Cattle Throughout History

Introduction
Lascaux Caves
Egypt
Greece and Rome
India
Europe During the Dark Ages
Taurus, the Bull
Mrs. OLeary's Cow
May Echo Sylvia
Elsie the Cow 

Introduction

Cattle have been one of the principle building blocks of human civilization. Their role as a source of food and as a beast of burden was at the center of the primitive agricultural economies that were the foundation of all later human civilizations.

The domestication of the aurochs -- the large, hollow-horned ancestor of all modern cattle -- is believed to have taken place on the Asian steppes between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago. Domestication resulted in changes in the animal's appearance. It gradually shed its originally massive horns, because human protection made these weapons unnecessary for self-defense. The aurochs' long, thick, earth-toned hair became shorter and more brightly colored. Domestication and the introduction of cattle into warmer climates rendered long hair superfluous for warmth. Bright, distinctive hides helped to identify a cow's owner and increased the animal's value as a trade item.

Bulls and cows figured prominently in early religion and art. Some of the earliest surviving religious iconography in the world -- the painted walls of the Lascaux Caves in France -- depict hunting expeditions against aurochs-like beasts. These paintings -- created at least 17,000 years ago -- are believed to have been associated with rituals designed to invoke divine assistance in subduing these ferocious but life-sustaining animals. Later, virtually every early civilization accorded sacred status to cattle -- most prominently in India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa, Minoan Crete and among the Celts of ancient Europe.

Cattle were important indicators of economic, social and political status in early civilizations. Wealth was counted and traded in cattle. Tribute, dowries and fines were paid in cattle. Grazing rights and herd ownership were perennial causes of human conflict. Cows even served as war auxiliaries.They were ridden into battle when horses were in short supply as late as the Middle Ages. The amrit mahal of Mysore in India were a sub-species of cattle specially bred for ferocity in war.

Selective breeding was practiced in Mesopotamia as early as 5000 B.C. But it was the agricultural revolution in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries A.D. that ushered in the modern era of cattle management. Selective breeding on the basis of accepted scientific principles and the specialization of cattle for milk production, meat production or labor quickly followed. Improved agricultural practices yielded better fodder and resulted in bigger, stronger and more productive animals. These trends have continued at an accelerating pace ever since. The modern dairy cow is a tribute to man's ability to first control and then modify his environment so as to better his lot in life. It is also a tribute to the astonishing adaptive capabilities of this amazing animal.


Lascaux Caves

In the Lascaux Caves in southwestern France, 17,000 year old ritualistic paintings depict early man battling ferocious bulls. These animals are thought to be representations of the aurochs, the giant ancestors of modern cows. Aurochs once roamed throughout western Asia, Europe and northern Africa. Aurochs skulls discovered in Britain are three feet in length with the points of their horns three-and-one-half feet apart.

Incredibly, the aurochs survived long after it had been used to create succeeding breeds of cattle. Julius Caesar encountered the animals during his invasion of Britain in the 1st century B.C. He wrote that, "In size these are but little inferior to elephants, although in appearance, color and form they are bulls." According to legend, the last aurochs died in a remote corner in Poland in 1627.


Egypt

Egyptian records describe three kinds of cattle that played a major role in the development of civilization in the Nile Valley -- long-horned, hornless and humped (or Zebu). The Egyptians valued cows for their milk and the cheese it yielded, as well as for their meat. They assisted farmers in their fields; were used to power grain mills and irrigation works; and were offered to the gods as sacrifices.

The Egyptians believed that cows and bulls were earthly manifestations of their gods. The Apis bull was considered the most sacred animal in Egypt. The Apis was believed to be the reincarnation of the god Ptah. While alive, he was housed in a paddock fitted out like a palace, bathed in scented waters, decorated with jeweled collars and fed elaborate feasts. When he died, he was mummified and buried with great pomp in a huge underground tomb called the Serapeum. The priests would then search throughout Egypt for a calf with the mystical hide markings that told them a new Apis had been born.


