Despite the title parodying a line in "Home on the Range", this question focuses on the "buffalo" who is actually under the genus Bison.

In OTL, the 800 breeds of cattle totaling up to 1,400,000,000 individuals are descended from a species who had been extinct for only a few short centuries--the Aurochs.

But at the same time that Aurochs became the first of man's walking beefs, there was a fair diversity of a related wild cattle--the bison. Not just the American Bison (Bison bison) and the Eurasian Wisent (Bison bonasus), but also the Ancient Bison (Bison antiquus), the Longhorn (Bison latifrons) and the Steppe Bison (Bison priscus). Any one of them, in an alternate history scenario, could be a likely candidate for a good amount of beef and milk.

But before I finalize this point of departure, a curiosity stands. Why did man decide to domesticate cattle belonging to Bos rather than Bison? Was it a question of geography, characteristic, or both?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ People do have buffalo ranches, you know. Google "buffalo ranching". $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Nov 3, 2016 at 4:02
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ While Bison bison is indeed being domesticated slowly as we speak, it's an interesting question nonetheless. $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    Nov 3, 2016 at 4:10
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ OTL? WHat does that mean here? $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Nov 3, 2016 at 6:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @JDługosz - OTL = Our Time Line $\endgroup$
    – user10945
    Nov 3, 2016 at 7:51
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I kind of like this question, and I don't think this was off-topic, but since it already got closed (honestly, probably due to your prior reputation on questions) you may consider re-asking it in terms of "what is the minimum change necessary to have Bison species' domesticated before Bos" $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Nov 3, 2016 at 12:49

2 Answers 2


Probably a combination of geography and persistance.

From dna analysis, it looks like Bos itself was a very tough species to domesticate, wild aurochs being a large and dangerous animal with none of the characteristics we associate with domesticated cattle today such as docility and a more even temperament.

Characteristic may or may not have played a part. Roundabout evidence for this: Yaks, which although are of genus Bos, are more closely related to American bison than European bison are to American bison (paper here). While dna lineages are hard to trace geographically, theory goes that European bison arose from steppe bison; American bison from cross breeding between European bisons and yaks. Yaks are generally more amenable to domestication and it's been said it is easier to domesticate American rather than European bison. It is possible the aurochs line had characteristics that made it somewhat more amenable to domestication than the steppe bison. This is debatable.

Alternatively, it may just have been that there was some aurochs population pressure in the near east (non-availability of food, disease, difficult terrain?) that reduced herd size and brought them in enough contact with humans for humans to attempt domestication. Given that there don't seem to have been many aurochs domestication events and these few events were concentrated in just a few areas of aurochs/bison range, it's quite possible there was some geographical factor to it.

The tribe Bovini does have another genus Bubalus or water buffalo that was domesticated in Asia much later, about 5000 years ago. These are said to be larger and less gentle than cattle. Perhaps depending on the length of domestication and contact with humans, bison bison behaviour too will change over several generations.


Why did man decide to domesticate cattle belonging to Bos rather than Bison? Was it a question of geography, characteristic, or both?

My first speculation was that size matters in this case, which is an idea that I will explore first, but upon further consideration, I think that this is partially right for a different reason and that the amenability of Bos to providing farm labor relative to Bison may have been the most important factor.

At the time that cattle were first domesticated (something that probably happened a number of centuries after the domestication of sheep and goats, and tens of thousands of years after the domestication of dogs, but several thousand of years before the horse was domesticated (and before the hybrid mule was available), and a dozen centuries or so before donkey were domesticated) human communities were much smaller than they are today. A community with 200 people in it would have been a major city. A few dozen people in a community would have been pretty typical.

Bison are much larger than Bos, on average. This means that the same amount of pasture can support fewer Bison than Bos, and that each Bison slaughtered will produce more meat at once. Slaughtering more meat than your community members can promptly eat in a week or two is going to produce lots a wasted meat that your community spent a lot of time and effort nurturing. But, if each slaughtered animal is smaller, it is easier to eat a larger share of the meet from the slaughtered animal before it spoils and is wasted.

Indeed, even modern cows are probably bigger than the earliest domesticated Bos. So, meat production from slaughtered cows could be broken up into more manageable installments.

Upon further consideration, I still think that smaller size was an advantage for Bos, but I think that it may have had less to do with the amount of meat produced per animal slaughtered (after all smoking and/or salting beef to preserve it must have been mastered quite early on, probably even before herding and domesticated animals were developed), and it had more to do with a few other factors related to size:

  1. Smaller animals eat less, so cows are more useful than Bison if you have a limited supply of grazing land available (and early on in farming the Fertile Crescent where cattle were domesticated had a lot of forests that were cleared by early farmers for crops and much less open steppe pasture than it does now).

  2. Smaller animals are easier to control while using them to carry out farm labor than bigger animals like Bison, particularly for early herders whose animal control skills and techniques may not have been very sophisticated.

  3. To the extent that you want to prevent your cattle from walking off away from your farm with fences or rope leads, for example, it is much easier to restrain a cow than a Bison. You need bigger fences and stronger rope to restrain a Bison.

