Daniel W Gade. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Although cattle have been domesticated for less than 10,000 years, they are the world’s most important animals, as judged by their multiple contributions of draft power, meat, milk, hides, and dung. In Asia and Africa, the tie between man and beast is much more than economic (as it is in the West), and domestication itself seems to have occurred for noneconomic reasons. Cattle, like other ruminants, convert cellulose-rich materials—that are otherwise useless to humans as food—into carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.(In industrialized countries, however, cattle are fed grains from cultivated land and consequently can be viewed as competing for foods that could go directly to humans.)

The term “cattle”can have a broad or narrow meaning. One usage subsumes all five domesticated species in the genus Bos as cattle.The other restricts the term to only the two main bovines in this genus: European cattle (Bos taurus) and zebu cattle (Bos indicus). Both animals were derived from the same wild ancestor, the aurochs (Bos primigenius), and they can inter-breed to produce fertile offspring. Three much more localized Asian species sometimes fall under the rubric of domesticated cattle: mithan (Bos frontalis, yak (Bos grunniens), and banteng (Bos javanicus). The mithan is found in a forested region that encompasses northeast India, northwest Burma, and Bhutan. Its ancestor is the wild gaur (Bos gaurus). The yak of Nepal and Tibet was derived from the wild yak (Bos mutus), whereas the banteng (“Bali cattle”), found on several islands of the Indonesian archipelago, was domesticated from the wild banteng of the same species. Unless otherwise qualified, the term “cattle” in this chapter refers to the two main species derived from the aurochs.


Evidence for the domestication of cattle dates from between 8,000 and 7,000 years ago in southwestern Asia. Such dating suggests that cattle were not domesticated until cereal domestication had taken place, whereas sheep and goats entered the barnyard of humans with the beginning of agriculture. Although the aurochs has been extinct since the seventeenth century, its role as the wild ancestor of cattle has never been seriously disputed. This impressive beast occurred throughout Eurasia south of the taiga and north of the desert and tropical forest. Paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux and Altamira in Europe convey a sense of its fierce nobility, which must have awed hunters. At Mesolithic sites in Eurasia, the relative paucity of aurochs bones compared to those of wild sheep—a difficult quarry—and goats suggests a major differential in hunting success.

That humans with primitive technology would have even attempted to tame such a ferocious animal becomes plausible only if one constructs a lure scenario. This setting would have the creation of artificial salt licks to entice the aurochs to a place where the opportunity might present itself to steal a calf from its mother. A young animal, of course, could have been captured and tamed much more easily than an adult.

It is probable that the aurochs underwent transformation into cattle more than once in the prehistory of the Old World. Mitochondrial DNA research indicates that zebu cattle of India were domesticated independently from European cattle and from a different subspecies of the aurochs (Loftus et al. 1994).The clustering of all African zebu within the B. Taurus lineage is based on the assumption that a zebu ancestor crossbred with earlier B. taurus in Africa, and the zebu cattle themselves may have had more than one place of origin. A humped bovid on a Near Eastern figurine dates from the late Bronze Age and corresponds to a similar kind of animal found at Mehrgarh in Pakistan. At that site, both zebu and European cattle are found and together comprise more than 50 percent of the mammalian assemblage (Meadows 1984). Although their origins seem to have been outside the tropics, zebu are well adapted to hot climates, perhaps because much of their early husbandry was in India. Domestication may have enhanced the zebu’s characteristic hump, dewlap, generally white color, and alert nature.

Early Neolithic cattle keeping in northern Africa points to a possible separate domestication there as well (Close and Wendorf 1992), and S. Bökönyi (1976) has gone so far as to assert that domestication of cattle from the wild happened repeatedly as late as the classical period of history. Indeed, the first-century-B.C. Roman poet Virgil stated that after a virulent disease had decimated the herds, peasants transformed the aurochs into a domesticated bovine to replace their previous stock. Discrete domestications may have occurred in several places, but the diffusion of domesticated cattle would have been a much more important overall process than repeatedly transforming a ferocious creature over many generations.