Greece and Rome

Milk, butter and cheese were important dietary items in Greece (from as early as 1500 B.C.) and Rome (from about 750 B.C.). In both cultures, dairy products became important articles of commerce. Cows were so important that barter transactions and wealth were measured in terms of cattle. Cows and bulls were common sacrificial animals in Greek and Roman religious rites. On Crete during the Minoan Age, religion appears to have centered on cattle. Cattle horns were the predominant religious icon and the ritualistic sport of bull leaping was practiced by youths during religious festivals. According to Greek myth, a terrible half-man, half-bull monster called the Minotaur lived in an underground labyrinth on Crete. The Minotaur was thought to cause earthquakes and could be propitiated only with human sacrifice.


India

Cows were considered sacred animals in India by 1000 B.C. The Hindu concept of ahimsa -- the unity of all life -- and an invocation by the god Indra led to the cow's status as an inviolate animal. Still today, they are allowed to wander freely and are never eaten. Hindus believe that the cow is one of four things that came from the Creator's face. They have many hymns celebrating these holy animals and cows are spoken of as "mothers to all beings." In Hindu ritual, milk is the libation commonly poured over the lingam of the temple. In the Nilgiri hills, even dairymen were considered sacred and could not be touched by anyone except another dairyman.


Europe During the Dark Ages

During the Dark Ages, the art of cheese making made great strides in European monasteries. Cheese remained an important trade item among European peoples. It provided a good way to preserve milk in an era without mechanical refrigeration. In consequence, cheese has continued to figure prominently in European diets to this day. In France, especially, cheese is a staple: there are said to be 300 varieties available for Frenchmen to enjoy.

The Celtic Irish "high king" was selected by means of a ceremony called the tardfies or "bull dream." During a gathering of the clans at the national shrine at Tara, a white bull would be ceremoniously slain. The chief druid or priest would eat some of the bull's flesh, causing him to enter into a powerful trance. It was while the priest was in the throes of this "bull dream" that the new high king's name would be revealed to him.


Taurus, the Bull

Taurus is the second sign of the zodiac. People born under this sign (between April 21 and May 22) are supposed to possess the bull-like characteristics of patience, persistence and obstinacy.


Mrs. O'Leary's Cow

According to popular legend, a cow owned by Mrs. Catherine O'Leary kicked over a lantern and started the great fire that destroyed much of Chicago in October 1871. The fire laid waste 2,150 acres of the city, destroying over 17,000 buildings and property valued at $200,000,000. At least 117 people were killed and 90,000 others left homeless. The cow also perished, though ironically the O'Leary home survived.

Most modern historians dismiss the O'Leary legend. Although the fire unquestionably began in her barn, the official inquiry exonerated Mrs. O'Leary. It made no mention of a cow, suggesting that the story was made up after the fact. Indeed, several individuals later claimed that they had invented the story of the cow and the lantern. Many other explanations -- a chimney spark, a drunken neighbor, boys smoking, anarchists and even a meteor -- have been advanced as the real cause of the conflagration. Today, the Chicago Fire Academy occupies the site of the O'Leary barn.


May Echo Sylvia

May Echo Sylvia achieved worldwide fame in 1918 as the only cow ever known to have produced 152 pounds of milk in one day; 1,005 pounds in seven days; and 12,899 pounds in one hundred days. Today, U.S. cows produce an average of 16,835 pounds of milk in one year. Mr. E.A. Stuart was so impressed by Sylvia's performance that he paid $106,000 for one of her baby bulls -- the largest sum ever spent on a calf.


Elsie the Cow

Elsie began life as a cartoon character in medical journal advertising in the 1930s. She was initially known as "Flossie the Cow" and then "Bessie the Cow." The Borden Company adopted her as its corporate mascot and dubbed her "Elsie." Since then, real life Elsies have starred in movies and appeared at wartime bond sales, charity events and countless state and county fairs.