The Aurochs are an extinct type of large wild cattle who once inhabited Europe, Asia, and North Africa. It is an ancestor of our modern cattle and the Auroch survived in Europe until the last recorded one died in 1627 in the Jaktorow Forest in Poland. There were two attempts to domesticate the Auroch during what is known as the “Neolithic Revolution” (aka: the Agricultural Revolution) during our present Holocene epoch. One attempt was to domesticate an Indian subspecies of the Auroch which brought about Zebu cattle which are very large and look like Brahmas which, in fact, is a breed of Zebu (Bos indicus) first bred in the USA after being imported from India.
The other attempt at domestication of the Auroch involved a Eurasian subspecies which lead to Taurine cattle which are normally grouped with Aurochs and Zebus into one species (Bos taurus). Most modern cattle are Taurine cattle. During the time of the Neolithic Revolution (advent of agriculture) other wild bovines were also domesticated including the wild water buffalo, the guar, and banteng. It might be noted that some markings we see in modern cattle such as the dark color in bulls with a light eel stripe along the back and the lighter similar markings seen in cows and auroch-like horn shapes are modern characteristics derived from prehistoric Auroch breeding.
Aurochs are seen in many cave paintings and prehistoric engravings. It was even described by the famous ancient Roman Julius Caesar in his work entitled “The Gallic War” (Book 6, Chapter 28). The Auroch was a very large animal and its size appears to have varied by region. Northern populations were larger than southern populations. Auroch bull remains found in Germany and Denmark had an average shoulder height of 155-180 cm (61-71 inches). In terms of body weight bulls had an average weight of 1500 pounds (700 kg) but those who lived during the Late Pleistocene are believed to have had an average weight of around 3300 pounds (1500 kg)!
Aurochs had massive horns as well as massive bodies. The frontal horns were elongated and broad. Horns reached an average of 31 inches (80 cm) with an average diameter between 3.9-7.9 inches (10-20 cm). Horns on bulls were larger than horns on cows and show much more curvature than those found on cows. These massive horns grew from the back of the skull at about a 60 degree angle to the muzzle and faced forwards.
Reportedly the Nazi regime under Hitler in Germany brought a type of Auroch back to life. They were called Heck cattle and are described as being “incredibly aggressive.” It has been reported that during the 1930s Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second in command, requested that German geneticists Heinz and Lutz Heck bring back the extinct Auroch via back-breeding from Auroch descendants. The Heck brothers crossed Spanish fighting bulls with Highland cattle and with primitive breeds from Hungary and Corsica. The result was the “Nazi Super-Cow.” Their bodies were huge and muscular and they had massive horns.
The Heck cattle resembled the Auroch closely but never did truly match the size and stature of the prehistoric Auroch as they only succeeded in getting them to the size of modern cattle. But the physical resemblance was indeed strong as was their aggressive temperament. It’s believed the Heck brother’s specimens died out before 1945 but all modern Heck cattle descended from their specimens and those still exist today. Today there are around 2000 Heck cattle in Europe mainly in Bavaria and the Netherlands living on refuges.
In more recent times a report appeared in The Washington Post dated April 2016 reporting that scientists are now attempting to resurrect the Auroch. Known as “The Taurus Project” efforts to resurrect the Auroch are a partnership between ecologists, geneticists, historians, and cattle breeders backed by Stichting Taurus which is a Dutch nonprofit organization. They plan to crossbreed modern cattle via back breeding which makes lab genetic engineering unnecessary. Researchers with this group have identified breeds of cattle that share characteristics of the Auroch such as large stature, long legs, slender and athletic build, horns curing forward. black or dark coats in bulls and reddish coats in cows. The back breeding project actually began back in 2008!
Thus far the project has a second generation in which the coloration of the coats is very much like that of the Auroch. They believe in 6 generations they will have stabilized the Taurus cattle which will take 7-10 years.
The Taurus Project is part of the rewilding conservation movement in Europe involving the restoration of large tracts of land to pre-human states. This involves the reintroduction of animals and plants that have disappeared. Apparently the project has been told they need to consider how reintroduction of the Auroch will affect other animals and also plants. So we will see what they develop and, frankly, I see nothing wrong with their efforts. It should be interesting!