As with sheep and goats, the process of domesticating cattle resulted in animals smaller than the wild progenitor. Dated osteological material from Neolithic sites establishes the transition from wild to domesticated, although the sexual dimorphism between the male and female aurochs was not originally appreciated, and the “wild” label was misapplied to the former and “domesticated” to the latter (Grigson 1969). The Fertile Crescent has long been considered the place of initial cattle domestication, but that view tends to reflect the large number of excavations made there. Early signs of Neolithic cattle keeping have also been found in Anatolia (Turkey), where the osteological material at Catal Hüyük provides evidence of the transition from the aurochs of 8,400 years ago to cattle by 7,800 years ago. In short, it is still premature to specify where the first cattle were domesticated.

The extraordinary usefulness of cattle would superficially seem to have been the motivation for their domestication. In other words, given all the benefits that cattle impart, it was logical that the aurochs would come under human control, which is an extension of a deeply rooted Western concept that nature exists to serve the practical needs of people and that necessity has always elicited human ingenuity to provide technical solutions.

However, an alternative to such a materialistic perspective was first proposed by Eduard Hahn (1896), a German geographer-ethnologist. Hahn probed beneath the shallow surface of materialistic motives to see noneconomic forces at work in transforming the animal into what is essentially an artifact of artificial selection. He noted that the curved horns of the aurochs resembled the lunar crescent, which symbolized the Moon Goddess, and suggested that the original reason for domestication was to sacrifice these animals as a reenactment of the goddess’s death, with such sacrifices perhaps performed at each waning of the moon.

Such a practice would have required a supply of animals that was initially met by capturing them from the wild. But in the holding pens, some captive bulls and cows (both with long horns) bred, and from these matings, calves occasionally were born that had physical characteristics different from their parents.

Their overall size was smaller, their temperament more docile, and their markings and hide color had unusual variations. Viewed as special, these aurochs born in captivity were also kept as objects of sacrifice but were allowed to breed, and phenotypic distinctiveness enhanced their sacred status.

Some of the next generation to follow may have reinforced the characteristics of the parents, and a gene pool that distinguished these bovines from their wild forebears gradually formed. No longer were they aurochs, but rather cattle, whose sacred roles included pulling ceremonial wagons in religious processions and symbolically plowing the land in fertility rites. Their milk was perceived to be a ritual gift from the goddess, and the most docile cows let themselves be milked by a priest in the presence of their calves. Gradually, the economic usefulness of cattle asserted itself for plowing fields, pulling wagons, and for the meat, milk, and hides, which came to be highly prized. But these were later and secondary benefits of bovine manipulation that initially was prompted by the early mythology of Near Eastern religion. The Eurasian religion of the Upper Paleolithic was supplanted by goddess cults that evolved with the emergence of agriculture and livestock husbandry into fertility cults meant to ensure the prosperity of crops and herds (Isaac 1970).

Evidence for the prehistoric importance of cattle in ritual and the noneconomic motives for domestication comes from Catal Hüyük, a Neolithic archaeological site 50 kilometers south of Konya, Turkey (Mellaart 1967). Many shrines at this reconstructed site, including the earliest one found, have bulls’ heads, and an abundance of cattle horn displays suggests that they were venerated as fertility symbols. In another kind of representation, a goddess is shown as having given birth to a bull. Moving to modern times, the previously mentioned mithan (or “Indian bison,” as it is sometimes called) is a domesticated animal, but it is not used for draft, meat, or milk. Rather, it is kept as an object of ritual and sacrifice, providing a contemporary example of domestication for noneconomic reasons (Simoons and Simoons 1968). Mithans—periodically killed in ritual sacrifices—occur across a continuum varying from very tame to untamed forest-dwelling animals, and salt, for which they have an insatiable craving, is the enticement that humans employ to attract them.

Early Civilizations

In Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley, cattle served humans as objects of ritual and sources of meat, milk, and draft power, and in all three civilizations, they were the objects of much more intensive human attention than were sheep or goats. Draft animals were indispensable for working irrigated plots in desert and semiarid regions. Cattle required water and grass and needed considerable care. Using cattle for meat seems to have been less important than for draft. During the third Ur dynasty (2112-2004 B.C.), cattle products supplied only 10 percent of total meat needs (Adams 1981). In Mesopotamia, state authority was involved in the organization of cattle keeping, and cattle were called by different terms depending on their function (Zeder 1991).

