Why did Aurochs and Wisent disappear

September 19, 2011

Why did the Aurochs and Wisent/European bison disappear from large parts of Europe, and in some areas already thousands of years ago?

I recently visited the tiny zoological museum in the old university town of Lund, in the Southern Swedish province of Skåne. It is a real, early 1900s-style zoological museum, with bones, skeletons and small signs in latin, from floor to roof. It has just been closed down, and its collections are now heading for storage boxes in a warehouse somewhere, not available anymore to the public, which is a shame.

On display here were a sensational 18 skulls from Swedish aurochs! Mainly found between 1868 and 1949, when a lot of hand-digging of drainage ditches, criss-crossing the wetlands in South Sweden, were carried out. That all stopped after 1950, and since that year there are almost no more finds. Thousands more are of course still in the ground, waiting to be excavated. And there was one big, entire aurochs skeleton!

Striking was to compare the heads and the skeletons of aurochs and wisent. Wisent are big, massive animals, but the aurochs were clearly bigger!! The aurochs bulls’ heads were absolutely huge, more than 70 cms from top to bottom! And with massive horn cores, on which there once had been long horns growing.

All aurochs finds in Sweden, from 84 different confirmed sites, date from between 10 200 BP (BP means ”Before Present”) to 7 000 BP. So the aurochs arrived to Sweden pretty soon after the ice pulled back, very near the ice front, on the grass-covered tundra-steppe grasslands. Judging by the number of finds, it must have been a pretty common and widespread animal here for almost 3 000 years. Then, when Sweden became isolated from mainland Europe by the creation of the Öresund straits, the hunting pressure most probably killed them off, since there were no new animals coming over to replenish the populations. This already at 7500 BP!

In Jutland in Denmark, still connected to mainland Europe, they survived at least another 1000 years. Why would they have done that if climatic or vegetation change should have been the main reason for its disappearance? Southernmost Sweden and Jutland are on similar latitudes, similar altitude and have a very similar climate. The youngest aurochs and bison finds either have marks of arrows and spears in them, or have been found in human settlement garbage heaps. A sign as good as any of predation.

Stunning to me is that with embarassingly little variation, many archeozoologists, zoologists and ecologists in Europe seem to have had one favourite main explanation for all disappearances of our large mammal fauna, in Europe and many places elsewhere: climate and/or vegetation change. It seems to be like THE dogma, and it works in parallell with the dogma that ”Europe was once covered in closed-canopy forests from North to South and East to West”. When I question these two strong dogma, I frequently feel like the child asking why the Emperor has no clothes on. And I have met almost unbelievable aggression from the proponents of the ”closed canopy forest”, and the ”climate change killed all the large mammals” theories. It is obviously a very touchy, sensitive subject since they tend to feel very provoked by scientific questions challenging these caressed theories. At times it feels like with almost a religious fervor.

Very seldom do these zoologists and forestry ecologists recognize, or even hint at the possibility that early man’s hunting abilities and hunting pressure could have been an important reason, maybe even a dominant reason, or God forbid, maybe even THE single most important reason. Maybe mankind’s active extermination of these species even LED to the subsequent change of vegetation cover? We all know what happens when you take away all the grazers and browsers from good soils  – it all turns into forest. In Sweden for example, the aurochs and wisent disappeared 3000 years before domestic cattle ever came here…  Seems to me a pretty good reason for forest growth. Not really rocket science, is it?

I have come to realise that man, also very early man, most probably was the absolutely dominating reason for the disappearance of ALL THE MAMMAL MEGAFAUNA in Europe during Holocene (after the latest Ice age, from c 12 000 years ago) and most probably also before that. The same effect that man seems to have had also in all the other continents.

The early hunters in Europe most probably exterminated the mammoth, the wooly rhino, the cave bear and the dwarf hippo on Crete, plus the muskox and the giant deer. Later generations of hunters followed in their tracks, killing off all the lions of the Mediterranean countries, the wisent/bison, the aurochs and the tarpan. Not some freaking “climate change”, ”afforestation”, “land bridges” or other mumble-jumble. Why then would aurochs survive 1000 years more in Denmark than in Sweden? Don’t tell me the climate was that different, that is just ridiculous!

