Have you ever thought about just how lucky we are that cows exist? Cows give us meat, milk and dairy, leather, and up until the 1800s they even pulled around our heavy farm equipment. But are we really lucky, or are cows a product of humanity?
Cows are not man-made, but their evolution has been heavily influenced by humankind. Although cows originally existed naturally in the wild, the first cows were nothing like the cows we see today. Humans have shaped cows to be as useful as possible for us over the centuries, creating hundreds of unique and specialized cow breeds.
In this article, we’ll look at the origin of cows, learn how modern cattle came to be, and learn how humans influenced the evolution of cattle ever since they were domesticated.
Did Cows Evolve Naturally?
The progenitor of modern cattle was the auroch (Bos primigenius). Originally found in Central Europe and Persia, aurochs were mostly naturally evolved and had not been subject to intensive selective breeding.
After Charles Darwin’s famous Origin of Species was published in 1859, humanity gained a more complete understanding of the concepts of evolution, incremental change through natural selection, and selective breeding.
Ever since the late 1800s, humans have been selectively breeding cattle based on their temperament, milk production, growth and meat yield, efficiency, strength (for oxen), ease of calving, lack of horns, and countless other desirable traits to create the hundreds of specialized cow breeds which exist today.
Read More: How Humans Domesticated Cows
Did Humans Create Cows?
Humans did not create cows originally, but ever since humans gained an understanding of evolution and natural selection in the late 1800s, humans have heavily influenced the direction of cows’ evolution.
How Humans Influenced Cattle Evolution
Cows influenced the evolution of cattle by artificially selecting cows to create the next generation based on their usefulness to humans and not based on their natural ability to survive.
An example of this is Angus cattle. Black Angus is the most common cattle in the United States today, however, the breed is naturally polled, which means it has no horns.
This is of course a major advantage for farmers, reducing the risk of injury to farmers or other cattle, however this would be disastrous for the breed if they were living in the wild since they would have no way to defend themselves.
Some of the traits humans have fostered in cattle by selective breeding:
- Increased milk production
- Faster growth
- Larger mass for increased meat yields
- Natural polling / hornless breeds
- More cooperative / Less aggressive
- Easier calving
Can Cows Survive Without Humans?
Yes, cows can survive without humans. Up until the 1600s, wild Aurochs (the ancestor of modern cows) roamed freely in Europe.
In terms of modern cattle, there are a few places where herds of cows have escaped and are thriving in the wild. The most famous example of this is the feral cattle of Hawaii, which were given as a gift by Captain Vancouver to the King of Hawaii in 1793.
Read More: Can Cows Survive in the Wild?
How Were Cows Made?
Modern cow breeds were made through the process of selective breeding, a process in which humans have a hand in choosing which cows are allowed to breed, thereby altering the natural course of their evolution to make them more useful for humanity.
Selective breeding works in almost the same way as natural selection or evolution. In natural selection, the most successful animals reproduce and move the species forwards.
Unsuccessful animals might be eaten by predators or die of starvation, so those genes don’t get carried forward.
With selective breeding, humans select only THE most desirable animals and create entire herds only with those genes.
This drastically speeds up the process of evolution and also alters the course of evolution based on traits like milk production and meat yield, instead of traits that would help the species survive in the wild.
Related Article: Do Cows Have Toes?
Where do Cows Come From?
Scientists from France, Germany, and the UK have discovered that all modern cattle are descended from a single herd of cattle, which were located in modern-day Iran around 10,500 years ago.
If you’re interested in the domestication process, check out our domestication of cattle article, where we look at how cows were domesticated.
Did Cows Exist Before Humans?
Modern cows (Bos Taurus) did not exist before humans. Today’s cattle are a product of selective breeding by humans, in much the same way as poodles or chihuahuas did not exist before humans selectively bred dogs to create them.
Cattle were first introduced to the Americas in 1525 by Spanish explorers, who landed at Vera Cruz in modern-day Mexico.
Cows are not man-made, they have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, however, humans have heavily influenced the evolution of cows over the last few hundred years, creating hundreds of specialized cow breeds.
Humans have selectively bred cows to improve their usefulness for us. Some of the traits we select for include increased milk production, increased meat yield, and decreased aggressiveness. Some breeds have even been bred to have no horns.
Stuart is the editor of Fauna Facts. He edits our writers’ work as well as contributing his own content. Stuart is passionate about sustainable farming and animal welfare and has written extensively on cows and geese for the site.