Ritual use of cattle has been a Eurasian continuity. In ancient Egypt, cattle were regarded as sacred by several cults, particularly that of the goddess Isis, and in Crete, friezes more than 4,000 years old display evidence of bovine importance. At the palace of Minos, for example, the royal couple dressed up as a bull and a cow, and the Minoans also watched specially trained athletes who jousted bulls with acrobatic daring. The Phoenician cult of Baal had a god of fertility represented as a bull—a cult which spread to their colonies as far west as presentday Spain. The early Hebrews worshiped the bull, and in Canaan, the Baal cult was fused with the worship of Yahweh. During King Solomon’s reign, the temple housed bulls of bronze and horned sculptures.

In classical antiquity, there is a rich history of bulls offered in ritual sacrifice. Some of these rituals in Greece provided a mechanism to reaffirm the social hierarchy of the polis. Sacred cattle were kept at Eleusis where Demeter was worshiped. In ancient Rome, a white bull was sacrificed at the annual Feriae Latinae, and its meat was distributed in proportion to the relative importance of the member cities of the Latin League. In Europe and the Middle East, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all suppressed such sacred cattle cults as pagan manifestations that competed with their messages, although a lingering remnant is the contemporary Spanish bullfight, which reenacts a sacrifice to symbolize the eternal struggle between humans and nature. In its evolution, bullfighting lost its obvious religious content, which may explain its survival through 2,000 years of Christianity.


The westward diffusion of cattle throughout Europe was tied to the invention of the wooden plow. The harnessing of a powerful animal to that device made it possible to greatly extend cultivation without a corresponding increase in human population. At the same time, in any one community it freed surplus labor for other activities, which enabled the group to develop greater socioeconomic complexity. Castration of the bull to create an ox was a key element in the spread of the plow. Steady and strong—but docile—the ox made enormous contributions to agriculture. Osteometric evidence shows that oxen were already in use during the fourth millennium B.C., and a figure from Nemea in Greece shows yoked oxen dating from the third millennium B.C. (Pullen 1992).

Farther north in Europe, where wet summers provided abundant forage, cattle had a bigger role to play in livestock husbandry. Following the Middle Ages, an appetite for beef grew, and, in fact, the Europeans’ frenetic quest for spices was related to their growing carnivorous tastes. Until the late eighteenth century, cattle were the most important livestock in the uplands of the British Isles, where they grazed mainly on commonly owned natural pastures and secondarily were fed hay cut and stored for winter use. Other animals—sheep, pigs, goats, and horses—were made a part of a land-use system that also favored dairying and the cultivation of grains.

The relative isolation of each region resulted in locally limited gene pools for B. taurus, which led to different cattle phenotypes. Three of these, Aberdeen Angus, Shorthorn, and Hereford, have diffused overseas to become modern ranching stock in the Americas; other breeds, such as Devon, Skye, Galloway, Kerry, and Durham, are now rare. Characteristic of British livestock tradition was the close management and selective breeding that imparted a generally docile behavior to the animal. Fat cattle were the aesthetic ideal but also a practical outcome of the high value placed on tallow. Emphasis on pure bloodlines reflected, in part, competition among the landed gentry to produce the best animals, and, in fact, purebred cattle became a symbol of the British ruling class that dominated the world in the nineteenth century. Moreover, that class extended its insistence on purity to its own members as a way of separating the rulers from the ruled in the vast British Empire.


African bovines kept by humans are usually presumed to have originated as domesticated animals in southwestern Asia, with cattle funneled into Africa through the Sinai Peninsula and, possibly, the Straits of Babel Mandeb across the Red Sea, eventually spreading over vast areas of the continent. There is, however, an alternative explanation anchored in the possibility of an independent domestication of cattle in Africa. Evidence that this may have been the case has been found in the northern Sahara, in Algeria, where cave paintings dating from 5,000 to 6,000 years ago indicate a pastoral way of life based on domesticated cattle (Simoons 1971). More recently, an argument has been made for independent cattle domestication in the eastern Sahara as well (Close and Wendorf 1992). Bovid bones found in faunal assemblages have been interpreted to be the remains of domesticated stock kept for milk and blood. Deep wells, dated from the ninth millennium B.C., provided the water without which these cattle could not have survived.

