Like the myth of the Viking creation, the story of civilization and cattle begins with a giant. His name was Bos primigenius, and he was the wild aurochs, sometimes called the wisent. He was the strutting, bellowing grandfather of today’s cattle, standing at about five-foot-seven (1.7 m) at the withers with saber-shaped, inward-curving horns. The aurochs stomped into human cultural history in the Paleolithic and left it in 1627, when the last specimen died, lamented, in central Poland.

The aurochs obsessed Stone Age hunters with its spirit, its strength, and its metric ton of raw steak. We know this because before the sun and moon, before the gods, the cow was the first subject of human art.

In the Lascaux caves, buried under France’s green Dordogne hills, there’s a chamber called the Great Hall of the Bulls. This dim crevice is where Paleolithic art reached its zenith. After seeing it, other cave artists must have thrown away their pig hair and twigs, their ochre palettes and lumps of hematite, and said, “That’s what we were trying to do all along! That’s the spirit we sought to capture. And now it’s done!”

The bulls depicted on the walls of the cave are aurochs. Seventeen thousand years ago, early Frenchmen crept away from the wind and sun to paint them on the vaulted rock ceiling. Paint is perhaps less appropriate a word than sculpt. The figures meld into the natural contours of the chamber. They rear and gallop and collapse into one another’s lines. They’re at once naturalistic and cartoonish, blending odd perspectives and sizes with masterly muzzles, backs, and running legs. The aurochs—which appear fifty-two times in Lascaux, and one of which is eighteen feet long—practically thunder in the underground silence. They don’t run so much as fly through the rock. That’s why these aurochs, as well as the paintings of tumbling bison at Altamira and the horned sorcerer of Les Trois-Frères, are deemed masterworks worthy of launching a thousand art history textbooks. They’re humanity’s first durable achievements.

The prehistorian Abbè Henri Breuil thought that these cave paintings held a magical function, a sympathetic purpose in helping hunters bring down game. Perhaps. Food has always been one of our biggest obsessions.But zoologist R. Dale Guthrie has argued that at least some of the paintings—including the far more numerous Paleolithic handprints, random lines and dots, and etchings of genitals and breasts—were possibly the work of teenage boys, daring each other to enter dark places and leave their marks. This would make the images less spiritual icons than graffiti, youthful energy spewed in ink. As anyone who’s ever taken the time to read the wall of a toilet stall knows, graffiti is a snapshot of rudimentary wants and impulses. Whether art or graffiti, the paintings reveal what was on the surface of the Paleolithic mind: a powerful interest in bulls.

The Lascaux cave artists lived on what has been called “the Mammoth Steppe,” a vast, arid plain, chilled by the continental ice that sprawled from Europe through Asia and the Bering Straits and into North America. As a cultural milieu, the Mammoth Steppe promoted a meat diet, openair living, and the sort of egalitarianism we romanticize in stories about wagon trains and the open frontier. Hunter-gatherer groups never grew much larger than about forty strong. No one owned much, so no one had wealth to envy or to peddle into influence. Women nursed babies, worked leather, and kept camp. Men hunted. This left children to mess about in dark caves, imagining the animals that formed the basis of their diets, their ambitions, and their dreams.

Of these, the aurochs was one of the grandest. It probably evolved in India between 1.5 and 2 million years ago, after which it lumbered after forage across Europe, Africa, and Asia. During the colder climatic shifts of the Pleistocene, it could never match the ruggedness of mammoths, bison, horses, and woolly rhinos, and when the glaciers crept south, the aurochs hugged the Mediterranean. Nor did it ever spread as far as northern Scandinavia or Ireland. But for tens of thousands of years, Paleolithic hunters chased it, painted it, cut its skin into capes and shoes and tents, and ate it.

When the ice receded and the forests of today’s Holocene epoch crept over the ancient steppe, the aurochs thrived in the damp, sprouting woodlands. The great bulls roamed the sedge along rivers blistering with geese and ducks, feeding on the long marsh grasses, rutting in the late summer and birthing in the spring; their habitat wouldn’t have been dissimilar to that of the modern moose. Cows herded separately from grown bulls, for good reason. Bulls were violent. When they met along a grazing track or across the scent of a cow, they dueled, slashing with their horns and tearing up the earth. We’ll never have the privilege of seeing an aurochs battle again, but the clashes were so terrific that their tempers were proverbial until modern times. Eyewitness descriptions of aurochs tended to be a little breathless. Even Julius Caesar, who doesn’t pause much to admire the fauna on his campaigns, thought enough of the Gallic aurochs to say: “[They are] a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and the shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied.”

