The aurochs, the ancestor of domestic cattle, was a type of huge wild cattle which inhabited Europe, Asia and North Africa, but is now extinct; it survived in Europe until 1627.
The aurochs were far larger than most modern domestic cattle with a shoulder height of 2 metres (6.6 ft) and weight of 1,000 kilograms (2,200 lb). The aurochs was regarded as a challenging hunting quarry animal, contributing to its extinction. The last recorded aurochs, a female, died in 1627 in the Jaktorów Forest, Poland, and her skull is now the property of the Livrustkammaren (“Royal Armory”) museum in Stockholm, Sweden.
Representations and descriptions of aurochs appear in prehistoric cave paintings, in Julius Caesar’s The Gallic War, and as the national symbol of many European countries, states and cities such as Alba-Iulia, Kaunas,Romania, Moldavia, Turka, Mecklenburg, and Uri. The Swiss canton Uri was named after this animal species.
Domestication of bovines occurred in several parts of the world but at roughly the same time, about 8,000 years ago, possibly all derived from the aurochs. In 1920, the Heck brothers, who were German biologists, attempted to recreate aurochs. The resulting cattle are known as Heck cattle or Reconstructed Aurochs, and number in the thousands in Europe today. However, they are genetically and physiologically distinct from aurochs. The Heck brothers’ aurochs also have a pale yellow dorsal stripe, instead of white.
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 theThar Desert; this would explain the zebu’s resistance to drought. Domestic yak, gayal and Javan cattle do not descend from aurochs. Modern cattle have become much smaller than their wild forebears. Aurochs were about 1.75 metres (5 ft 9 in) tall, while a very large domesticated cow is about 1.5 metres (4 ft 11 in) and most domestic cattle are much smaller than this. Aurochs also had several features rarely seen in modern cattle, such aslyre-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.