The aurochs (Bos primigenius) is an extinct species of wild cattle once found in Europe, Asia, and North Africa, and said to have been the ancestor of domesticated breeds.
Unlike today's cattle, the aurochs was large, with a standing shoulder height of more than six feet and an estimated weight of 2,200 pounds. Bulls were larger than females, with an all-black or brownish-black coat bearing a gray "saddle" on some individuals; females and calves were reddish-brown. Both sexes had impressive, forward-curving horns.
Aurochs lived in forested areas in Europe, as well as open grasslands and steppe plains. Its range was the whole of Europe except the Scandinavian peninsula, Russia east of the Ural Mountains, and western Asia across to north Africa.
Aurochs was a grazing animal, feeding on grasses and grain, and occasionally browsing leaves. Herds were made up of a bull and several cows with their young. It tended to be an aggressive animal as well, with bulls fighting fiercely during the early-fall mating season.
Value to man
Excavations in archaeological sites in south-west Asia indicate that the domestication of the aurochs began about 6,000 B.C.; fully-domesticated aurochs appear in Europe at roughly 2,000 B.C. They were described and hunted by Julius Caesar and Charlamagne, while domesticates of them appear to have reached central and northern Europe.
The growth of cities and the transformation of prime habitat to farmland afflicted aurochs numbers; hunting further depleted the herds until by the end of the 13th century the only remaining wild aurochs herds were found in Poland; a royal decree prohibiting hunting was issued at that time, but to little avail. By 1596, the thirty that were left alive managed to survive in a royal reserve, to dwindle as a result of poaching; the last one died there in 1627.
The breeds of cattle today most closely resembling the aurochs are the Scottish highland and Camargue (Spain) fighting breeds; both have genetic strains linking them to the aurochs.