To imagine an aurochs battle, we really need the assistance of poetry. Although literature about the subject is sparse, we can get a measure of the beasts’ ferocity from an ancient verse describing warring bulls. In this line from an Irish epic, a magical bull named the Donn Cúailnge has just rampaged across the island fighting his mortal enemy, the bull Findbennach Aí. He’s just won:

He raised his head haughtily and shook the remains of the Whitehorned from him over Erin. He sent its hind leg away from him to Port Largè. He sent its ribs from him to Dublin…. He turned his face northwards then, and went on thence to the summit of Sliab Breg, and he saw the peaks and knew the land of Cualnge, and a great agitation came over him at the sight of his own land and country, and he went his way towards it. In that place were women and youths and children lamenting the Brown Bull of Cualnge. They saw the Brown of Cualnge’s forehead approaching them. “The forehead of a bull cometh towards us!” they shouted…. Then turned the Brown of Cualnge on the women and youths and children of the land of Cualnge, and with the greatness of his fury and rage he effected a great slaughter amongst them.

This wasn’t even the act of an aurochs, but of a domesticated bull. Any animals this powerful were bound to excite the testes, so noblemen liked to prove their nobleness by killing them. King Senacherib of Assyria is said to have hunted aurochs as early as the seventh century B.C., and the Romans went to great trouble to collect them for the arena. Charlemagne hunted them in A.D. 802, but by then the aurochs had already disappeared from all but Europe’s darkest wilds. After the Middle Ages it was a short-lived, eastern curiosity, preserved for the pleasure of the Polish royals in the forest of Jaktorow, where it made its final stand.

There is a curious epilogue for the aurochs, three hundred years after their extinction. This happened, like many historical oddments, in Weimar Germany. Two brothers, Heinz Heck and Lutz Heck, attempted to breed the aurochs back to life by crossing “primitive” cattle breeds like the Spanish toros bravos with Scottish Highland, Hungarian Steppe, Frisian, and other strains. Heinz worked at the Hellabrunn Zoological Gardens in Munich; Lutz was director of the Berlin Zoo. In a Germany that was increasingly concerned with the science of genetics, this “back breeding” wouldn’t have seemed too peculiar (the Nazis embraced Lutz’s herd, applying racial politics even to cow husbandry). The Heck cattle, as the results are now known, never approximated the size of aurochs, but they did compose a few hot dinners for the brothers’ starving countrymen in the aftermath of the war.

Heck cattle were a weird experiment, and nothing more. The truth is that there was no place for the aurochs in the modern world. It was too wild, too dangerous, and simply too big to fit into an age where all the land was stitched with fences. We needed our animals, like our serfs, to live quietly. That’s why, for ten-thousand-odd years between the beginnings of animal husbandry and the death of the last aurochs, domestic cattle, not wild ones, have flourished, bred, and spread across the earth.

In the zoological tree, modern cows occupy a roost toward the upper foliage of the mammalian branch. Along with camels and peccaries, cows are members of the even-toed artiodactyl order, distinct for the symmetrical plane that passes between the third and fourth digits in their feet. Within this group, cattle belong to the bovid family, the hoofed beasts that wear frontal horns sheathed in keratin, a bonelike substance that accumulates throughout the life of the animal, as opposed to the pure-bone antlers annually shed by deer and their ilk. Goats, sheep, and gazelles are bovids.

Domestic cattle belong to the taxonomic subfamily bovinae, a class that embraces buffalo, bison, nyalas, elands, and bongos. The cow’s genus, Bos, includes all oxen and yaks. Bos taurus is the Latinate for the European species of cattle, covering the breeds commonly known in the West, from Texas longhorns to Holsteins. Indian zebu (Bos indicus) are usually considered a separate species, but the classification is contested, and it’s generally thought that both Bos indicus and Bos taurus descend from the aurochs, Bos primigenius. The main difference between taurus and indicus, apart from the Indian’s shoulder hump and long, splayed ears, is the knack to survive in tropical climates. Bos taurus is a sluggard in the heat, and if dragged south is liable to stop giving milk before dying from some hothouse parasite. Indicus bows to no such frailties, and even boasts a resilience to ticks.

Regardless of their difference, these two cousins share a common history, one that’s part of the larger tale of how human beings gave up the spear and settled with the spade. It’s the story of how we domesticated the natural world.

Before cattle or pigs or even goats came into our homes, dogs were our first allies. When the easy mammoths and “megafauna” of the Paleolithic died out, wolves and men learned that hunting in tandem meant a better chance of bringing down smaller, quicker game. As the wolves pattered around our camps, warmed their tails by our fires, and gnawed our leftover soup bones, we would have killed the aggressive ones, shooting them with arrows and skinning them for their fur. Over time, this culling would have favored wolves with more frolicsome personalities. They became more like pups, with short muzzles and a youthful taste for play.

