Why the Aurochs could not be domesticated.

” Historical descriptions, like Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico or Schneeberger, tell that aurochs were swift and fast, and could be very aggressive. According to Schneeberger, aurochs were not concerned when a man approached, but when teased or hunted, an aurochs could get very aggressive and dangerous, and throw the teasing person into the air, as he described in a 1602 letter to Gesner.[9]”

Much more dangerous than zebras.

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72 Responses to Why the Aurochs could not be domesticated.

  1. Frau Katze says:

    I admit it’s only Wikipedia but it says they were domesticated. The domesticated ones were quite different, so they have a different name.

    Worth noting that bulls are still prone to being dangerous. Dairy cattle are artificially inseminated and the few bulls are kept at special facilities. I learned that when I worked for Agriculture Canada (as a computer programmer).

    Zebras? Are you thinking of Jared Diamond saying they couldn’t be domesticated? I know nothing about that. Come to think of it, I’ve never heard of zebras menacing people.

  2. Sandgroper says:

    But maybe Aurochs were good fun to use for bull jumping. Minoan frescoes depict the bulls used for this were huge. Lots of moderns seem to doubt the reality behind these depictions, but I don’t. People do crazy shit for fun and giggles; girls as well as boys (well, I guess a subsector of girls who have less risk aversion, but then not all testosterone charged young males would be mad enough to try to somersault over a charging bull also – like, well, me, for example. I had way too many risky close calls with bulls as it was to actually go looking to play with the bloody things; but a mad bastard friend of mine was into bull riding in rodeos until his wife made him give it up; he’s now a blasting contractor in civil construction and quarrying/mining – it figures; his favourite trick is to stand on top of the shot, small ones, when he fires it; I tried it once – you get a hell of a ride.)

    Bulls are always bloody hazardous, even the domesticated ones – a girl working with cattle in the south of Western Australia was only very recently killed by being crushed against a fence post by a bull.

    • Sandgroper says:

      Yeah, the one Paul Bunyan gave the link for.

    • ohwilleke says:

      “he’s now a blasting contractor in civil construction and quarrying/mining – it figures; his favourite trick is to stand on top of the shot, small ones, when he fires it; I tried it once – you get a hell of a ride.”

      File under hobbies I don’t plan on taking up any time soon.

      • Sandgroper says:

        Andrew, yes, I got over it pretty fast myself. You only need one blasthole with insufficient stemming of the upper part of the hole and the blast goes upwards, where you are, instead of outwards where it is supposed to go.

    • Frau Katze says:

      Perhaps groups of cocky adventurous teenage boys were told, if you guys can bring that Auroch bull in with no injuries, the girls will be really impressed. Even the adult men would be impressed.

      Another dangerous animal is the wild boar. Maybe there’s some that aren’t. I don’t know. In any case, they were domesticated too.

      • TWS says:

        The bulls were probably semi wild for a long time after the cows had been teamed down. For horses it looks like there were a lot of different female lines of domestication but only one male line. The pay off for a calmer stallion would be enormous but that never happened with cattle. They keep getting mixed with local bulls. Maybe because you don’t typically ride them so the need want as acute for a calm critter.

      • Greying Wanderer says:

        baby animals

      • Jim says:

        When I lived in Guam as a child there were wild boars. Sometimes they invaded our play areas and we beat a quick retreat. They had mean looking tusks.

      • Jim says:

        How much would the girls be impressed if you got killed?

        • Frau Katze says:

          I see your point but you must admit there is a subset of men who like to do risky things.

          Like Columbus for example. He was taking a big risk, one that many early explorers took and lost.

          On balance, I think that nabbing baby Aurochsen was no doubt what they did.

          • Jim says:

            On all his exploration voyages Columbus was never closer to China than he was where he was born. He was a miserable failure.

      • ironrailsironweights says:

        Another dangerous animal is the wild boar. Maybe there’s some that aren’t. I don’t know. In any case, they were domesticated too.

        Feral hogs are a major invasive species in the southern US and in most areas can be hunted year-round with no bag limits. And not just with guns: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=atOzX0hNRPY


  3. dearieme says:

    It was probably at this blog that I learnt this.

    • Sandgroper says:

      There is a difference between taming a wild animal and domesticating it.

      Zebras are not domesticated (or have not been so far, to my knowledge), and would probably look quite a bit different if they were. Domestication of animals changes them in some pretty noticeable ways (see, for example, the fox domestication experiment). But they can be tamed, as evidenced by your link.

      Cattle are obviously domesticated, or the ones regularly utilised by humans are (gaur are still pretty big and scary looking, though, but I haven’t seen any comparison between wild gaur and domesticated ones to know to what extent they have been changed by domestication – I should look up “gayal”, which is the domesticated form of the gaur, to find out – I see that the gayal was produced by crossing wild gaur with domesticated cattle, so in that case it is obvious that they will have undergone some very notable physical changes) and have changed quite a bit in size, appearance, etc., but domesticated cattle, particularly bulls, might be notably not tame.

