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The aurochs or urus (Bos primigenius) 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 was far larger than most modern domestic cattle with a shoulder height of and weighing . Domestication occurred in several parts of the world at roughly the same time, about 8,000 years ago. It was regarded as a challenging quarry animal, contributing to its extinction.

The last recorded live aurochs, a female, died in 1627 in the Jaktorów Forest, Polandmarker and its skull is now the property of Livrustkammarenmarker in Stockholmmarker.

Aurochs appear in prehistoric cave paintings, Julius Caesar's The Gallic War and as the national symbol of many European countries, states and cities such as Alba-Iulia, Kaunasmarker, Romaniamarker, Moldavia, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and Urimarker.

In 1920, German biologists the Heck brothers attempted to recreate aurochs. The resulting cattle breeds, known as Heck cattle and Reconstructed Aurochs, number in the thousands in Europe today with varying resemblance to original aurochs but without such impressive size or wild behavior.


This specimen is from around 7500 BC and is one of two very well preserved aurochs skeletons found in Denmark.
The Vig-aurochs can be seen at The National Museum of Denmark.
The circles indicate where the animal was wounded by arrows.
The words "aurochs", "urus", and "wisent" have all been used synonymously in English. However, the extinct aurochs/urus is a completely separate species from the still-extant wisent (the European bison).

The animal's original scientific name, Bos primigenius, was meant as a Latin translation of the German term or , which was (possibly incorrectly) interpreted as literally meaning "primeval ox" or "proto-ox". This scientific name is now considered invalid by Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS), who classify aurochs under —the same species as domestic cattle. In 2003, however, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature "conserved the usage of 17 specific names based on wild species, which are pre-dated by or contemporary with those based on domestic forms", confirming Bos primigenius for the Aurochs. Taxonomists who consider domesticated cattle a subspecies of the wild Aurochs should use B. primigenius taurus; the name B. taurus remains available for domestic cattle where it is considered to be a separate species.

The word aurochs ( or ) comes to English from German, where its normative spelling and declension today is (singular), (genitive), (plural). The declension in English varies, being either " " (singular), " " (plural) or " " (singular), " " (plural). The declension "auroch" (singular), "aurochs" (plural), acknowledged by MWU, is a back-formation analogous to "pea"-from-"pease" derived from a misinterpretation of the singular form's ending in the /s/ sound (being cognate to "ox/Ochs(e)"). The use in English of the plural form " " is not acknowledged by AHD4 or MWU, but is mentioned in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. It is directly parallel to the German plural and analogous (and cognate) to English " " (singular), " " (plural).

The word urus ( ) comes to English from Latin, but may have come to Latin from Germanic origins. It declines in English as " " (singular), " " (plural). The Germanic itself has evolved from the Proto-Indo-European , just like Ancient Greek ( ), Latin and Slavic (Proto-Slavic: * ).


According to the Paleontologisk Museum, University of Oslomarker, aurochs evolved in Indiamarker 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 the Thar Desert; this would explain the zebus 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 tall, while a large domesticated cow is about and most domestic cattle are much smaller than this. Aurochs also had several features rarely seen in modern cattle, such as lyre-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.


At one time there existed three aurochs subspecies, (Falconer, 1859) that occurred in India, (Thomas, 1881) from North Africa and (Bojanus, 1827) from Europe and the Middle East. Only the European subspecies survived until recent times.

Behavioral patterns

The recovery pattern of aurochs remains lead to the belief that they prefered swampy and wet wooded areas and, like modern cattle, could swim for short distances allowing them to inhabit islands within their swimming range. Their diet is thought to have consisted of green grass and leaves with occasional tree fruits. Aurochs species were found to have lived on the island of Sicily where once there was a land bridge to Italy. After dissapearance of the land bridge, Sicillian aurochs evolved to a size 20% smaller than their mainland relatives. Although the European bison prefers drier forest they would most certainly have lived in areas overlapping aurochs territory. Little else is known about Aurochs habits. Although they survived until the 17th century in Poland they were in competition with modern cattle for food and hunted by humans contributing to their extinction.

Domestication and extinction

Skull of an aurochs.
Domestication of the aurochs began in the southern Caucasus and northern Mesopotamia from about the 6th millennium BC, while genetic evidence suggests that aurochs were independently domesticated in northern Africa and in Indiamarker. The modern domesticated cattle descended from the aurochs are so different in size that they have been regarded as a separate species.