In Africa, more than on any other continent, cattle raising follows a paleotechnic, precapitalistic mode that depends on the natural vegetation of common lands. The transcendental importance of cattle is most apparent in the sub-Saharan eastern half of the continent, where more than 80 million head may be found in an arc across Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. Numbers would be much higher than that if nagana disease (spread by tsetse flies) did not make large areas unsuitable for cattle. The ethnographic significance of this geographic concentration was realized only after Melville Herskovits (1926) published his landmark study on the “cattle complex” in East Africa. Subsequent research among different tribal groups—the Karamajong, Nandi, Dodot, Masai, Pakot, and Turkana, among others—validated his contentions of the centrality of cattle in East African life.

Some groups are strongly pastoralist, others may also engage in agriculture. In either case, cattle, whose prestige value surpasses their economic contribution, dominate the pastoral life as well as the social and spiritual activities of each group. Every animal is named and categorized: Among the Masai, for example, each individual animal can be classified according to its matriarchal bovine lineage, a spatial pattern organized by households, and a color/age/sex physical description. A major reason for the naming of cattle in East Africa is that it manifests the affection felt toward bovines as members of the family.

Native religion in East Africa involves cattle sacrifice. Bruce Lincoln (1981) has explained this practice in terms of a “cattle cycle,” in which a celestial deity gave cattle to his people. When these animals were stolen by an enemy group (less common today), warriors were enlisted to recover the stolen cattle. The cycle was completed when priests subsequently sacrificed some of the cattle in order to propitiate the celestial deity.

A textbook example of how central cattle can be to the material and social existence of a people can be seen in the Nuer people of the Sudan (Cranstone 1969). Their language is rich in terms that describe and categorize cattle by horn shape, hide color, and age. Milk is a staple food, along with millet, and cattle blood is consumed. Rawhide provides tongs, drums, shields, and bedding, and cattle bones become scrapers, pounders, and beaters. The horns are used to make spoons and spearheads. Cattle dung can be a fuel, but it is also employed in plastering walls, dressing wounds, and, when dried, as a tooth powder. Cow urine is used in washing, cheese making, and dressing skins. The meat and fat of cattle are eaten, but the ritual involved in the slaughter is as important as the food.

Fewer cattle are kept in West Africa than in East Africa, in part because it embraces more desert and forest. The relative importance of cattle varies from tribe to tribe. For example, a dearth of grass and water in the southern Sahara encourages the Tuareg to herd many more goats than cattle, but farther south in the Sahel zone, the Fulani (or Peul) people have become cattle specialists with a spiritual link to their bovines. Each nuclear family owns a herd and knows each animal by name. The Fulani have solved the problem of forage through a symbiosis with their agricultural neighbors to the south. In the dry season, they move their herds south to graze on the stubble of harvested fields. In recompense, the cattle leave manure as fertilizer. Like the tribal peoples of East Africa, the Fulani measure prestige in terms of numbers of animals. They use common pastures, but overstocking has led to range deterioration. One solution for this problem would be the introduction of a commercial system to regularly market young cattle.


India has about 200 million head of cattle, more than any other country. Cattle are of great importance as draft animals and as a source of dairy products (milk, curds, ghee), which constitute a significant element of the Indian diet. Cow dung has multiple uses as fuel, fertilizer, and as a ritualistic medium; even cow urine has its sacred applications. The Hindu religion bans the exploitation of cattle for meat and for hides, and to deliberately kill a cow is considered a serious offense in a country whose politicians are committed to protecting the animals. Veneration of cattle is also reflected in the institutions elaborated to protect old cows (Lodrick 1981). At the same time, compliance has its exceptions. Certain tribal groups and some lower-caste Hindus do slaughter cattle and eat their meat.

