Modern cows are descended from wild cattle called aurochs, however modern cattle were never wild themselves, apart from a few isolated situations where they have escaped from captivity and populated the surrounding wilderness.
In this article, we’re going to explore the topic of wild cows and find out how, when, why, and by whom they were domesticated.
Were Cows Ever Wild?
Modern cows have been selectively bred over thousands of years to maximize their meat and/or dairy yields, decrease their aggressiveness, and make calving as easy as possible.
Although cows are descended from a common ancestor who were wild, the highly selectively bred cows of today were never wild.
A good analogy for the wild cattle situation is to think about dogs. Dogs used to be wild, when they were wolves and wild-dogs, but there were never packs of wild poodles, dalmatians, or bichon frises roaming around.
Today’s modern cows (Bos Taurus) are descended from wild cattle called Aurochs (Bos primigenius) which were endemic to Europe and Asia. Unfortunately, Aurochs are now extinct, and modern cows are not found in the wild outside of a few rare circumstances where they have escaped from captivity.
Do Wild Cows Still Exist?
Apart from a few rare circumstances where cattle have escaped from farms and populated the surrounding wilderness, wild or feral cattle does not exist any longer.
The most well known wild cattle herd is in Hawaii, where cows escaped from farms in the 1800s and now thrive in the fertile forests and grasslands of the Hawaiian islands.
In India, cows are considered sacred and are allowed to freely roam. While they are not exactly feral (they are friendly to humans) they are not farmed and are more like collective pets.
Read More: Can Cows Live In The Wild?
When Were Cows Domesticated?
Cows were likely domesticated at several different times throughout history, however it’s generally agreed that today’s modern cattle are descended from a small group of domestic cows in modern day Iran around 10,500 years ago.
How Were Cows Domesticated?
Domestication is a slow process, which takes place over generations.
Cows were domesticated by the ancient Persians, who first captured wild cattle before gradually taming them and making them comfortable with breeding in captivity.
Over hundreds of generations, cows were selected for their tameness, their growth speed, their body mass, their milk production, their hardiness, and a host of other factors which make cows more beneficial for humans.
Another example of selective breeding in domestic cattle are the Black Angus cattle breed, which has been bred to have no horns, removing the need for disbudding or dehorning which are painful processes for the animals.
Read More: Do All Cows Have Horns?
Domestication works because both species benefit from the relationship. Humans get a more predictable source of food, and cattle are protected from predators and bred beyond the population they would achieve in the wild.
What are the Two Types of Domestic Cow?
There are thousands of different breeds of cows now, with specialist breeds bred for their meat, dairy, or even their fur, but most cows fall into two broad categories.
The two major types of cow today are European cows, which are common across Europe and the Americas (Bos Taurus) and Asian cattle, which is common in India, China, and other Asian countries (Bos Indicus).
What were Cows Like Before Domestication?
Cows adapted to domestication by becoming more useful to humans, through a process of artificial selection.
Where a wild auroch might have favored long horns, a lean and muscular body, and efficient milk production, domestication means cows started to be selectively bred to maximize their usefulness to humans, for example by increasing their milk production, reducing their horn size and aggressiveness, and maximizing their body mass for larger meat yields.
Wild cattle today are descended from aurochs – a large black bovine creature which was endemic to central Europe before their extinction in the 1600s.
We can get a good idea of what non-domesticated cows were like by looking at what we see in feral Hawaiian cattle, who have visibly adapted to their new wild environment after escaping captivity in the 1800s.
Non-domesticated cattle display the following characteristics compared to modern domesticated cows:
1. Less Trusting Around Humans
It’s important not to mix up tame animals with domesticated animals. It’s possible to tame a wild animal and make them comfortable around humans, but domestication is a long process which involves biologically changing a creature to be more useful for humans.
Domesticated cows learn at a young age that the farmer brings them food and treats, milks them, lets them into the barn, pets them, and generally isn’t a threat to them. Modern domestic cattle are very tame and can form strong bonds with humans.
Wild cattle lack this knowledge and are less trusting around humans.
2. Decreased Milk Production
Today’s dairy cattle are a miracle of artificial selection.
Dairy cows can produce up to 35 litres (7.5 Gallons) of milk per day. This is much more than the cow would need in the wild to feed her calves.
Check out our other article on how many people a single cow could feed, where we go over milk and meat production in detail.
3. Smaller Frame and Lighter Body Mass
Modern domestic cows are bred for beef or dairy. The faster a cow grows and the more weight they have at the point of slaughter, the more profits the farmer can make.
Modern beef cattle are selected for growth and body mass and are much larger than they need to be to survive. In the wild, this would be a disadvantage for cows because of the burden of a vastly higher energy requirement caused by their larger bodies.
Read more: How many hamburgers come from one cow?
Are Cows Domesticated Buffalo?
Cows are not domesticated buffalo. Buffalo are more like evolutionary cousins to cows, sharing a common ancestor but living on different branches of the bovid family tree.
There are some breeds of cow which are crossbred with bison or buffalo. These breeds are sometimes called beefalo, and have the more sturdy qualities of bison, but the fast growth rate of modern cattle.
Modern cows are descended from wild cattle called aurochs, which are now extinct. Although aurochs were feral, the modern breeds we see today were never a wild species.
Much like dogs, humans have created specialist breeds of cows to meet our own requirements, and just like there were never packs of wild poodles, there were never herds of wild friesian cows roaming the plains of Europe.
Some modern cows are wild, however this only happens when farmed animals escape captivity and the surrounding wilderness is hospitable enough for them to thrive on their own.
Domestication first took place around 10,500 years ago in Persia, and since then cows have been selectively bred over hundreds of generations to maximize their meat and dairy output and to minimize their aggressiveness.