These were all very highly adaptable species, that could survive and live well in a number of environments and climate zones, from almost deserts to high alpine areas, deep forests and open grasslands. Their domesticated relatives have no problems surviving all these conditions today. Even very cold winters and very dry summers. We have horses and cattle living virtually everywhere!. So the ”climate and vegetation change explanation” to me seems to stem originally more from old Christian religious-biased dogmas in order to blame someone else than our own ancestors and ourselves. This ”climate and vegetation change” blame game originates from a time when Man was seen as God’s Greatest Creation, and we could simply not possibly have been the cause, there must have been another, external reason…

But we, the greedy Mankind has always killed off as much as we have been technically able to.  It is somewhat of a bad old habit of ours, we could say,  which unfortunately continues and escalates to this day. Tuna, eels, salmon, cod, rhinos, tigers, elephants, sharks, just to mention some of the contemporary species that we are annihilating at great speed.

I think that what we see in the different historical distribution maps of these large mammals in Europe throughout the ages, is nothing else than simply an inverted distribution map of the early hunters and their population density. The one and only reason for bison and aurochs and tarpan surviving for so long  in parts of Eastern Europe was most probably the lower hunting pressure on them there, and the larger, not yet fragmented ecosystems in the region, which made hunting more difficult for man, and made migration and escape easier for the wildlife.

Aurochs spine with arrow markingsOnly three complete aurochs skeletons have been found in Scandinavia, and two of them had clear marks from arrow-/spearheads. The third was found with several flintstone arrowheads lying right beside it, that had probably been lodged in the animal’s softer parts, now since long gone. So all these animals were very obviously hunted. Hunting is also the reason why many finds of single aurochs or wisent bones and craniums tend to be from the human garbage dumps of the time. Because they were all butchered and eaten!

And another area where some zoologists and forestry ecologists seem to have misled us for generations, is the dogma that all our large mammals primarily were forest animals. Red deer, wisent/bison, aurochs and tarpan. This leading to the misconception that wildlife and wilderness protection by necessity always needs to be the same thing as forest protection. I think that is wrong. These species were all most probably, just like their latter day domesticated relatives, animals primarily connected to open areas of grassland. And it was possibly even them who primarily kept these areas open, since centuries and millennia back in time. Possibly since before forests even developed in Europe after the latest Ice age. All these large herbivores were there in place before any forest was. The fact that they were last found in forest habitats before they finally disappeared, or that some of them live in forests today, doesn’t mean that this necessarily was the primary habitat of their own choice. It could instead mean that the forest was just the last habitat where man allowed them to exist, or where we simply couldn’t manage to hunt them efficiently enough! Like many other species that we today slowly begin to realise are not necessarily only preferring to live in the high Alps or remote mountains (wolverine, golden eagle, vultures, ibex, chamois…). These areas were simply just their last bastions for survival.

The wisent is not only a forest animal, it loves grazing grass in open lands, and it needs to eat grass, especially wintertime. Most people’s impression of the bison seems to stem from the herd in Bialowieza in Poland, which is a dense, decidious old-growth forest. But how come then the park rangers have to feed the bisons many tons of hay every year then, if wisent were only browsers, not grazers? And how come the bison seem to prefer spending a lot of their time eating in the fields surrounding the Bialowieza forest, as soon as they get the opportunity?

I feel there are still a lot of old dogmas and misconceptions that need to be ventilated out from the zoology and ecology closets, about the early natural heritage history of Europe. I think we will all learn a lot of amazing new facts during the coming years. Especially when it comes our large herbivores and the history of the European savannahs and park-like forests. If all of Europe once was a natural closed-canopy forest, honestly, where did the almost 50% of all European species come from, that are strongly connected to or even dependant of the open, grazed landscapes and grasslands?

Only ”Creationists” believe that such a multitude of species and the hoards of local endemics with very developed and complicated symbiosises with other species, could evolve in only 6 000 years (when the first domestic cattle came to Europe and man started agriculture and forest clearing).

I think the zoologists and ecologists in Europe will need to seriously rethink some of their main dogma ”facts” that have until now been seen as baselines for Europe’s natural heritage history.


Interesting links:

• PhD Thesis by Jonas Ekström ”The Late Quaternary History of the Urus (Bos primigenius Bojanus 1827) in Sweden. Lund University, Department of Quaternary Geology 1993

•  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aurochs

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