurochs subspecies, namely Bos primigenius namadicus
(Falconer, 1859) that occurred in India, the Bos primigenius mauretanicus
(Thomas, 1881) from North Africa and naturally the Bos primigenius primigenius
(Bojanus, 1827) from Europe and the Middle East. Only the European subspecies has survived until recent times.
Domestication and extinction
Domestication of the aurochs began in the southern Caucasus and northern Mesopotamia from about the 6th millennium BC, while genetic evidence suggests that aurochs were independently domesticated in northern Africa and in India. Domestication caused dramatic changes to the physiology of the creatures, to the extent that domestic cattle have been regarded as a separate species (see above).
Genetic analysis of aurochs bones and of modern cattle has provided many insights about the aurochs. Though aurochs became extinct in Britain during the Bronze age, analysis of bones from aurochs that lived contemporaneously with domesticated cattle there showed no genetic contribution to modern breeds. As a result, modern European cattle are now thought to be descended directly from the Near East domestication process. Indian cattle (zebu), although domesticated eight to ten thousand years ago, are related to aurochs which diverged from the Near Eastern ones some 200,000 years ago. The African cattle are thought to descend from aurochs more closely related to the Near Eastern ones. The Near East and African aurochs groups are thought to have split some 25,000 years ago, probably 15,000 years before domestication. The "Turano-Mongolian" type of cattle now found in Northern China, Mongolia, Korea and Japan may represent a fourth domestication event (and a third event among Bos taurus–type aurochs). This group may have diverged from the Near East group some 35,000 years ago. Whether these separate genetic populations would have equated to separate subspecies is unclear.
The original range of the aurochs was from the British Isles and southern Scandinavia, to northern Africa, the Middle East, India and central Asia. By the 13th century A.D., the aurochs' range was restricted to Poland, Lithuania, Moldavia, Transylvania and East Prussia. The right to hunt large animals on any land was restricted to nobles and gradually to the royal household. As the population of aurochs declined, hunting ceased but the royal court still required gamekeepers to provide open fields for the aurochs to graze in. The gamekeepers were exempted from local taxes in exchange for their service and a decree made poaching an aurochs punishable by death. In 1564, the gamekeepers knew of only 38 animals, according to the royal survey. The last recorded live aurochs, a female, died in 1627 in the Jaktorów Forest, Poland. The skull was later taken by the Swedish Army during the Swedish invasion of Poland (1655–1660) and is now the property of Livrustkammaren in Stockholm.
In the 1920s two German zoo directors (in Berlin and Munich), the brothers Heinz and Lutz Heck, attempted to breed the aurochs "back into existence" (see breeding back) from the domestic cattle that were their descendants. Their plan was based on the concept that a species is not extinct as long as all its genes are still present in a living population. The result is the breed called Heck Cattle, "Recreated Aurochs", or "Heck Aurochs", which bears an incomplete resemblance to what is known about the physiology of the wild aurochs.
Aurochs in art, history, mythology, and media
- Aurochs are depicted in many Paleolithic European cave paintings such as those found at Lascaux and Livernon in France. Early carvings of the aurochs have also been found. The impressive and dangerous aurochs survived into the Iron Age in Anatolia and the Near East, and was worshipped throughout that area as a sacred animal, the Lunar Bull, associated with the Great Goddess and later with Mithras.
- Aurochs are depicted on the Ishtar Gate.
- A 1999 archaeological dig in Peterborough, England, uncovered the skull of an aurochs. The front part of the skull had been removed but the horns remained attached. The supposition is that the killing of the aurochs in this instance was a sacrificial act.
- The wild-ox called re'em (Strong's # 07214) in the Bible (Numbers 23:22 and 24:8, Deuteronomy 33:17, Job 39:9-10, Psalms 22:21, 29:6, 92:10 and Isaiah 34:7) is occasionally associated with the aurochs and has incorrectly been translated as "unicorn" in the past (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Entry for 'Wild Ox', Copyright, 1939, by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.).
- Julius Caesar wrote about them in Gallic War Chapter 6.28, "...those animals which are called uri. These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied. These the Germans take with much pains in pits and kill them. The young men harden themselves with this exercise, and practice themselves in this sort of hunting, and those who have slain the greatest number of them, having produced the horns in public, to serve as evidence, receive great praise. But not even when taken very young can they be rendered familiar to men and tamed. The size, shape, and appearance of their horns differ much from the horns of our oxen. These they anxiously seek after, and bind at the tips with silver, and use as cups at their most sumptuous entertainments."
- An aurochs head, the traditional arms of the German region Mecklenburg, is included in the coat of arms of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. The aurochs ("bour" in Romanian) was also the symbol of Moldavia; nowadays they can be found in the coat of arms of both Romania and Moldova. The horn of the aurochs is a charge of coat of arms of Tauragė, Lithuania. It is also present in the emblem of Kaunas, Lithuania, and was part of the emblem of Bukovina during its time as a Kronland of Austria-Hungary.
- The last lines of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita are: "I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita."
- East Slavic surnames Turenin, Turishchev, Turov, Turovsky originate from the East Slavic name of the species (Tur).
- Aurochs are a type of creature in the trading card game Magic: The Gathering.
- Besaid Aurochs are the name of "Blitzball" team in the Final Fantasy X game, Besaid meaning the area the team lives in. Blitzball is featured as a minigame.
- Lamborghini has named a 2008 concept car the Urus, continuing its tradition of using bull-related names on its cars.
- American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition (AHD4). Houghton Mifflin, 2000. Headwords aurochs, urus, wisent.
- Bunzel-Drüke, M. 2001. Ecological substitutes for Wild Horse (Equus ferus Boddaert, 1785 = E. przewalslii Poljakov, 1881) and Aurochs (Bos primigenius Bojanus, 1827). Natur- und Kulturlandschaft, Höxter/Jena, 4, 10 p. AFKP. Online pdf (298 kB)
- C. Julius Caesar. Caesar's Gallic War. Translator. W. A. McDevitte. Translator. W. S. Bohn. 1st Edition. New York. Harper & Brothers. 1869. Harper's New Classical Library.
- International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. 2003. Opinion 2027 (Case 3010). Usage of 17 specific names based on wild species which are pre-dated by or contemporary with those based on domestic animals (Lepidoptera, Osteichthyes, Mammalia): conserved. Bull.Zool.Nomencl., 60:81-84.
- Merriam-Webster Unabridged (MWU). (Online subscription-based reference service of Merriam-Webster, based on Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002.) Headword aurochs. Accessed 2007-06-02.
- Shaffer, Jim G. (1995). Cultural tradition and Palaeoethnicity in South Asian Archaeology. In: Indo-Aryans of Ancient South Asia. Ed. George Erdosy. ISBN 8121507901
- Shaffer, Jim G. (1999). Migration, Philology and South Asian Archaeology. In: Aryan and Non-Aryan in South Asia. Ed. Bronkhorst and Deshpande. ISBN 1-888789-04-2.
- Vuure, T. van. 2002. History, morphology and ecology of the Aurochs (Bos primigenius). Lutra 45-1. Online pdf (603 kB)
- Vuure, C. van. 2005. Retracing the Aurochs: History, Morphology and Ecology of an Extinct Wild Ox. Pensoft Publishers. Sofia-Moscow.
- Wilson, Don E. and DeeAnn M. Reeder: Mammals.