Egyptian clay model of cattle

Contributed by British Museum

Clay figurine of four cows found in an ancient Egyptian grave. © Trustees of the British Museum

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This clay model of four cows was made in Egypt over 5000 years ago. It was placed in a grave, perhaps to provide its owner with food in the afterlife. Cows were revered in Egypt as a source of life in the harsh desert environment and whole cows were sometimes also buried with people. Later they were worshipped as the cow goddess Bat - the protector and mother of the pharaoh.

When were cows first domesticated?

Cows were first domesticated in North Africa in 8000 BC. After the Ice Age the earth had grown warmer and the lush savannah was transformed into the Sahara desert. As the climate became drier people became restricted to the Nile valley, where they relied on cows for food and as beasts of burden to carry water. Cows were also domesticated independently in the Middle East and today all cattle across the World are descendents of these Middle Eastern cows.

When cows were first domesticated people could not drink their milk. It took a long time for humans to become tolerant.

Tracing the earliest cattle

This figurine shows the form of the earliest domestic cattle in Africa, with high shoulders but without humps and graceful, lyre-shaped horns. They resemble modern Kuri cattle of Africa’s western Lake Chad.

Genetic studies shed light on when and where cattle were first domesticated. After the Ice Ages, wild cattle thrived from Pakistan and North India across the Near East into North Africa and Europe. DNA from living cattle and ancient bones suggests there were three domestications, that all took place 8,000-10,000 years ago.

One domestic line originated in the mountains that run from Turkey through to Iran. Humped cattle like India’s “sacred cows,��? were domesticated around the Indus River Valley in the north-west of the country, and wild African cattle may have been domesticated in north-eastern Africa.

Modern African breeds have genetic markers that show they descend from a common regional gene pool. Europe’s cattle breeds descend from Southwest Asian stock which had been introduced into Europe by 7,500 years ago.

The remains of the earliest known African domestic cattle date to about 7,800 years ago. Humped cattle, including cross breeds common in Africa today, have South Asian ancestors.

Art from the time, made in the then-green Sahara, depicts spotted cows like these, with curving horns and full udders. Later Egyptian tomb paintings show cattle pulling plows and being milked. These pottery cattle were buried to offer help in the afterlife.

Professor Diane Gifford-Gonzalez, Anthropologist, University of California

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  • 1 comment
  • 1. At 18:10 on 21 October 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    So with a little help from Wikipedia it occured to me that without Eye of Bat we couldn?t barter for butter?
    At any rate without animal husbandry the so called civilisations of Homo sapiens sapiens wouldn?t have got this far. Interestingly..... if you rearrange the word husbandry.....
    Hu + S(ia) + Ba + (i)n-D-Ra = Husbandry. Is it a possible indo-european etymology for the word?
    In ancient Kemet (Egypt) Hu and Sia were partners. Sia was the personification of Divine Knowledge/Omniscience, the mind of the gods. Hu was the personification of Divine Utterance, the voice of authority. In other words putting the two together we get ?Wisdom and learning? the two primary distinctions that define husbandry and civilisation.
    Indra is the original King of the Gods as recorded by the ?Indian? Vedas, but may itself be a composite word possibly comprised of:-
    (i)nd + Ra meaning the Ra of ?Ind? or Indus. Intriguingly the Indus is that other great Asian river culture raised on cattle breeding. All of which may or may not refer to the Indus civilisation. Is that an appealing idea? Can we link the two etymologically? ...OR....perhaps..
    (Re)n ? D(uat) ? Ra meaning the eternal name of the king of the Western kingdom from which the sun (Ra) begins his journey across the sky would make better sense? Anyone care to comment?
    So who is Bat, the ancient goddess of cattle? Ba+T(uat), the eternal soul of the after-life? No, apparently Bat is Hu. O.K. You work it out. It?s all in Wikipedia... and good luck to you.
    Thanks Ian. Thanks Wikipedia. This is fun.

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About 3500 BC


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