      Be grateful that most domesticated bulls are not the size of an aurochs bull, particularly in the northern areas of their range before extinction – they grew to 6 feet high or more at the shoulder (although there are a few breeds of domesticated cattle that are pretty huge) – they are dangerous enough animals as they are.

      • Smithie says:

        What I inferred from Diamond was that he was saying Zebras could not be domesticated because they could not be tamed. At any rate, I think if you can tame something you can probably breed it.

        I never really understood that part of his argument very well. Didn’t horses and aurochs have natural predators? Weren’t there not only wolves but also big cats in Europe? Let alone ancient hominids? Neanderthals ate rhinos and mammoths. I don’t think they would have considered aurochs and horses non-kosher.

        • Sandgroper says:

          You can domesticate something without taming it first.

          Pleistocene cave paintings by anatomically modern humans include nice pictures of aurochs, so it seems like a pretty safe bet that the humans hunted them. They hunted cave lions and bears and other things that must have scared the shit out of them. You either live in fear of something, or you confront it.

  4. MawBTS says:

    And that’s a description of aurochsen in the 17th century! The ancient strain of aurochs that was domesticated would presumably have been even bigger and scarier.

    (Usually when megafauna and man exist side by side, the megafauna gets smaller with time. Modern wild Amur tigers are substantially smaller and lighter than the ones recorded in the early 20th century. Probably a combination of hunt-induced selection and degrading natural habitat).

  5. another fred says:

    The Russian experiments on breeding foxes provides an example. I would not be surprised by success (varying, sure) with any animal given enough generations.


    • another fred says:

      Make that any mammal.

      • AppSocRes says:

        Humans seem to have done a pretty good job with birds also. If aquaculture weren’t so easy as it is, I’ve no doubt we’d do the same with fish. Some insects have been domesticated, e.g., the European honey bee. I’ve no doubt others could be and rather quickly, comparing their life cycles with those of domesticated mammals.

        • Tom Bri says:

          Speaking as a beekeeper (though novice), bees are not really domesticated. I got mine by catching feral swarms in baited traps. Unlike cows, bees can’t be fenced in.

          There has been some selective breeding done via artificial insemination, so some strains are tamer than others, some produce more honey etc, but any bee variety can and does take off for the hills and survives quite nicely. Most bee breeding is purely random. The queen flies and mates with whatever drones can catch her.

          • Jim says:

            But the different wild types can vary a lot in how mean they are. When I lived in Guam as a child I quickly learned to take the Guam bees much, much more seriously than US bees. The Guam bees meant business. They didn’t want you anywhere hear their nests.

    • Old fogey says:

      Thank you for the link. Note the much larger number of vixens in the tamed group.

  6. bb753 says:

    Wild horses were more aggressive than zebras. To domesticate an animal, you just need to be patient and keep taming and breeding the less aggressive individuals.

  7. Sandgroper says:

    I have just figured out what you are up to, Greg – you’re taking a shot at Jared Diamond for saying in Guns, Germs and Steel that zebras could not be domesticated. You know very well that aurochseses were domesticated during the Neolithic at least twice.

    That took me a while.

  8. AppSocRes says:

    LOL! I always thought Diamond’s argument about zebras versus horses was so obviously circular as to be silly. More recently, recent invaders of sub-Saharan Africa have made a good living from raising ostriches, an idea that never seems to have crossed the autochthones’s minds.

    A recent book on the history of domesticated animals is “Domesticated: Evolution in a Man-Made World” by Richard C. Francis. https://www.amazon.com/Domesticated-Evolution-Man-Made-Richard-Francis/dp/0393064603/ref=pd_sim_14_1/147-6353339-3396850?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=H4DRHH6YTTT4N73NB6ZA

    I found the chapters on (1) camels and llamas; and (2) rodents and lapids particularly interesting. One conclusion I drew from this book is that if humans have an inclination to domesticate something, they can always find raw materials ready to hand.

  9. Thagomizer says:

    A domesticated zebra would likely lose its distinct stripe pattern. So you’d be left with an ill-tempered horse.

    • gcochran9 says:

      You can breed for disposition. You would have ended up with a striped horse that was resistant to nagana and thus useful in southern Africa.

      • TWS says:

        They’re ugly in confirmation and their vocalizations are grating. I would prefer to engineer disease resistance in horses. Our natural friends…

  10. Aurochs were both swift AND fast? Wow, that’s quite a combo. No wonder they were so tough to deal with.

  11. Difference Maker says:

    Always wanted to be a rodeo rider

  12. Cavalier says:

    Cattle-raiding Kenyans.

