During the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene, the aurochs (Bos primigenius), the wild ancestor of domestic cattle, ranged over diverse environments across the Near East. Aurochs remains are common in Upper Paleolithic levels at sites in the southern and eastern Levant. According to artistic evidence, the aurochs was still present in this region during historic times. It is unclear just when the animal finally became extinct.

With few exceptions, the number of identified large bovid bones in Neolithic sites is small. Therefore, criteria based on mortality are rarely available and the evidence for domestic cattle is primarily osteometric. [See Animal Husbandry.] Domestic stock are considerably smaller than their aurochs ancestors. However, the application of this criterion is complicated by sexual dimorphism and the resulting danger of identifying a bone from a wild female as one from a domestic bull. Furthermore, dependence on morphological signs means that the earliest phases of domestication will not be recognized. It is not clear how the incorporation of such a large and powerful animal as an aurochs into human settlements was managed. Perhaps the provision of salt to wild herds was a strategy for conditioning the animals to human presence and initiating the process of taming.

However it was accomplished, the first claim for “pre-domestication,” on the basis of mortality data, comes from Pre-pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) Tell Mureybet in Syria. Osteometric evidence has been cited to assert that the cattle from sixth-millennium deposits from Çatal Höyük and Hacilar, Neolithic sites in central Anatolia, were domestic, but this has been challenged. Domestic or wild, the cattle at Çatal Höyük are particularly interesting because the site also yielded extensive evidence for the animal in a ritual context. Not only are aurochs included in the spectacular mural art, but horns were mounted on a bench and associated with human figurines and what may be fertility symbols. On the basis of size diminution, domestic cattle are certainly present in central Anatolia, northern Syria, and the Levant by 5000 BCE, though the process must have started earlier. The sex ratio of morphologically wild PPNB (late seventh millennium BCE) cattle favors females, which may be evidence for the onset of husbandry. There is insufficient evidence to pinpoint the appearance of domestic cattle in Iran and Iraq prior to the fourth millennium. [See Mureybet; Çatal Höyük; Hacilar.]

Because cattle are extremely adaptable to diverse habitats, a degree of isolation between regional populations arose. This resulted in stock of varied appearance by the end of the second millennium BCE. The zebu, or humped cattle (Bos indicus), is present in Jordan in the Late Bronze Age on the basis of osteological evidence. Figurines found at Tell Jemmeh in Israel's northern Negev, as well as the vertebrae distinctive of this bovid, place it there in this period as well. Because zebu cannot always be reliably distinguished from their taurine cousins, there is a possibility that they were both earlier and more important than is currently recognized. [See Jemmeh, Tell.]

Aurochs were hunted for their meat and hides. It is not known how long it took before domestic cattle produced sufficient quantities of milk or became sufficiently tractable to mark a significant change in how they were used. The earliest reliable evidence for dairying is from fourth-millennium sites in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Similarly from the fourth millennium comes the earliest (artistic) evidence for the plow in southern Mesopotamia. Osteological evidence for cattle as plow or draft animals at this time is noted in collections from the Levant and Anatolia. The advent of plow agriculture utilizing cattle as motive power was a major threshold. Because cattle assumed much of the work previously supplied by humans, surplus labor could be redirected to other pursuits in the community, thereby enhancing the potential for increased socioeconomic complexity.

In historic periods cattle were usually the third most common domesticate at a site, after sheep and goats. However, their larger size and utility for draft made them much more valuable, animal for animal, than either of the “small cattle.” Oxen (neutered bulls) began to be employed in the fourth millennium BCE, based on osteometric data. However, textual evidence from Mesopotamia and the Hebrew Bible is equivocal about whether the technique was actually practiced in all periods.

[See also Agriculture; Animal Husbandry; Ethnozoology; Leather; and Paleozoology.]


  • Clutton-Brock, Juliet. Domesticated Animals from Early Times. Austin, 1981. Excellent discussion of domestic bovids.
  • Grigson, Caroline. “Size and Sex: Evidence for the Domestication of Cattle in the Near East.” In The Beginnings of Agriculture, edited by Annie Milles et al., pp. 77–109. British Archaeological Reports, International Series, no. 496. Oxford, 1989. The most critical, up-to-date review of the problems of cattle domestication in the Near East.
  • Mellaart, James. Çatal Hüyük: A Neolithic Town in Anatolia. London, 1967. The most comprehensive popular book on the site, including many excellent illustrations.
  • Uerpmann, Hans-Peter. The Ancient Distribution of Ungulate Mammals in the Middle East. Wiesbaden, 1987. Clear and comprehensive review of ancient faunal distributions.

Brian Hesse