Two viable hypotheses have been proposed to explain the origins of Egyptian cattle: (1) they were introduced to ancient Egypt from the Near East and the Levant; or (2) they arose from the indigenous aurochsen (Bos primigenius) of North Africa. Early dates for Near Eastern tamed (Mureybit, Syria, c.8000 BCE) and domesticated cattle (Turkey and Iran, c.6200 BCE) have been used to support the first view, but excavations of early Holocene occupations in Egypt's Western Desert suggest that tamed indigenous cattle may have been present in the western Sahara as early as 8000 BCE. That second position, however, remains hotly debated. The earliest undisputed evidence for domesticated cattle in Egypt is from Merimde and the Faiyum (c.5000 BCE). Nevertheless, as early as 12,500 BCE, a special human/cattle relationship existed in the Nile Valley. At Tushka, in Egyptian Nubia, horn cores of wild cattle were found directly over two human burials, and a horn core was found near the skull of a third burial; those horn cores appear to have been grave markers.

Ruminants (cud-chewing animals) such as cattle are valuable to humans because they are able to transform otherwise unusable plants into edible products. In ancient Egypt, grasslands generally occurred in areas where agriculture was impractical but where enough moisture existed to support a nutrient-rich flora, such as the uncultivated areas of the Nile Delta and along the borders of the agricultural lands beyond the reach of irrigation. The productivity of grazing lands, however, would have varied from year to year, owing to the vagaries of ancient Egypt's rainfall, the reluctance to irrigate fields not devoted to cash or food crops, and the planting/fallow schedule of given plots. Consequently, a grazing strategy evolved that would acceptably counter the local constraints—a mixed system of penned animal raising and range herding became established throughout ancient Egypt.

Based on textual evidence, the majority of Egyptian cattle was herded and range fed. Texts described many large herds, so overgrazing was undoubtedly a problem. The great numbers of cattle recorded as attached to temple and personal estates were not, however, an unnecessary overindulgence, because large herds do make evolutionary sense under certain conditions. Primarily, large herds are a means of ensuring the survival of at least some cattle after natural disasters, such as drought or disease, providing both an emergency food source and enough stock to propogate new herds. Therefore, evidence suggests that the Egyptian preference for large herd sizes actually represents an adaptive response to the region's environmental uncertainties.


Cattle. Depiction on a relief from the tomb of Nefer at Saqqara. (Courtesy David P. Silverman)

Egyptian Breeds.

Some Saharan Neolithic rock art and some later Egyptian tomb scenes provide interesting clues to the development of cattle breeds after their initial introduction. While the rock art usually depicts animals with long horns of varying morphology—including a lyriform type and a type with horns pointed forward—shorthorned and polled animals appear more frequently in later tomb scenes, with the polled being more common than the short-horned cattle. Long-horned cattle (ngἰw), on the basis of artistic scenes, were the oldest domestic cattle breed in Egypt. The ngἰw were often used in religious sacrifices, as well as for meat, and long-horned castrates (oxen) appear to have been the working animals of choice. The short-horned wnḏw has been dated to the fifth dynasty, but it does not appear to have been a popular breed until the Hyksos period. Textual evidence suggests that a short-horned bovid was imported into Egypt from Syria, but a genetic relationship between the Syrian cattle and the Egyptian short-horns has not been substantiated. Perhaps the Egyptian short-horned cattle were derived from the long-horned forms; early domesticated cattle, for example, tended to have long horns, with short-horned types generally appearing later, as the more advanced form of the domesticated species. A hornless breed became increasingly more prominent in the art of Egypt's later periods, and because they were never depicted as draft animals, seem to have been highly valued. The zebu, or brahma, was introduced into Egypt during the New Kingdom. The colors of the Egyptian cattle, based on painted scenes, included black, brown, brown and white, black and white, white spotted with black, and pure white. (Table 1 lists Egyptian terms related to cattle.)

Cattle Care.

Egyptian herdsmen were obviously aware of fundamental breeding practices, because certain bulls were kept for breeding purposes, and the herdsmen understood how to assist the cows in calving. Although cattle care was primarily in the hands of herdsmen, a section of the Kahun (gynecological) Papyrus, which deals with diseases of cattle, makes it evident that some physicians also possessed veterinary skills. For example, many priests of the goddess Sekhmet were medical physicians (swnw) but also “knew cattle.” The job of herdsmen was also to see that food for the cattle was plentiful and properly balanced. With the exception of certain chosen animals, cattle were allowed to graze in open fields whenever possible. Large numbers of free-ranging cattle or small herds allowed to graze together required some means of identification. One means, inferred from the excavation of a twenty-sixth dynasty animal cemetery, was to etch or mark the horns of the cattle. Branding (ʒbw), however, was a more effective means of identification and was probably practiced on the large estates that belonged to the crown and the temples. Branding scenes are known from several Theban tombs (Nebamun and Neferhotep), and the Varzy Papyrus tells of a man apparently involved in cattle stealing, who placed his own brand over the brand of the true owner.

Table 1. Egyptian Names for Cattle (after Faulkner 1962)

bull wšh
cow ἰht
milk cow ἰryt
ox tpἰw
yoke oxen nḥbw
plow ox skʒ
long-horned cattle ngʒw
short-horned cattle wnḏw
dappled cow(?) sʒ bt
bred for offering iwʒ
sacred cattle ṯntt

By dynastic times, the Nile Valley was heavily cultivated, so open range was becoming more limited. The tethering of cattle by means of ropes fixed to pierced stones, trees, or stumps became more common. Judging from tomb scenes, one method of adding important proteins and amino acids to the cattle diet was by hand-feeding them fresh green produce and bread dough, important supplements in the dry season or anytime when green grasses were not available; dried grasses are not adequate suppliers of several important minerals and proteins.

Although grain or bread dough served as a healthy supplement to range-fed cattle, to grain feed all of Egypt's vast herds would not have been economically feasible, because it would have put cattle in direct competition with humans for the same foodstuffs. Consequently, during the unproductive dry season of each year, evidence suggests that at least some cattle herds were driven to better pasture in the marshlands of the northern Delta.

The earliest evidence for the use of cattle as providers of milk comes from fourth-millennium BCE Egypt and Mesopotamia. Cows being milked and nursing calves were frequently depicted throughout the dynastic period, and artists even showed regard for the cows' feelings; in many scenes, the cow was shown looking back or shedding tears at the removal of her milk while her calf was denied its meal. Excavations at Amarna recovered a series of sticks that were thought to be a muzzle that prevented a calf from drinking its mother's milk. Similar finds elsewhere suggest that muzzling was a common means of preserving some of the cows' milk for human use.

If an animal was to be raised for meat, the taste and quality of the beef could be altered by regulating its feeding habits, exercise, and quality of life. For example, the iwʿ bulls—which were exceedingly fat, sat low on their haunches, and had pendulous bellies—seem to have been fattened and nurtured for a special purpose, probably sacrificial offerings. Sacrificial bulls were depicted in reliefs on Akhenaten's rwd-mnw temple at Thebes and in the sed-festival (jubilee) reliefs of Ramesses II at Luxor temple. Their everted horns were indicative of the ngἰw breed, but their particular lifestyle gave them a distinctly obese form. Their flavor certainly would have differed from that of range-fed cattle or of oxen toughened by hard labor.

Cattle Cults.

Certain chosen cattle were important in ancient Egyptian religion. The Apis bull, for example, was famous throughout the ancient world. The earliest written reference to the Apis is on the Palermo Stone, which dates to the second dynasty reign of Khasekhemwy. The Greco-Egyptian historian Manetho, also attributed the Apis to a second dynasty king. Apis personified the god Ptah of Memphis and, after death, was assimilated into the god Osiris. Only one bull among Egypt's thousands was chosen to be an Apis at any one time; at its death, the search began for its replacement. To be an Apis, the animal had to meet certain criteria: it had to have a saddle-marked back (evidently the same pale saddle-patch so common in wild cattle) and a colored patch on the tongue and forehead. From various tomb scenes, the Apis was known not to be a particular breed—only the special markings were the distinct selective criteria.

In addition to Apis, several other bulls were worshiped in similar ways at other localities. The Mnevis bull was associated with the god Re-Atum of Heliopolis; it also possessed special markings to demonstrate its authenticity, although the exact nature of the marks is not certain. The Buchis bull was believed to be a manifestation of the god Montu of Armant (ancient Hermonthis); it could be recognized as authentic by its long hairs, which grew backward, contrary to the nature of other animals (and it was reported to change color every hour).

Cattle worship was not limited to bulls. One notable example is the deity Hathor, who also took on several personalities in her role as a cow goddess. In the Nile Delta, she was equated with the sky; in Thebes, she was a mortuary goddess. She was also a goddess of dance, music, and love.



  • Darby, W., P. Ghalioungui, and L. Grivetti. Food: The Gift of Osiris. 2 vols. London, 1977. Decent reference for domestic plants and animals in Egypt (but some citations are incorrect and several species identifications in tomb scenes are in error).
  • Faulkner, R. A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian. Oxford, 1962.
  • Gautier, A. “Archaeozoology of the Bir Kiseiba Region, Eastern Sahara.” In Cattle Keepers of the Eastern Sahara, edited by F. Wendorf, R. Schild, and A. Close, pp. 49–72. Dallas, 1984. Speculations concerning very early cattle domestication in Egypt's Western Desert; domestication is here based on environmental needs rather than on the morphological criteria of animal bones, leaving the result suspect.
  • Smith, H. “Animal Domestication and Animal Cults in Dynastic Egypt.” In The Domestication and Exploitation of Plants and Animals, edited by P. Ucko and G. Dimbleby, pp. 307–314. London, 1969. Discusses the different breeds (or forms) of Egyptian cattle.
  • Vandier, J. Manuel d'archéologie égyptienne, vol. 6: Scénes de la vie agricole. Paris, 1978. A review of agricultural scenes, mostly from the Saqqara area, many of which present domesticated cattle in detail.
  • Wendorf, F., R. Schild, and A. Close. Cattle-Keepers of the Eastern Sahara: The Neolithic of Bir Kiseiba. Dallas, 1984. Composed mostly of site reports, but speculates on the Neolithic nomadic lifestyle of the Western Desert peoples, depicting them as pasturalists.

Douglas J. Brewer