Who first tamed Cattle? - Central Asian History
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Who tamed Cattle?

Bull in a field

Cattle are the tame version of the wild aurochs that used to live on the grass plains of Asia, Africa, and Europe. About 5000 BC, people in Central Asia began to keep tame cattle. At first people just kept cattle for their meat and leather, but soon they also got milk from cows, and they began to make yogurt and cheese. By about 4000 BC, people also began to use cattle as oxen, to pull plows and wagons.

We call male cattle bulls, and female cattle cows. Bulls are dangerous, and we don't need very many of them, so we keep most male cattle from having babies - those are steers. Cattle that work hard plowing or pulling wagons, we call oxen.

egypt cattle plowing
Ancient Egyptian cattle plowing (Louvre Museum, Paris)

Mostly people kept cattle in Central Asia, where the wide plains grew plenty of grass for the cattle to eat. South of the Sahara desert, a lot of people kept cattle also. Cattle were very important to the people of Meroe south of Egypt and across the Sudan, and cattle were also very important to the KhoiKhoi and the San in South Africa. None of these people used cattle to farm. Instead, like the people of Central Asia, people in Africa ate beef and drank milk.

Egyptian man butchering a calf
Egyptian butcher cuts a calf's neck
(Old Kingdom, now in Oriental
Institute, Chicago)

The Mediterranean, West Asia, and India are none of them good places for cattle. They are too dry, and there is not enough grass. These places are better suited for sheep. People kept only a few cattle for heavy work like plowing. In India, people also used cows and water buffalo for plowing and for milk and yogurt, but they didn't eat cows because Hindus believed cows were sacred.

Tang oxen
Oxen from Tang Dynasty China

In China, people also plowed with oxen. In Northern China they used the same oxen as in West Asia, and in Southern China they used water buffalo, as people did in India.

In North America, people did not use domesticated (tame) cattle for plowing, but they did hunt and eat wild cattle called buffalo or bison. When people from Europe came to America, about 1600 AD, they brought their domesticated (tame) cattle with them, and by the 1800s AD there were many oxen plowing fields in both North and South America, and many more grazing on the pastures of the American plains, being herded by cowboys, replacing the buffalo which Europeans had mostly killed.

By the early 1900s AD, people began to use tractors and trucks instead of oxen for heavy work in North America and Europe. But in most of the world, even today, oxen are still important for farming and transportation.

Bibliography and further reading about cattle:


Cattle, by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent (1993). Easy reading.

Cows, by Sara Swan Miller (2000). Also for kids. Only deals with dairy cows, so you don't have to confront the fact that people kill cows and eat them. There is a bit on Indian sacred cows, though.

A Natural History of Domesticated Mammals, by Juliet Clutton-Brock (2nd edition 1999). Mainly deals with how cattle (and other animals) got tamed, so people could raise them. Not especially for kids.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond (1999). For adults. Diamond makes an interesting argument that people in Europe and Asia are wealthier than people in Africa and the Americas mainly because they had environmental advantages, including cattle.

More about Aurochs
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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