The Story Of... Cattle
The most emblematic livestock animal of the all-conquering
Eurasian agricultural package, the modern cow is descended from an
ancient wild ancestor that was native throughout Europe, Asia and
North Africa at the end of the Ice Age, and domesticated by the earliest
Neolithic farmers around 8000 years ago.
Cattle were not the first large mammals to be domesticated by humans
– they were probably beaten to the punch by goats and sheep – but
it is the humble cow, and her partner, the ox, who have made the
greatest impact on agricultural productivity around the world.
||The mighty cow, arguably the
foundation of modern western civilization
Cattle are the most versatile domesticated animals on the planet.
When killed for meat, their carcass yields oil, fat, bone, twine
and other useful materials, while their hides give us leather for
clothes, shoes and shelter. During their lifespan they provide milk,
which can be turned into cream, butter, cheese and yogurt; they
can bear heavy loads, or pull plows and carts; they tolerate being
tethered to other animals and improve their load-bearing capacity
as a result; they provide tons of nutritious fertilizer and consume
some of the by-products of arable farming. Before the industrial
revolution, beasts of burden like the humble cow were the most powerful
machines on the planet.
So how did they ever become domesticated, and placed under
As Jared Diamond observes in his book Guns, Germs, and
Steel – Domesticable animals are all alike [but] every
undomesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way. Incredibly,
of the millions of species of animals that exist in our world, only
14 large mammals have ever been domesticated. That's because they
were the only 14 to fulfil all four basic criteria for domestication.
And none fulfilled them as magnificently as the cow.
What do you look for in a domesticated animal?
Domesticated animals have got to be large, to be worth the effort
of human control. Their primary purpose, after all, is to provide
their owners with a steady and reliable source of meat – and there's
not much meat on a mouse, or a monkey. Livestock might also be required
to bear heavy weights – including human riders – or pull a heavy
load, so, by default, most domesticated mammals tend to weigh over
100 pounds. Modern cattle can weigh anywhere between 800 and 4000
pounds, whilst their ancestor, the aurochs (Bos Primigenius), was
even larger, standing more than 6 feet tall at the shoulder.
It's no good trying to catch and domesticate a large load-bearing
mammal, if it's got a nasty temper! Any animal weighing over 100
pounds is capable of killing a man with a single kick – so the earliest
farmers deliberately targeted those species that tended towards
docility amongst humans, and a predictable, herd mentality. Species
they ruled out included solitary predators like large wild cats;
gazelle, whose tendency to panic and bolt made them impractical
to catch and pen; and even relatives of the aurochs, such as the
ancestors of modern day bison – unpredictable giant mammals with
a habit of stampeding without provocation. By contrast, the modern
cow is famous for her sweet-natured temperament, content to graze
in heavily managed herds, chewing cud and watching the world go
3. Growth rate
||The cow is content
to be in a herd under human control
Large, generally docile mammals who then take years to mature, can
also be ruled out. To be economically viable, domesticated animals
should grow quickly and reach their full potential within a few
years. This criteria rules out elephants, for example, who can take
up to fifteen years to reach adult size. At heart, domestication
has an economic incentive, and some propositions are better than
others. Cattle take just two or three years to mature.
Finally, it's simply a waste of time and effort to feed, raise or
capture one animal, only to have to then feed it to another. The
best animals for domestication are herbivores, or at a push, omnivores
– and the cow will happily eat only grass. She'll also consume a
huge proportion of the inedible by-products of arable farming –
wheat, barley and rice hay – doing humans an additional favor along
So, what is the wannabe farmer left with?
He must capture a large, docile herbivore, weighing over 100 pounds,
content to be part of a herd under human control.
Of the fourteen mammals which have ever wholly conformed to this
profile, nine of them are still confined to limited parts of the
Only five have become ubiquitous farmyard animals across our planet.
Those five are the goat, the sheep, the pig, the horse, and – our
champion – the cow.
Their ability to provide meat, dairy and draft while reproducing
themselves and eating nothing but grass, has made cows a source
of wonder throughout human history – objects of worship, even –
to which European civilization may owe its very existence.
Where to next?
Get the "Story of..." the Goat,
Sheep, Pig, Llama,
Horse, or Zebra.