Comparison of aurochs bones with those of modern cattle has provided many insights about the aurochs. Remains of the beast, from specimens believed to have weighed more than a ton, have been found in Mesolithic sites around Goldcliffmarker, Walesmarker. Though aurochs became extinct in Britain during the Bronze age, analysis of bones from aurochs that lived in the same age as domesticated cattle there showed no genetic contribution to modern breeds. As a result, modern European cattle are now thought to have descended directly from the Near East domestication event. Indian cattle (zebu), although domesticated eight to ten thousand years ago, are related to aurochs which diverged from the Near Eastern ones some 200,000 years ago. African cattle are thought to descend from aurochs more closely related to the Near Eastern ones. The Near East and African aurochs groups are thought to have split some 25,000 years ago, probably 15,000 years before domestication. The "Turano-Mongolian" type of cattle now found in Northern China, Mongolia, Korea and Japan may represent a fourth domestication event (and a third event among Bos taurus–type aurochs). This group may have diverged from the Near East group some 35,000 years ago. Whether these separate genetic populations would have equated to separate subspecies is unclear.

The original range of the aurochs was from Britainmarker and Irelandmarker and southern Scandinavia, to northern Africa, the Middle East, Indiamarker and central Asia. By the 13th century A.D., the aurochs' range was restricted to Polandmarker, Lithuaniamarker, Moldavia, Transylvania and East Prussia. The right to hunt large animals on any land was restricted to nobles and gradually to the royal household. As the population of aurochs declined, hunting ceased but the royal court still required gamekeepers to provide open fields for the aurochs to graze in. The gamekeepers were exempted from local taxes in exchange for their service and a decree made poaching an aurochs punishable by death. In 1564, the gamekeepers knew of only 38 animals, according to the royal survey. The last recorded live aurochs, a female, died in 1627 in the Jaktorów Forest, Polandmarker. The skull was later taken by the Swedish Army during the Swedish invasion of Poland (1655–1660) and is now the property of Livrustkammarenmarker in Stockholmmarker.

Attempts at breeding back

In the 1920s two German zoo directors (in Berlinmarker and Munichmarker), the brothers Heinz and Lutz Heck, began a selective breeding program in the attempt to breed the aurochs back into existence (see breeding back) from the domestic cattle that were their descendants. Their plan was based on the concept that a species is not extinct as long as all its genes are still present in a living population. The result is the breed called Heck cattle, "Recreated Aurochs", or "Heck Aurochs", which bears some resemblance to what is known about the appearance of the wild aurochs.

Aurochs in art, history, mythology, and media

  • Aurochs are depicted in many Paleolithic European cave paintings such as those found at Lascauxmarker and Livernonmarker in Francemarker. Early carvings of the aurochs have also been found. The impressive and dangerous aurochs survived into the Iron Age in Anatoliamarker and the Near East, and was worshipped throughout that area as a sacred animal, the Lunar Bull, associated with the Great Goddess and later with Mithras.
  • A 1999 archaeological dig in Peterboroughmarker, England, uncovered the skull of an aurochs. The front part of the skull had been removed but the horns remained attached. The supposition is that the killing of the aurochs in this instance was a sacrificial act.
  • Aurochs are depicted on the Ishtar Gatemarker.
  • The ancient name of the Estonianmarker town of Rakveremarker, Tarwanpe or Tarvanpea, probably derives from Auroch's head (Tarva pea) in ancient Estonian. A 3.5m high and 7.1m long Statue of an Aurochs was opened in Rakvere in 2002, for the town's 700th birthday. The sculpture, made by artist Tauno Kangro, has become a symbol of the town.

