Agriculture & environment: Beef

Cave paintings in France and Spain dating to 30,000 years ago show aurochs – wild cattle – and human hunters. Today's cattle are descendents of the giant aurochs, which were over two metres at the shoulder and had lyre-shaped horns.

Two broad species groups

Cattle were domesticated about 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, where they were both worshipped and sacrificed in religious ceremonies. World cattle breeds fall into two groups derived from two species.

Cattle of the species Bos taurus were first yoked in Mesopotamia and used for traction to pull sleighs and wagons. Bos indicus were domesticated about the same time in India. The Indian cattle are better adapted to the tropics.

Close to a thousand cattle breeds!

The genetic origins of Indian cattle are separated from European and African cattle by more than half a million years, implying that genetic differences pre-existed domestication. Today there are nearly a thousand cattle breeds and varieties around the world, with some 270 recognised as the most important.

 / ©: Michel Gunther / WWF-Canon
Cows in Algeria.
© Michel Gunther / WWF-Canon

Religious symbols for some

Throughout time, people have prayed to cattle as gods and have sacrificed them to gods. In fact, people prayed to cattle gods for more of history than to any other type of god. Over the millennia cattle have provided food, clothing, fuel, and shelter. They have been beasts of burden and have ploughed fields.

In India, some 200 million cows are allowed to roam freely because Hindus consider them the mothers of life. By the mid-1990s the government had created old age homes for half a million cattle. Killing a cow in India is a crime punishable by life in prison, but that is better than the death penalty in effect until recently in Kashmir (Rifkin 1992).

Representing wealth & prosperity

Throughout history, cattle have represented wealth. It is likely that cattle were one of the earliest forms of currency. In fact, through the middle of the 20th century cattle were still used as money in parts of Africa. The word "cattle" has the same root as "chattel" and "capital". In Spain, the word for cattle also means property, and in Latin the word for money comes from the word for cattle. In Sanskrit, the term for battle translates to the "desire for cattle," and a successful warlord was often referred to as a "lord of cattle" (Rifkin 1992).

Held in high esteem across cultures

The Phoenicians spread the worship of cattle throughout their colonies. They held cattle in such high regard that the first letter of their alphabet, A, was the image of a bull's head. The Minoan civilisation of Crete also worshipped a bull god as did the Egyptians, Sumerians, Greeks, and even the Hebrews, who were praying to a golden calf when Moses descended from Mount Sinai.

The name for Italy, Italia, means "land of the cattle." In the days of the Roman Empire, the Mithraic myth of the ritual slaying of the bull attracted many Roman soldiers as followers. According to this myth, Mithra received divine guidance to kill the bull god. After he finally succeeded, a number of miracles occurred. The bull's body gave rise to all the plants and herbs that people use.

The spinal cord was transformed into wheat, the staff of life, and the blood turned into the grapevine and wine. Evil, resentful of all this bounty for man, attacked the bull's testicles. In the process all of the animals on Earth were created. Finally, according to the myth, the soul of the bull returned to the heavens, where it became the guardian of the herds (Rifkin 1992).

Also, a symbol of darkness

The cult of the bull god was so strong in the West that early Christians felt the need to demonise it, transforming the Mithraic bull into the new symbol of darkness. In effect, it became the devil incarnate (Rifkin 1992). In 447 AD, the Council of Toledo (as cited in Rifkin 1992) wrote the first official description of the devil - "a large black monstrous apparition with horns on his head, cloven hoofs - or one cloven hoof - ass's ears, hair, claws, fiery eyes, terrible teeth, an immense phallus, and a sulphurous smell."

The struggle between the followers of cattle gods and the followers of other gods is mirrored in the struggle between herders and farmers, and even between East and West. In about 4400 BC, pastoralist horsemen from the Eurasian steppes first attacked and conquered Neolithic farmers in southern and eastern Europe.


Extracts from "World Agriculture and the Environment" by Jason Clay - buy the book online from Island Press

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