Where the Wild Things Are: Aurochs and Cattle in England

Article excerpt

The aurochs was a type of wild cattle not extinct in Europe until the mid-second millennium BC--so they must have co-existed for centuries with the domestic cattle which were to supplant it. Here the authors use stable isotope analysis to show what form that co-existence took: the domestic cattle grazing on the pasture, and the aurochs lurking in the forests and wet places.

Keywords: Europe, Neolithic, cattle, aurochs, stable isotope analysis


Related wild and domesticated species have broadly similar dietary preferences, but they occupy different ecological niches and habitats as a result of domestication. On a local scale, different habitats may be associated with relatively subtle environmental differences which may leave their traces in isotopic signatures, for example in animal bone. Knowledge of such differences will help to contribute to an understanding of the nature of early domestication practices and to the nature of the interaction between wild and domesticated animals. More generally, it will illuminate the effects of the introduction of agriculture, effectively creating new ecological niches, on the wild ecosystem.

This is particularly interesting in the case of the aurochs (Bos primigenius) and domesticated cattle (Bos taurus) as the former became extinct a couple of millennia after the introduction of the latter during the Neolithic in England. These two closely related taxa are likely to have very similar inherent preferences for diet and habitat, although their actual behaviour during co-existence will be mediated by human activity.

Bos primigenius appears to have become well-established in north-west Europe after the Last Glaciation. Finds of bones attributed to aurochs on archaeological sites in England are relatively rare after the Neolithic and the species appears to have become extinct in the region by about the middle of the second millennium BC (Yalden 1999). Domesticated cattle first appeared in Europe (and England) during the Neolithic and have remained a prominent feature of archaeological sites, especially in the context of food processing, ever since.

An isotopic comparison between aurochs and domesticated cattle has been carried out in Denmark and neighbouring areas (Noe-Nygaard et al. 2005). On the island of Sjaelland the [delta][sup.13]C values of aurochs collagen show a shift from about -20[per thousand] to about -23 to -24[per thousand] from 10000 to 8000 BP (possibly reflecting climatic changes, cf. Hedges et al. 2004). According to this study, on this island, the aurochs became extinct 800-1000 years before the arrival of the earliest domesticated cattle (earliest sample: later than 5200 BP), preventing a direct comparison between the taxa under the same environmental conditions (but avoiding errors arising from misclassification). The small number of samples of aurochs from other areas which were contemporaneous with domestic cattle showed considerable overlap of [sup.15]N and [sup.13]C isotopic values between the taxa.

Here we compare the bone collagen stable isotope composition of the two taxa sampled from a number of English Neolithic and Bronze Age sites. We placed particular emphasis on sites where aurochs and domestic cattle were found together, to make as close a comparison as possible within the same local environment.

Identification of remains of aurochs and cattle

The present study relies on the identification of taxa by expert archaeozoologists principally on the basis of bone measurements (cf. Degerbol & Fredskild 1970). The animals show marked sexual dimorphism, with female aurochs and male domestic cattle showing considerable overlap.

The possibility of incorrect classification presents a significant source of experimental error. However, an ancient DNA study (Edwards et al. 2007) suggests that in most cases such classification is correct, although occasionally domestic cattle can be misidentified as aurochs. …