Biologists Stephen J. Gould and Stephen Budiansky argue that this process, called neoteny, is common to many species.15 Domestication favors animals that retain youthful traits like fearlessness, curiosity, and the ability to learn. Youthfulness also means less distinction between male and female—a reduction in what’s called sexual dimorphism. Today (viewed from certain angles), modern domestic cows and bulls can appear practically identical. In contrast, an ancient aurochs cow was not only smaller and shorter horned than a bull, but wore a reddishbrown coat instead of a black one. Cattle have about a fifteen-year generational cycle, so the process of reducing a brutish, unruly aurochs into a meek Frisian cow would have taken centuries.

Early dog domestication happened at a time when we still needed to catch our dinners, but subsequent domestications suited the new agricultural bent. From about 10,000 B.C. to 8000 B.C. a group of opportunistic gazelle hunters called the Natufians started to build fixed settlements on the Anatolian plain in Turkey, a comfortable spot in the early world, and one happily overrun with foodstuffs. They harvested patches of wild cereals but didn’t clear ground or plant seed, so they weren’t technically agriculturists—at least not until after a thousand-year cold spell called the Younger Dryas had dried out the Middle East, shriveling the wild grains and forcing the Natufians to concoct a new way of feeding themselves. Over these frigid centuries, the shivering gatherers discovered that the foodstuffs they harvested began to change. The plants shed their defensive pathogens, swelled with edible seed and tissue, and became easier to reap and sow.

This worked to both the advantage of these early Anatolian farmers as well as to the grains themselves. Biologist David Rindos says that a harvested plant is more likely to spread its seed than a plant left unpicked. Agriculture needed us, as much as we needed it. Wheat evolved to attract humans, just as flowers evolved to attract bees, and the result was a confluence of changing vegetation and human demand that sparked the dawn of agriculture around 7500 B.C. (at Jericho in the Levant, it may have been as early as 8000 B.C.). The first staples were emmer wheat, barley, rye, oats, and lentils, made lively on the plate by the addition of apples, onions, dates, figs, and garlic.

Cattle signed their symbiotic pact with humanity a little later. There are two broad theories as to how it happened, both of which likely hold part of the truth. The first is the “humongous pest” theory. With fields of grain budding outside their homes, the Neolithic farmers faced the problem of scavengers—not just birds and rodents, but also lumbering herbivores that would have eaten and trampled every fragile shoot of barley within scent. At first, the offended farmers probably roasted and boiled the trespassers, and we can imagine them ganging together to lie in wait to take revenge on a hoodlum aurochs. Eventually, the farmers realized that, instead of killing the vandals, they could corral them and eat them later. Once penned, the most aggressive animals earned first place on the butcher’s block, and over generations their rowdiest traits receded into genetic memory. The descendants were more pliant. This process would have taken centuries, but such is the pace of genetics.

The second theory of animal domestication is based on weather. Just like the Younger Dryas did a few millennia earlier, around sixty-four hundred years ago a second postglacial climatic shock parched the Middle East with a ruinous drought. Fields, newly seeded with the fruits of human ingenuity, withered, and people abandoned the settled, agricultural experiment, thinking the whole business a deathtrap.20 While the rains had been kind and the fields moist, investing in wheat fields had made sense.21 Now the hungry farmers would have looked back at the animals pasturing on the margins of the tilled land. They would have noticed that if a pasture turns brown or a valley is iced by a squall, a cow can walk to the next one. A lentil cannot.

So it’s likely that the vagaries of climate first encouraged people to cultivate grain in the Younger Dryas, and then, when the weather turned bad again, it spurred them to hedge their bets by herding livestock. Animals were a good way of “spreading their investments” in case of a collapse in the expected order of the universe. Shooing their herds before them, people chased the rains. But even cattle weren’t impervious to drought. Cows need better feed and more water than do sheep or goats, and archaeological records tell us that there was a dietary shift, over time, from eating grain, to eating beef, to the last resort of eating mutton.

There may even be some memory of this upheaval in the Bible. Before the desiccation of the Younger Dryas, the Levant was a garden paradise. It was flush with wild fruits, overflowing vines, and plump game stooping by clear, abundant springs. When Eden disappeared in the wind, Adam learned to cultivate seeds, to rely on his skills instead of on God’s bounty. But hard work couldn’t fend off a second drought, and so Adam’s descendants took to wandering with their flocks in an unending search for fodder. The Bible perhaps provides an analogy on this point, too. Jealous because the Lord preferred animal sacrifice to wheat, the farmer, Cain, killed the shepherd, Abel, and was doomed to exile and roaming.

The Book of Genesis makes another point on the subject of eating meat. After the Flood, God finally permitted the Hebrews to consume animal flesh. Livestock, and cows, became central to the diet of the Chosen People.

By Andrew Rimas and Evan D. G.Fraser in "Beef - The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat, and Muscle Shaped the World", Harper-Collins,USA, 2008, excerpts p. 15-21. Adapted and illustrated to be posted by Leopoldo Costa.