The cow has elicited much controversy in Hinduism about its origins, for its elevation to sacred status came only after Hinduism was established. One view is that the sacredness of cattle reflects the concept of the sanctity of life (ahimsa) that reached Hinduism through Buddhism (Simoons 1994). Opposing this idealistic perspective is the materialist argument that cow protection was ultimately imposed to assure an ongoing pool of plow animals, without which Indian agriculture could not effectively function (Harris 1966).

The New World

Latin America

Cattle began reaching the Western Hemisphere with the second voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1494, when a few head were landed on the island of Hispaniola. They multiplied rapidly—at the same time becoming feral—and eventually were more hunted than herded. Pirates, for example, organized roundups when they wanted fresh meat. From Hispaniola, cattle were taken to other islands and to the mainlands of Central, North, and South America.

In Latin America, cattle raising became an important use of land, especially in the sparsely populated cerrado of Brazil, the pampas of Argentina, and the llanos of Venezuela and Colombia. The business was organized in an extensive manner, with fenceless expanses, semiferal animals, mounted cowboys, and low productivity—a system that still prevails over large areas from Mexico to northern Argentina, although the zebu now tends to be more numerous than European cattle. Since the 1970s, cattle ranching has been responsible for most tropical deforestation, especially in Amazonia and Central America, where aggressively spreading grasses of African origin, among them Panicum, Hyparrhenia, and Pennisetum, have become the forage for millions of cattle. This herbaceous invasion has been termed the “Africanization of the New World tropics,” and the expansion of ranching into these areas has been called the “scourge of cows” (Parsons 1970, 1988). Moreover, cattle raising as a “complex” of economic, nutritional, and social factors, and the effects of this complex on the environment and human health, has been denounced as “a new kind of malevolent force in the world” (Rifkin 1992). But from the point of view of their owners, cattle are “walking bank accounts,” which become fat on grasses that grow without planting or care.

After the middle of the nineteenth century, cattle ranching moved toward an intensive British style of management on the pampas of Argentina and Uruguay. Throughout the colonial period and beyond, cattle had been raised to make dried and salted beef (tasajo) and for hides and tallow. But the nineteenth-century invention of evaporating beef broth to make bouillon cubes provided a new export product to stimulate cattle production, and around 1860, the pampas began to be transformed. The arrival of the Shorthorn, Aberdeen Angus, and Hereford breeds; the introduction of barbed wire fencing; the cultivation of alfalfa; the use of eolian windmills to provide pumped water; and the invention and installation of refrigerated chambers on ships—all set the conditions for the export of high-quality chilled meat to Europe. Since the 1880s, beef exports have underwritten the economies of Uruguay and Argentina.

North America

North American cattle raising has its roots in two very different ranching traditions (Jordan 1993). One came from Andalusia in Spain, specifically from the Guadalquivir marshes, where bovines grazed year-round and were tended by mounted cowboys who used lassos. Transferred from Spain to the Caribbean Islands, this style of ranching was taken to the Carolinas, to the Louisiana coastal plain, and to the Mexican east coast. From Mexico, it diffused northward to southern Texas, with longhorn cattle belonging to the same breed still raised along the Guadalquivir today. Elsewhere in North America, where cold winters intervened, pastoral practices were influenced by those of the British Isles. Thus, the midwestern prairies had a cattle-raising complex that included British breeds of cattle and the use of haying, fencing, barns, and intensive herd management to create docile animals.

Most cattle in North America are “finished off” on grain in feed lots; indeed, more than 70 percent of the grain produced in the United States is fed to cattle and other livestock. A slaughtered steer yields about 60 percent of its weight in beef products, some of which is used as pet food, but most is for human consumption. The remaining 40 percent consists of fat, bones, viscera, and hide that go into a variety of industrial and household products. Cattle tend to be much leaner today than they were a century ago. Demand for low-cholesterol meat, and the use of petroleum-based detergents rather than soaps made from tallow, have greatly reduced the market for both fatty beef and beef fat.