  4. At least in the winter, it appears that early Neolithic farmers may have used the common area of their homes as a combined family room/cattle barn. While having a bull in the China shop is bad, having a Bison in the China shop is worse. The comparatively smaller cow would have been preferable to the Bison to share your family room with on a bitterly cold night (in part to provide the humans with additional indoor heat from the animals as well as for the benefit of the animals who are protected from cold and wolves when indoors). Of course, sheep and goats would be better still to have indoors, but neither sheep nor goats are well suited to serving as beasts of burden, so there wouldn't have been any substitute beasts of burden to the cow at least until the donkey was domesticated in Egypt, after the European Neolithic Revolution had already started to expand into this "virgin territory" from a farmer's perspective.

A related consideration is that before a cow, particularly a male cow, becomes food, it is also a major source of muscle power for all manner of purposes from hauling sledges (carts would only come thousands of years later), to clearing forests, to ploughing fields. I've seen other members of the Bos genus of several species used in this capacity, but I've seen a lot of American Bison (the city where I live owns its own Bison herd), yet I've never seen one used as a beast of burden and I seriously doubt that Bison would be well suited to this role.

Bos also has a longer lifespan than Bison (36 v. 25 years in captivity and proportionately less in the wild). If meat is the primary objective, this makes Bison is superior, but if you want a beast of burden, you would prefer a longer lived animal. This fact is suggestive of the idea that cattle may have been domesticated primarily as a source of power for horticultural efforts and only secondarily as a food source in its own right.

A beast of burden first, food source second model is also consistent with the reality that eating the grains that cattle eat directly is about tens times as efficient a source of calories as eating beef. You don't want to waste precious grain growing capacity on cattle feed and thereby reduce the percentage of grain grown available to feed people on cows, unless the cows can do work that increases total grain production by more than their own dietary needs reduce food production. Getting enough calories was the primary consideration in the early Neolithic period - population densities were increasing by a factor of as much as 100 fold as quickly as population growth could get it there, while calories per person actually fell from the previous hunter-gatherer era to the early Neolithic before humans had fully mastered farming. So there would be considerable pressure to use domesticated beasts of burden the wasted less calories than Bison would.

Another piece of corroboration for the beast of burden first, food source second model for cow domestication is the popularity of the mule on small family subsistence farms in the U.S. as late as the mid-19th century (recall the swan song of "40 acres and a mule"). It is much harder to cultivate enough crops to feed an entire family without a beast of burden than it is to do so with one.

But, mules are even smaller than cows which makes them desirable on a small farm because they eat less, yet are still big enough to get the beast of burden jobs done and are more manageable than cows. Did you know that cows kill more humans every year in the U.S. than poisonous spiders, gila monsters, snakes and sharks combined? Mules, not so much.

The benefits of mules relative to cows as beasts of burden on small farms like those of the early Neolithic era due to their smaller size would apply equally to smaller than modern cows relative to European Bison which were apparently bigger and wilder than American Bison.

  • $\begingroup$ «several thousand thousands of years before the horse was domesticated» that can’t be right since you’re putting those other domestication events millions of years back. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Nov 3, 2016 at 10:30
  • $\begingroup$ Bison was not larger than Bos, and certainly not 'much larger on average'. Infact, Bos currently has the larger species. Holocene aurochs where shorter but stockier than the cohabiting wisent, and probably about the same mass. Wikipedia estimates 700kg for the auroch, while the wisent is 634kg for males and 424kg for females. The Indian Bos Gaurus is today the largest bovid, with adults ranging from 650-1000kg and the largest males at 1500kg. The same figures for the American bison are 318-1000kg and 1270kg. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Nov 3, 2016 at 12:59
  • $\begingroup$ Your argument about size is also deceptive. Domesticated cattle were significantly smaller than wild cattle, possibly because early herders culled male that got too large and aggressive and thus artificially selected for the smallest males (opposite of what happens in the wild). Check out page 197 here. The smaller size is thus not a reason for selecting a wild species, but an artifact of the domestication event itself. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Nov 3, 2016 at 13:07
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding traction power, every domesticated bovid has been used successfully for traction. Not only Bos Taurus, Bos Frontalis (Gayal), Bos Javanicus (Banteng), and Bos Grunniens (Yak) but also the non-Bos Bubalis Bubalis (Water Buffalo). If they can domesticate it enough to herd it, then they can use it to carry things, and if they can use it to carry things, they can use it pull things. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Nov 3, 2016 at 13:11
  • $\begingroup$ Early domesticated animals did not compete with humans for eating grains. Grain fed cattle are probably a Roman-age innovation. Prior to that point they were pastured, and they still are to a large extent. Cows can eat plants (grass, clover, lupine, vetch) that humans cannot, so there was limited competition between cattle and grain; as in fact they still is not. Cattle raising is done on lands too dry (shortgrass prarie from Texas to Nebraska) or too cool in the summer (New England, New York, Wisconsin dairy production) for grain. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Nov 3, 2016 at 13:15

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .