The docile cattle seen on farms today are descendants of a much wilder, fiercer, and bigger ancestor: the aurochs. Now extinct in the wild, the aurochs once roamed in herds across Europe and Asia. Stone Age people hunted these fearsome animals and made paintings of them in caves. Wild aurochs survived in Europe until 1627, when the last animal was killed in Poland.
■ When: 2 million–500 years ago
■ Fossil location: Europe, Africa, Asia
■ Habitat: Forests
■ Length: 9 ft (2.7 m)
■ Diet: Grass, fruit, and plants
Much larger than a domestic cow, the aurochs weighed about a ton and had a very powerful, muscular neck and shoulders, and huge, curved, forwardfacing horns. Long feet and high ankles made it a fast runner, and it could also swim short distances. Males may have had a black coat and females a reddish brown one. Both had a pale stripe along the spine.
What the Heck?
In the 1920s, two German brothers, Heinz and Lutz Heck, tried to breed the aurochs back into existence. The brothers found breeds of domestic cow with aurochs-like qualities, such as the large horned highland cattle of Scotland and the fierce fighting bulls of Spain. By crossing the breeds, they produced a new variety—heck cattle—that looks like a small aurochs.
About 8,000 years ago, people in Iraq and India learned how to tame aurochs and raise them for milk, meat, and hides. Over time, as breeders selected ever smaller and calmer animals, the aurochs evolved into the domestic cow. Although modern cattle look very different from wild aurochs, they belong to the same species.