A growing application of animal-raising technologies can be expected to increase the efficiency of cattle raising in the United States and other industrialized countries. Artificial insemination was a common practice by the 1950s, and more recent reproductive techniques include embryo transfer, estrous cycle regulation, embryo splitting, in vitro fertilization, sperm sexing, and cloning. Other techniques promote growth: Anabolic steroids have been used on beef cattle since 1954, and fully 90 percent of feedlot cattle in the United States receive these drugs. In the European Union, steroids are still banned, which has complicated the export of American beef into that large market. For dairy cattle, bovine somatotropin, a protein hormone, increases milk production by about 12 percent. Other technologies relate to processing and marketing. Irradiation of meat kills microorganisms and extends shelf life, and the extraction of water from milk to reduce transportation costs will greatly increase the milkshed range of cities.

Consumption of Bovine Flesh

Except in the few cultures that shun beef as food, bovine flesh has often been regarded as the ultimate measure of a good diet. As Europe regained its prosperity in the three decades after World War II, per capita consumption of beef increased several times. Now, more than 40 percent of all the meat produced in Western Europe is beef. Consumers in some European countries—especially Italy, France, and Austria—are exceptionally fond of veal, which is very young bovine flesh.

In Europe, veal typically comes from calves less than 6 months old that are fed on whole milk or on a formula that includes milk products. Close to half of the bovines slaughtered in France are calves, which yield veal that normally retails for 20 percent more than beef. Veal, tender and subtly flavorful, lends itself to imaginative sauces or accompaniments: Scallopini, osso buco, saltimbocca, and Wiener schnitzel are all well-known veal dishes. In Europe, calves also provide much of the most desirable organ meats: liver, sweet-breads, kidneys, brains, and tongue. In both France and Italy, veal consumption is about one-third that of beef—four times more veal, on a per capita basis, than is eaten in the United States, where beef has been the preferred meat since the nineteenth century.

Today, more than 40 percent of beef consumed in the United States is ground, mostly for hamburgers. The hamburger has become an icon of American popular culture, even though it is said to have originated in Hamburg, Germany.”Hamburger steak” was on Delmonico’s menu as early as 1836, and there are numerous claimants for the invention of the hamburger sandwich, including a German immigrant said to have brought the idea to the United States in 1892. Certainly, it was the case that the hamburger began to be nationally known at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, where the sandwiches were sold by German immigrants (Trager 1995).

The hamburger—as a snack or a meal—fits into the American quest for efficiency. It cooks thoroughly in less than 8 minutes, and today, fast-food operators normally cook it even before the customer places an order. Hamburger restaurants appeared in American cities beginning in the 1920s, but their organization to maximize efficiency dates from four decades later. Giant franchise corporations with headquarters in the United States have now spread over a major part of the industrialized world. At an international level, these restaurants communicate American values of efficiency, service, and cleanliness, but for many, they also define the failure of the American culinary imagination.

The American middle class is also fond of steak, and well informed about the best cuts. Steak is a favorite restaurant choice, but it is frequently cooked at home as well, often on an outdoor grill. (In 1995, 77 percent of American households owned at least one such grill.) The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grading system for beef has its greatest application in steak. “Prime,” with the most fat marbling, is the most flavorful, tender, and costly. Only 2 percent of all the beef produced in the country is of prime grade. “Choice” is the most widely sold grade, whereas “select” is leaner, cheaper, and not as tender. Several other countries in the world—notably Argentina—have a much higher per capita consumption of beef than the United States, but this statistic probably includes considerable amounts of organ meats. By contrast, bovine organ meat attracts few consumers in the United States.

In Japan, beef consumption is a relatively recent phenomenon. Meat eating was prohibited until shortly after the Meiji Restoration in 1882. Buddhist beliefs and Shinto influences had banned the killing and eating of four-legged animals, but fish and fowl were consumed, and the Japanese still obtain most of their protein from fish and soybeans. Sukiyaki—thinly sliced, highly marbled sirloin in soy sauce, accompanied by vegetables—has been the preferred beef dish. In the preparation of sukiyaki, the sight of blood, unacceptable in Japanese culture, was avoided. But after World War II, American influences and increasing prosperity introduced hamburger, beef chunks in curry sauce, and skewered beef, and most recently, steak has become accepted in Japan.