  13. J says:

    Also don’t forget Asians domesticating/taming the elephant. Hannibal famously using war elephants to cross the alps.

    Or Scandinavians and Russians using tamed reindeer to travel by sled and for their milk.

    I’m sure there are other examples of difficult species to tame/domesticate as well.

  14. Pingback: Why the Aurochs could not be domesticated. | @the_arv

  15. Feirich says:

    I think the fixation on zebras really misses the forest for the trees, because it overlooks that while SS africa has a spotty record of domesticating native animals, SS africans have nonetheless widely adopted animals domesticated elsewhere and even developed their own indigenous varieties. Lactase persistence is high in much of west, central and east africa; the zebu cattle is particularly popular in these regions. Horses were widely used by west african muslim states and coastal non-muslim states. Nok terracotta art from roughly 2,000 years ago depicts men on horseback, and I’m sure there’s other evidence of . I’m sure there are other non-african animals that were widely used prior to colonialism. Even though they did not domesticate them originally, they seemingly had little difficulty widely adopting them and adapting them to local conditions for millenia. And through all this, they did domesticate two native animals, the guinea fowl and the pygmy goat.

    I agree though there’s probably no reason to believe zebras couldn’t be domesticated, but it might just be that certain animals can only be really domesticated by cultures of a certain level of development, or that something about the environment where zebras were found has made them difficult to domesticate. Zebras are primarily found in eastern and southern africa, the former of which has not been very suitable for agriculture, and things like the tsetse fly have also prevented more extensive human settlement. Maybe small-scale iron age farmers and herders in a largely savannah environment isn’t enough to commit to properly domesticating zebras, I don’t know. But south africa is excellent for agriculture and the tsetse fly (and other diseases) do not persist there, and zebras aren’t the only animal they have supposedly failed to domesticate. On the other hand, europeans don’t seem to have had particularly much success domesticating zebras even now, but maybe not enough effort has been expended on them.

    I can’t really say why the zebra was never domesticated. We don’t have any kind of comparative data on the behavior of aurochs (or aurochs from even further back) vs. zebras. I also can’t say why, despite the near-universal adoption of iron smelting, agriculture and animal husbandry by pre-colonial SS africans, with atleast some of these being developed indigenously (and extensive urbanization in much of pre-colonial west africa), many advanced cultural developments came so late to SS africa. Outside of east africa, it seems like bantus/nilotes have been the most culturally dynamic and advanced, in contrast to the various other peoples who were found throughout africa- largely lighter-skinned, khoisan/pygmy-like populations and archaics that were variously absorbed or completely exterminated during the bantu expansions. Why did so little happen in SS africa until the ancestors of the bantu came along?

    I’m not partial to Diamond’s assumption that all populations are bound to respond the same to the same environments and exploit and make use of their surroundings exactly the same, but I’m also not partial to the whole “the failure of africans to domesticate the zebra and other animals is incredible, and the only reason they failed to do this, after being in contact with them for perhaps hundreds of thousands of years, is because they’re really, really, really, REALLY stupid. Absolutely no other reason.”

    Like AppSocRes, who points to ostriches and thinks the uh, “autochthones” (niggers) never had it cross their minds to domesticate them. I guess it never crossed the minds of Ethiopians, the Egyptians, the Yemenis etc., since ostriches are found in east and northeast africa too.

    Maybe it’s because ostriches have never really been practical to domesticate, and even today, they’ve only been partially domesticated, because there’s limits to how far normal human domestication can go with some animals: https://www.thoughtco.com/who-really-domesticated-ostriches-169368

    “Ostriches have been domesticated for only about 150 years, and are truly only partly domesticated, or, rather, are only domesticated for a short period of their lives. Ostrich chicks are docile, but adult birds become quite aggressive towards humans, no matter how gentle the raising process. See Bonato et al. for a discussion.”

    • gcochran9 says:

      “SS africa has a spotty record of domesticating native animals”

      in terms of large mammals, zero.

      • Feirich says:

        Not denying that, but SS africa’s track record with animal husbandry overall isn’t bad. The tutsi have lactose tolerance rates of up to 90%. Other east africans are similarly impressive. Even the lactose tolerance rates you’ll find in unmixed west africans are far above east asians.

        It’s strange how much debate over GGS seems to come back to zebras- “Can they be tamed or domesticated? If they can then why didn’t africans do so?” It’s almost a form of Godwin’s law. Absent in these discussions and GGS itself is the relation of the various eastern and southern african groups to zebras. What are the attitudes of these ethnic groups towards them? Do they have testimonies of people who’ve tried and failed to tame them? Fables or mythology relating to this? What about the groups that have extensively kept cattle and are experienced with animal domestication?