  • The wild-ox called re'em (Strong's # 07214) in the Bible (Numbers 23:22 and 24:8, Deuteronomy 33:17, Job 39:9–10, Psalms 22:21, 29:6, 92:10 and Isaiah 34:7) is occasionally associated with the aurochs and has incorrectly been translated as "unicorn" in the past (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Entry for 'Wild Ox', Copyright, 1939, by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.).
  • Julius Caesar wrote about them in Gallic War Chapter 6.28, "...those animals which are called uri. These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied. These the Germans take with much pains in pits and kill them. The young men harden themselves with this exercise, and practice themselves in this sort of hunting, and those who have slain the greatest number of them, having produced the horns in public, to serve as evidence, receive great praise. But not even when taken very young can they be rendered familiar to men and tamed. The size, shape, and appearance of their horns differ much from the horns of our oxen. These they anxiously seek after, and bind at the tips with silver, and use as cups at their most sumptuous entertainments."
  • An aurochs head, the traditional arms of the German region Mecklenburg, is included in the coat of arms of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. The aurochs ("bour" in Romanian) was also the symbol of Moldavia; nowadays they can be found in the coat of arms of both Romania and Moldova. The horn of the aurochs is a charge of coat of arms of Tauragėmarker, Lithuaniamarker. It is also present in the emblem of Kaunasmarker, Lithuania, and was part of the emblem of Bukovina during its time as a Kronland of Austria-Hungary. The Swiss Canton of Urimarker is named after the aurochs. Its yellow Flag shows a black aurochs head.
  • The last lines of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita are: "I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita."
  • East Slavic surnames Turenin, Turishchev, Turov, Turovsky originate from the East Slavic name of the species (Tur).
  • Turopoljemarker, a large lowland floodplain south of the Sava river in Croatiamarker, got its name after the once abundant aurochs (Croatian: ).
  • American heavy metal band The Sword recorded a song entitled "Lament of the Aurochs" on their debut album Age of Winters.

See also


  1. AHD4, headwords "aurochs", "urus", "wisent".
  2. MWU, headwords "aurochs", "urus", "wisent".
  3. BZN 63(3) General Articles & Nomenclatural Notes
  4. AHD4, headword "aurochs".
  5. MWU, headword "aurochs".
  6. AHD4, headword "urus".
  7. MWU, headword " ".
  8. Paleontologisk Museum
  9. Height of Holstein cows (at hips – note that cattle are often slightly taller at the withers than the hips).
  10. Cis T Van Vuure, Retracing the Aurochs: History, Morphology and Ecology of an Extinct Wild Ox, Aurochs (Extinct Species, Mammals), The Extinction Website
  11. (see Shaffer and Liechtenstein 1995, 1999)
  12. Cis T Van Vuure, Retracing the Aurochs: History, Morphology and Ecology of an Extinct Wild Ox, Aurochs (Extinct Species, Mammals), The Extinction Website
  13. Rakvere linn
  14. Russian Surnames. Popular Etymological Dictionary. Yu. A. Fedosyuk. 6th Ed.


  • American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition (AHD4). Houghton Mifflin, 2000. Headwords aurochs, urus, wisent.
  • Bunzel-Drüke, M. 2001. Ecological substitutes for Wild Horse (Equus ferus Boddaert, 1785 = E. przewalslii Poljakov, 1881) and Aurochs (Bos primigenius Bojanus, 1827). Natur- und Kulturlandschaft, Höxter/Jena, 4, 10 p. AFKP. Online pdf (298 kB)
  • C. Julius Caesar. Caesar's Gallic War. Translator. W. A. McDevitte. Translator. W. S. Bohn. 1st Edition. New York. Harper & Brothers. 1869. Harper's New Classical Library.
  • International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. 2003. Opinion 2027 (Case 3010). Usage of 17 specific names based on wild species which are pre-dated by or contemporary with those based on domestic animals (Lepidoptera, Osteichthyes, Mammalia): conserved. Bull.Zool.Nomencl., 60:81–84.
  • Merriam-Webster Unabridged (MWU). (Online subscription-based reference service of Merriam-Webster, based on Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002.) Headword aurochs. Accessed 2007-06-02.
  • Shaffer, Jim G. (1995). Cultural tradition and Palaeoethnicity in South Asian Archaeology. In: Indo-Aryans of Ancient South Asia. Ed. George Erdosy. ISBN 8121507901
  • Shaffer, Jim G. (1999). Migration, Philology and South Asian Archaeology. In: Aryan and Non-Aryan in South Asia. Ed. Bronkhorst and Deshpande. ISBN 1-888789-04-2.
  • Vuure, T. van. 2002. History, morphology and ecology of the Aurochs (Bos primigenius). Lutra 45-1. Online pdf (603 kB)
  • Vuure, C. van. 2005. Retracing the Aurochs: History, Morphology and Ecology of an Extinct Wild Ox. Pensoft Publishers. Sofia-Moscow.
  • Wilson, Don E. and DeeAnn M. Reeder: Mammals.

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