Cattle, Oxen and Bulls, the Most Useful Animal of Ancient Egypt

Cattle, the Most Useful Animal of Ancient Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn

A reproduction of Prehistoric Sahara rock art depicting Cattle (by Thomas Baker, prints available at

From very ancient Egyptian rock carvings in the Eastern desert, we can surmise that from the earliest of times, cattle were viewed as an important indicator of personal status, to the extent that they become part of the iconography of the immerging elite of Egypt. There is no real surprise here. It is sometimes difficult for us in the modern era with all of our convinces to remember that in more ancient times, basic necessities such as food and shelter were paramount. They become symbolic of those first important men who rose above others to lead, perhaps at first, small tribes that grew along the path to Egypt's early civilization.

There are two variable hypotheses that have been proposed to explain the origins of Egyptian cattle. They are either believed to have been introduced to ancient Egypt from the Near East and the Levant, or to have arose from the indigenous aurochsen (Bos primigenius) of North Africa. The cattle from the Near East that were tamed (Mureybit, Syria c. 8000 BC) and domesticated cattle (Turkey and Iran c. 62001 BC) support the first argument. However, excavations at early Holocene sites in Egypt's Western Desert also support the second view, that indigenous cattle may have been present in the western Sahara as early as 8000 BC. However, the second proposition is a matter of hot debate, and the earliest undisputed evidence for domesticated cattle in Egypt is from Merimde and the Fayoum (c. 5000 BC).

Yet, as early as even 12,500 BC, there existed a special relationship between human and cattle in the Nile Valley. In Egyptian Nubia at Tushka, the horn cores of wild cattle were discovered

directly over two human burials, and a horn core was also found near the skull of a third burial. They appear to have been grave markers.

Cattle depicted in the tomb of Nefer at Saqqara

Ruminants (cud-chewing animals) such as cattle are valuable to humans because they are able to transform otherwise unusable plant material into an edible product. During the Pharaonic Period, grasslands were usually situated 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. Owing to the vagaries of ancient Egypt's rainfall, the productivity of grazing land would have varied, sometimes considerably from year to year so there was also a reluctance to irrigate fields not devoted to usable crops. Consequently, a grazing strategy developed early on that would mix a system of penned animal raising and range herding.

In fact, this system probably developed out of the drying climate of Egypt. Prior to the historical period, the region of Egypt was a somewhat wetter climate, and there would have existed considerable range land for cattle. Some of the most recent investigations suggest that during prehistory, the Egyptians spent part of the year in the Nile Valley, and part of it in the savannahs that are now desert, range feeding their cattle. As the deserts dried up, there would have then been more need to develop stable agricultural practices. Hence, while cattle were an important part of the historical period, they were perhaps more so in earlier periods.

The majority of Egyptian cattle show to have been herded and range fed, based on the textual evidence left to us. These texts describe many large herds during the historic period, so after the savannahs became desert areas, there must have been an overgrazing problem at times. Considerable herds of cattle were attached to temples and personal estates. Even if there were more cattle than actually needed, this was a means of ensuring the survival of at least some of the herd after natural disasters such as droughts or disease, providing both an emergency food source and enough stock to propagate new herds. Evidence exists to suggest that the ancient Egyptians held large numbers of cattle as an adaptive response to the regions environmental uncertainties.

Some of the desert Neolithic rock art and later Egyptian tomb scenes reveal interesting clues to the development of cattle breeds after their initial introduction. The most ancient rock art depicts cattle with long horns, including a lyri-form and a type with horns pointed forward. However, short horned and polled cattle appear more frequently in later tomb scenes, with the polled being more common than the short-horned cattle. It would seem that the long-horned cattle (ngiw), on the basis of artistic representations, were the oldest domestic cattle bred in Egypt. They were used both in religious sacrifices and for their meat, and long horned castrated (oxen) appear to have been working animals of choice.

Cattle with no horns depicted in the tomb of Khaemhat on the West Bank at Thebes

Short horned cattle (wndw) have only been confirmed since the 5th Dynasty, and do not seem to have become popular until the Hyksos period. According to textual evidence, a short horned variety of bovid could have been imported into Egypt from Syria, but a genetic relationship between the Syrian cattle and the Egyptian short-horned variety has not been established. Hence, it is also likely that the short-horned animals were evolved through breeding from the original long-horned cattle. During the later periods of Egyptian history, a hornless breed also became increasingly prominent in various depictions. They seem to be highly prized, for they never appeared as draft animals. The zebu, or brahma, was also introduced into Egypt during the New Kingdom.

The colors of Egyptian cattle, based on painted scenes, included black, brown, brown and white, black and white, white spotted with black and pure white.

