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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

Forget cats and dogs, cows are our best friends

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Before the Internet existed, humankind spent millennia pondering a question that cuts to the heart of what it means to be human. Do we people prefer dogs or cats?

For many years, it seemed that dogs had won for sure. Cats are often portrayed as sneaky, unfriendly, and selfish. Dogs, on the other hand, are loyal, hard-working, and incredibly social.

But the Internet seems to have proven the opposite. While dogs claim a significant chunk of the Internet's loyalties, cats saturate online content to the extent that people have compared the Internet with ancient Egypt: in both sites, people worship cats and write on walls. Singing cats, DJing cats, cats chasing red dots, even Schroedinger's cat have proved once and for all that our obsession is actually with out feline friends.

Does our obsession with cats actually mean that they're humanity's most important animal friend? Not necessarily. Cats are a bit like a politician who is good at getting media attention. We're all familiar with them, but at the end of the day they might not do much for us.

If we take a closer look at humans across cultures and history, there is another animal that emerges as far more important than our domestic companions will ever be: the cow.

For around ten thousand years, cows have accompanied humans, and they've done a lot for us. Wherever Paleolithic man shared the ecoscape with bovines, cattle were first hunted, then (during the Neolithic) domesticated. We eat them. We milk them. We wear them. We use their dung as fuel. We make weapons out of them. We even use them as bank accounts.

Our uses of cows aren't just practical. In many parts of the world, cattle have been identified with wealth, power and the sacred ever since. Humans everywhere have independently developed cow cultures.

Like much of human history, the story of people-cow relations begins around the Mediterranean. Bucrania (the frontal part of bulls' skulls, including the horns) were installed in Neolithic domestic and/or shrine settings more than 8,000 years ago at the famous Çatalhöyük townsite in Anatolia, elsewhere in far southeastern Turkey, and in Serbia.

Bulls were symbols of power in ancient Mesopotamia and Persia. Bucrania adorn First Dynasty tombs at Saqqara in Egypt, and at the North Saqqara cemetery sacred Apis bulls were mummified and placed in huge stone sarcophagi in rock-cut tombs.

Ceremonial "bull-leaping" by acrobats was celebrated in murals by the Minoans (and perhaps also depicted by other peoples of the Near East and Egypt). The slaughter of bulls for elite palatial feasting was a hallmark of the Mycenaeans.

The (adopted) Hittite weather god, Teshub, is depicted riding in a cart pulled by a bull (presumably thundering across the sky). Warriors among the raiding "Sea Peoples" are depicted by the Egytians with horned helmets, and a horned helmet is de rigueur for the stereotypical Viking raider of two millennia later.

Cows follow us wherever we go. Roman tradition had it that the Trojans fled the destruction of their city and rove the Mediterranean (or migrated overland?), resettling on the Italian peninsula. They took their cattle with them. This is credible, inasmuch as an extinct language akin to Etruscan is attested on the island of Lemnos in the northeastern corner of the Aegean, and ancient cattle bones in Tuscany have a closest genetic match in penecontemporaneous cattle bones of northwestern Anatolia. Evidently the Trojans/Etruscans were loathe to part company with their accustomed, perhaps sacrosanct, cattle.

A cow and a human in Laas Geel cave paintings in Somalia. Photo by Najeeb, via Wikimedia Commons.
A cow and a human in Laas Geel cave paintings in Somalia. Photo by Najeeb [CC-BY-SA-2.0]

Cow culture remains with us today. It's common knowledge that cows are sacred to Hindus, but most people don't stop to think about just how much cows are part of our cultural lives.

In fact, cows are present in our language. The Latin word for a bovine was "bos," in Old Irish it was "bo," and still today among speakers of English a cow is familiarly "bossy," etymologically problematical though this may be. Consider also that the American farmer traditionally calls his pigs—taxonomically suids, from Latin "sus" —to the trough with a resounding "Sooo-EEE!"

We fight our sporting battles through cows. The University of Texas mascot is Bevo, a longhorn steer, and the school logo is a virtual bucranium, proudly embossed on scholarly books published by the university press. In beef-packing Chicago, the professional basketball team are the Bulls (with, of course, bucranium logo). University of South Florida teams (intermittently somewhat powerful) also are the Bulls, with their nifty stylized bucranium logo. In Calgary, Alberta, people stampede (as it were) to watch man-and-bovine sport in an annual extravaganza.

A major reason why cows figure so strongly in our sports is that they represent status and power. In modern Texas, a man may be derisively described as "all hat [10-gallon, that is] and no cattle." Their importance is reflected in our naming practices. Out west in the USA, human watering-holes sport names like "Cattleman's Bar" and "Stockgrowers Lounge" (I myself watered at both holes in days of yore, my lack of spurs notwithstanding).

That cows give us status isn't surprising, if you think about their economic importance. Ranchers aren't the only people for whom cows are an investment. For the Masai, cattle are the traditional bank account. Among the Bantu tribes, adoption of cattle-herding occasioned a cultural evolution from monogamy and dowry to polygamy and bride-price (lo, the wealthy rancher!).

Ultimately, it's this combination of practical, economic, and cultural uses that makes cows the most important animals to humankind. Cats and dogs may provide companionship, but no animal can beat the cow when it comes to diversity. Perhaps in another ten thousand years archaeologists will be sifting through the Internet for evidence of today's cow cultures.

Most people don't stop to think about just how much cows are part of our cultural lives.

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A Norwegian cow. Photo by Lars Pistasj [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]
A Norwegian cow. Photo by Lars Pistasj [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]