Animals & the Environment: The Lost Auroch

By Savannah Troy

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Before there was agriculture, there was the wilderness. Instead of farming, our ancient ancestors were forced to forage and hunt, gaining little caloric reward for the amount of labor required to obtain food. After spending thousands of years gradually establishing dominance over their surroundings—selectively breeding plants to make the fruits larger and more accessible, capturing and breeding animals until they became tame—humans eventually became farmers instead of gatherers. Now, in a technologically advanced society, one of the critically important organisms to our species’ agricultural success is the cow. Dairy and cattle products account for hundreds of millions in annual profit towards the United States’ agricultural industry, and are integral to our society’s culture in many respects.

Even though cattle are fundamentally important to modern human agriculture, we were unable to preserve their wild ancestor, the auroch. About 10,000 years ago, two separate groups of humans began domesticating aurochs, which led to the evolution of zebu cattle and taurine cattle lines. Aurochs were beasts to behold, and captivated the imaginations of humans up until their demise in the 1600’s. The auroch, or Bos primigenius, inhabited Europe and stood apart as one of the largest mammals in the region. Weighing up to 1,500 lbs and sporting a set of horns that were up to 31 inches long and 8 inches in diameter, these animals were incredibly imposing creatures. They are depicted throughout the arc of human history, from the cultural artifacts of the Lascaux cave paintings to medieval art and literature, and nearly always portrayed in a light of reverence and power.

The auroch’s decline was due to habitat loss and overhunting by humans. After the auroch’s range shrank down to only a few regions in Eastern Europe, 13th century courts began restricting hunting of the animal in an early conservation effort. Despite the work of medieval gamekeepers, the last known auroch died in 1627 in Poland. The allure of the auroch’s power remained after their death, however. Numerous efforts to genetically recreate the animal, first by back breeding and now with the help of modern genetic technology, have popped up over the ages. The most interesting case was the attempt made by the Heck brothers in Nazi-era Germany, which produced a hearty strain of cattle called Heck cattle but failed to actually recreate the auroch. Other auroch recreation projects have spun off from the Heck cattle, including the modern Tauros rewilding project. Though none have succeeded yet, we may one day be living in a world where ancient, herbivorous giants reclaim the forests.

What animal would you choose to see if you could resurrect one from the past? How would you depict it and its history? Show us!