Oxen pulling a plow during planting from the Tomb of Sennedjem on the West Bank at Thebes

With cattle having been established early on in Egyptian history, the herdsmen were obviously educated in their care and maintenance. Certain bulls were kept for breeding purposes which show their awareness of fundamental breeding practices, and we also know that they understood how to assist the cows in calving. Furthermore, the Kahun (gynecological) Papyrus also deals with cattle diseases, which provides evidence that some physicians also possessed veterinary skills. Many of the priests associated with the cult of the goddess Sekhmet were medical physicians, but we are told that they also "knew cattle".

However, the herdsmen were primarily responsible for the care of cattle, and it was their job to make sure that the food for the cattle was plentiful and properly balanced. With the exception of a few chosen animals, cattle were allowed to graze in open fields whenever possible. Of course, in the open range, cattle could become mixed with those of another owner, and therefore it became necessary early on to establish some form of identification. From the excavation of a 26th Dynasty animal cemetery, we believe that one means of identifying ownership was to etch or mark the horns of cattle. However, branding scenes are known from several Theban tombs

(Nebamun and Neferhotep), as well as from the Varzy Papyrus, and branding was probably a more effective means of identification practiced by large estates and temples. The Varzy Papyrus tells of a man who apparently was involved in cattle rustling, who placed his own brand over that of the true owner, not unlike his counterparts in the American Old West.

Cattle, apparently being fed, from the tomb of Menna on the West Bank at Thebes

However, as time progressed, the Nile Valley became more and more cultivated, limiting the open range where cattle could feed. Hence, tethering cattle by means of ropes fixed to pierced stones, trees or stumps became more necessary. This also necessitated providing the cattle with supplemental nutrients such as protein and amino acids, and from tomb scenes, we find that one method was hand feeding them fresh green produce and bread dough, which became important supplements in the dry season or anytime when green grasses became unavailable. This provided important minerals and proteins that dried grasses did not. However, it must be pointed out that such feeding, though a good supplement for range fed cattle, was impractical for all cattle. To supplement the cattle in vast herds would have placed cattle in direct competition with humans for the same foodstuffs. Hence, evidence suggests that at least some cattle herds were driven to better pastures in the marshlands of the northern Delta.

Cattle, of course were used for food, and for sacrifice. However, even with sacrifice, they became food for the priests. The taste of the beef of such animals could and was regulated by its feeding habits, exercise and quality of life. Some bulls, depicted as exceedingly fat, setting low on their haunches and with pendulous bellies, seem to have been fatted and nurtured for a specific purpose, such as ritual sacrificial offerings. The flavor of their beef would have certainly differed from that of range fed cattle or of oxen toughened by hard labor.

Cattle were also used for milk, very early on, first evidenced in the fourth millennium BC, both in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Cows being milked were not frequently depicted, but consistently throughout the Dynastic Period we finds such scenes. Excavations at Amarna unearthed a series of sticks that are thought to be a muzzle that prevented a calf from drinking its mother's milk. There were similar finds elsewhere that suggest the muzzling was a common means of preserving some of the cows milk for human use.

A representation of a sacred bull of ancient Egypt

Of course, cattle, specifically bulls, were very important to the ancient Egyptian religion, and to kingship particularly. The early example of the Apis bull, famous throughout the ancient world and directly connected to the King's cult, is found on the Palermo stone, which dates to the 2nd Dynasty reign of Khasekhemwy. Apis was a personification of the god Ptah of Memphis and, upon the bull's death, was assimilated with the god Osiris. Upon its death, a bull would be selected among many to replace this most rare of animals. It had to meet certain criteria, such as having a saddle-marked back and a colored patch on the tongue and forehead. From various tomb scenes, it is believed that the Apis need not be a particular breed of bull, but only have the special marking.

However, so important was the bull to Egyptian religion that other bulls were worshiped in a similar way at other locations. For example, the Mnevis bull was associated with the god Re-Atum of Heliopolis and the Buchis bull was believed to be a manifestation of the god Montu of Armant (ancient Hermonthis). Both had to have special markings, though we have little information on the Mnevis criteria. The Buchis bull could be recognized as authentic by its long hairs, which grew backwards, contrary to the nature of other animals.

Statuette of a sacred bull from ancient Egypt

However, cattle worship was not limited to bulls. One of Egypt's most lasting, national goddesses was Hathor, who also took on several personalities in her role as a cow goddess. She was almost certainly a very old god in the Egyptian religion, perhaps evolving from the very earliest Egyptian associations with cattle.

Certain aspects of ancient Egypt were engrained in the fabric of Egyptian civilization. Of course, there was the Nile River that seems to have been central to everything, but in the course of history, Cattle became not only a source of food, but a symbol of Egyptian power that would survive through its entire history. While such animals as the falcon had important religious roles, only cattle served the ancient Egyptians in so many roles, from food stuff to the beasts of burden to the manifestation of gods.

See also:

Ancient Egyptian Agriculture
Ancient Egypt Stockbreeding and Hunting
Animals of Ancient Egypt
Divine Cult of the Sacred Bulls
The Peasant-Farmer


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Last Updated: June 13th, 2011