Gwous: A Brief History

By Green, Emily | New Statesman (1996), March 27, 1998 | Go to article overview

Gwous: A Brief History


Green, Emily, New Statesman (1996)


In Whitehall it never rains but it snows. Paper. Last Friday alone two truckloads of documents arrived for scrutiny by Lord Justice Phillips' inquiry into BSE. As someone whose life over the past 18 months has more or less consisted of campaigning for this inquiry, I have a weather front of my own. It is not a bad place to start. It is a case history of the first BSE patients: cattle.

The earliest records of domestication date back to 7000BC, and come from Asia and the eastern Mediterranean. Cattle noticed tasty crops growing and wandered near to settlements to munch. The animals were then tamed by penning, hobbling and castration. Domestication was certainly complete by 2100BC, when cattle were a symbol of wealth. In her elegant book Food in History, Reay Tannahill notes a Sumerian scribe recording: "The oxen of the gods ploughed the city governor's onion patches . . ."

Cattle-breeding in Britain was brought in by the Romans, whose army favoured beef. Cattle soon became the dominant form of wealth. The Latin word for money, "pecunia", is from "pecus", meaning cattle, which also refers to horses and sheep. The word "cattle" derives from the middle English "catel", in turn from late Latin "capitale". "Beef" evolved from the Anglo-Norman "boef" or "buef", this from the Latin "bovem". "Cow" is the oldest term of the lot, from the prehistoric Indo-European word "gwous". The scientific name is bos primigenius.

To say cattle are ruminants refers to the rumen, the first part of the animal's four-chamber stomach, a sort of fermentation vessel that allows cattle to digest grass. To refer to cattle as ungulates is a grand way of saying they have hooves. While all cattle still have hooves, the same cannot be said of horns. …

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