        • gcochran9 says:

          Eland can be domesticated: it’s been done. And there are plenty of plants in SSA that could have been domesticated. His ‘they just weren’t suitable” line is bullshit.

          • Feirich says:

            Can’t find much info on the history of the domestication of the eland; I’m assuming this was done by Europeans? Could be another animal where domestication was only viable with agriculture. The earliest domesticated food and draft animals were done in tandem with the advent of farming, and just about all of them since. Africans might not have bothered with eland (and oryx and buffalo, as you’ve mentioned before) in large part because zebu was all they needed. Deer can also be domesticated, but most people have never really bothered with them.

            Did Diamond even make the argument that most animal domestication requires some form of agriculture?

            Might be worth looking into North America’s questionable record with animal domestication going by this old comment: https://westhunt.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/diamond-on-domestication/#comment-15614

            North American indians took remarkably well to horses though, and managed some impressive achievements with mostly stone technology.

            What plants are you referring to? I’ve heard people (mainly derived from people like Rushton) make claims over time of how plentiful edible plants are in africa, but they never actually specify any, or where in africa this is the case- most likely west and central africa, and not the large desert and savannah regions. There are many edible fruits indigenous to africa, and most fruits/vegetables have ended up that way due to human intervention. I’d imagine this has also been the case with african fruits.

  16. Feirich says:

    Didn’t consider that the horse was domesticated about 5,000-6,000 years ago, some thousands of years after agriculture was first developed, and I doubt a hunter-gatherer society could maintain a sizable breeding population of domesticated horses. Since agriculture was not introduced into east africa until a few thousand years ago, and southern africa even less, maybe the failure to tame/domesticate zebras (and other animals, like elephants) was in large part because of the recent arrival of farming populations, and committed efforts to domesticate zebras had simply not begun.

    Speaking of elephants, they’re also found in much of west africa (and were probably even more common in the past), even the sahel region, which has a lengthy history of urbanization and the most developed islamicized african civilizations. Arabs and berbers have long interacted with those regions, and they’ve long been home to racially mixed populations like the Tuareg, who have been highly influential in the development of that region, and the Fulani, who made significant military conquests throughout west africa in the late 18th-early 19th centuries. Both of these populations have high rates of lactose tolerance, the Tuareg higher than many European populations.

    But elephants in this region were never tamed either. Maybe african elephants really are a lot harder to tame, or there have just been other reasons- in the case of east africa, the savannah environment, largely devoid of trees, did not necessitate elephant taming for construction like in south/southeast asia, and the reliance on watering holes in east africa would have been a huge risk with elephants. I don’t think Diamond ever even bothered to dredge up these comparisons, which would have affirmed his point even more and potentially made africans look better- populations derived from a region where elephants were extensively tamed failed to do so in west africa.

    • gcochran9 says:

      “But elephants in this region were never tamed either. ”

      It’s been done. works the same way as in India. Hasn’t become common, though.

      • Feirich says:

        I was referring to pre-modern/pre-colonial efforts. Maybe they were tamed at times back then, but it seems to have been very rare. I have never heard of anything like elephants being ridden during Mansa Musa’s hajj or the Fulani using elephant cavalry during their jihads.

        • gcochran9 says:

          African elephants were tameable, but people in SSA never seem to have tamed them. That’s the point.

          Zebras can of course be tamed. You would have to select them for a number of generations before they became as friendly as horses, but judging from the Siberian fox experiment, it wouldn’t be particularly difficult.

          Zebras would have the advantage being able to survive in southern Africa: they are immune to nagana, a local trypanosomal disease that kills horses. The Brits were considering domesticating zebras, but advances in infectious disease research made it unnecessary.

          people in SSA were geographically isolated, but not utterly so: some ideas and techniques could trickle in from Egypt through Nubia and Ethiopia, and from Carthage, and eventually thru Islam. But in most ways sub-Saharan Africa was stony ground: other than the use of iron, they were behind the Inca and the MesoAmewrican civilizations, themselves some fourth thousand years behind Eurasia.

          Elephants on North Africa were tamed for war. There was a battle between Ptolmaic Egypt and the Seleucid Empire with Indian elephants on one side and (north) African elephants on the other.

  17. Feirich says:

    Bantus were very recent arrivals in southern africa though, and simply didn’t get the chance to properly exploit zebras in the long-run.

    I recall Diamond made the argument that if the Dutch never arrived in southern africa, given the region’s climate, indigenous civilization could have developed. The cape region has a mediterranean climate and Zimbabwe’s farmland is remarkably fertile. There is a history of many established stone settlements throughout southern africa (and various southern african groups have long built their settlements out of stone), but most of them never lasted long or were that impressive (though some haven’t been very well-studied, like the Bakoni ruins in Mpumalanga). Great Zimbabwe is well known to have had contacts with the Swahili on the coast, and developed partially through trade.

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