Animal Info Cows or Cattle History

About the history of the cow from domestication in India to bull sacrifice to ranching.



In view of early humans' dependence on cattle for sustenance and--long before the horse--transportation, it isn't surprising that bulls and cows figured prominently in ancient religious beliefs and myths. Indeed, cattle are still considered holy and are rarely, if ever, used as meat in India, where the major faith is Hinduism, one of the world's oldest living religions. Hindus worship many animals and deem cows most sacred of all.

However, in other bull cults, the bull was more sacrificial victim than god. In ancient Crete, birthplace of the legendary half-man, half-bull Minotaur, the Minoans paid particularly savage homage to the bull. In one ceremony, the trussed-up beast was literally eaten alive by his frenzied worshipers.

Reconstructed frescoes on the walls of Crete's Knossos Palace vividly illustrate the bull dancers who somersaulted over charging bulls. A variation is still practiced today in Portugal, where bullfighters (salteadores) pole-vault over charging bulls.

Bull sacrifice was practiced by the Greeks, Romans, and Druids. Bovines often fared better in Egypt, where it was believed that the sacred bull-god Apis was mysteriously born and reborn in a series of black bull calves. Each "god" was raised in luxury, complete with a cow harem, and allowed to die of old age.

In England, bullbaiting, in which dogs attacked shackled cattle, was a popular sport from 1570 to 1835, when it was mercifully outlawed. Even today, the cult of bull sacrifice endures in the bullfighting ring, where there's always one sure loser--the bull.

Christopher Columbus carried long-horned cattle from Spain to the West Indies on his second voyage to the New World in 1493; and the Pilgrims imported cattle to New England in 1624.

Steers (castrated bulls, also called oxen) played an important role in opening up the American West. Although slower than horses, they could stand heat better and required less water; and their cloven hooves provided better traction for pulling covered wagons and plows through the prairie sand and mud.

By the early 1970s, there were more than 1,118 million cattle in the world; of those, about 112 million were in the U.S. India has more cattle (over 176 million) than any other country, but--because of its religious taboos--the lowest consumption of beef.

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