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 started 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 people keep most male cattle from having babies – those are steers. Cattle that work hard plowing or pulling wagons, like the two that are plowing a field in this Egyptian model, we call oxen.
Mostly people kept cattle in Central Asia, where the wide plains grew plenty of grass for the cattle to eat. South of the 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.
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 or water buffalo. People kept only a few cattle for heavy work like plowing. In India, people mostly used water buffalo for plowing and for milk and yogurt. They didn’t eat cows or water buffalo because Hindus believed cows were sacred.
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 started 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. In richer countries, people today eat much more milk and meat than they used to, and cattle raised for milk and meat are a major cause of global warming.
Learn by doing: Visit a dairy farm and see cows
Or make yogurt
More about the aurochs
More about buffalo
Cattle, by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent (1993). Easy reading.
Cows, by Sara Swan Miller (2000). Also easy reading. 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. A little harder to read.
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.