THE ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA

A DICTIONARY OF ARTS, SCIENCES, LITERATURE AND GENERAL INFORMATION

ELEVENTH EDITION 1911

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AUROCHS (from Lat. urus, the wild ox, and “ox”) or Urus, the name of the extinct wild ox of Europe (Bos taurus primigenius), which after the disappearance of that animal became transferred to the bison. According to the German Freiherr von Herberstein (1486-1566), in his Moscovia, of which an Italian translation was published at Venice in 1550, the aurochs survived in Poland (and probably also in Hungary) during the latter middle ages. In this work appear woodcuts—rude but characteristic and unmistakable—of two distinct types of European wild cattle; one the aurochs, or ur, and the other the bison. As Herberstein had travelled in Poland, it is probable that he had seen both species alive, and the drawings were most likely executed under his own direction. It has indeed been suggested that the figure of the aurochs was taken from a domesticated ox, but this is a mistaken idea. Not the least important feature of the work of Herberstein is the application of the name aurochs to the wild ox, as distinct from the bison. The locality where aurochs survived in Herberstein’s time was the forest of Jaktozowka, situated about 55 kilometres west-south-west of Warsaw, in the provinces of Bolemow and Sochaczew. From other evidence it appears that the last aurochs was killed in this forest in the year 1627. Herberstein describes the colour of the aurochs as black, and this is confirmed by another old picture of the animal. Gesner’s figure of the aurochs, or as he calls it “thur,” given in the Icones to his History of Animals, was probably adapted from Herberstein’s. It may be added that an ancient gold goblet depicts the hunting and taming of the wild aurochs.

As a wild animal, then, the aurochs appears to have ceased to exist in the early part of the 17th century; but as a species it survives, for the majority of the domesticated breeds of European cattle are its descendants, all diminished in point of size, and some departing more widely from the original type than others. Aurochs’ calves were in all probability captured by the early inhabitants of Britain and the continent and tamed; and from these, with perhaps an occasional blending of wild blood, are descended most European breeds of cattle.

Much misconception, however, has prevailed as to which breeds are the nearest to the ancestral wild stock. At one time this position was supposed to be occupied by the white half-wild cattle of Chillingham and other British parks. These white breeds are, however, partial albinos; and such semi-albinos are always the result of domestication and could not have arisen in the wild state. Moreover, park-cattle display evidence of their descent from dark-coloured breeds by the retention of red or black ears and brown or black muzzles. In the Chillingham cattle the ears are generally red, although sometimes black, and the muzzle is brown; while in the breed at Cadzow Chase Lanarkshire, both ears and muzzle are black, and there are usually flecks of black on the head and forequarters. It is further significant that, in the Chillingham herd, dark-coloured calves, which are weeded out, make their appearance from time to time.

A very ancient British breed is the black Pembroke; and when this breed tends to albinism, the ears and muzzle, and more rarely the fetlocks, remain completely black, or very dark grey, although the colour elsewhere is whitish, more or less flecked and blotched with pale grey. In the shape and curvature of the horns, which at first incline outwards and forwards, and then bend somewhat upwards and inwards, this breed of cattle resembles the aurochs and the (by comparison) dwarfed park-breeds. Moreover, in both the Pembroke and the park-breeds the horns are light-coloured with black tips.

Evidence as to the affinity between these breeds is afforded by the fact that a breed of cattle very similar to that at Chillingham was found in Wales in the 10th century; these cattle being white with red ears. Individuals of this race survived till at least 1850 in Pembroke, where they were at one time kept 927 perfectly pure as a part of the regular farm-stock. Until a period comparatively recent, they were relatively numerous, and were driven in droves to the pasturages of the Severn and the neighbouring markets. Their whole essential characters are the same as those of the cattle at Chillingham. Their horns are white, tipped with black, and extended and turned upwards in the manner distinctive of the park-breed. The inside of the ears and the muzzle are black, and the feet are black to the fetlock joint. The skin is unctuous and of a deep-toned yellow colour. Individuals of the race were sometimes born entirely black, and then were not to be distinguished from the common Pembroke cattle of the mountains.

It is thus evident that park-cattle are an albino offshoot from the ancient Pembroke black breed, which, from their soft and well-oiled skins, are evidently natives of a humid climate, such as that of the forests in which dwelt the wild aurochs. This disposes of a theory that they are descendants of a white sacrificial breed introduced into Britain by the ancient Romans.

The Pembroke and park-cattle are, however, by no means the sole descendants of the aurochs, the black Spanish fighting-bulls claiming a similar descent. This breed shows a light-coloured line along the spine, which was characteristic of the aurochs. It has also been suggested that the Swiss Siemental cattle are nearly related to the aurochs. The latter was a gigantic animal, especially during the Pleistocene period; the skulls and limb-bones discovered in the brick-earths and gravels of the Thames valley and many other parts of England having belonged to animals that probably stood six feet at the shoulder.

(R. L.*)
Transcriber's note: A few typographical errors have been corrected. They appear in the text like this, and the explanation will appear when the mouse pointer is moved over the marked passage. Sections in Greek will yield a transliteration when the pointer is moved over them, and words using diacritic characters in the Latin Extended Additional block, which may not display in some fonts or browsers, will display an unaccented version.

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