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Aurochs was still living in the Netherlands around AD 600

09 December 2008

Archaeological researchers at the University of Groningen have discovered that the aurochs, the predecessor of our present-day cow, lived in the Netherlands for longer than originally assumed. Remains of bones recently retrieved from a horn core found in Holwerd (Friesland), show that the aurochs became extinct in around AD 600 and not in the fourth century.

The last aurochs died in Poland in 1627. In January 2008, the bony core horn was unearthed in a mound near Holwerd by amateur-archaeologist Lourens Olivier from Ternaard. The Groningen Institute for Archaeology at the University of Groningen has established that it came from the left horn of an aurochs bull, and C14 dating reveals that the horn dates back to between AD 555 and 650.

The horn core is the bony core of the horn of a bovine animal. While the aurochs was still alive, the horn core would have been covered by a sheath of horn. This horn sheath has since decomposed in the soil. The largest curve in the horn core found in Holwerd measures 59 cm. The whole horn, including the horn sheath, must have been at least 70 cm long.
The aurochs was much larger than the common cows we know today, with aurochs bulls measuring between 160 and 180 cm at the withers, and aurochs cows between 140 and 150 cm. The cattle bred on the Frisian mounds around AD 600 measured between 90 and 120 cm and their horn cores were 25 cm long at the most.

Hunters and the first Dutch farmers hunted the aurochs. The species eventually became extinct in the Netherlands, not only because it was hunted, but also because more and more land was being used for agriculture and the human population was increasing.

Aurochs bones dating back to Roman times have previously been found at various sites in the Dutch river regions. They have also been unearthed in the terps and mounds of Friesland and Groningen. An almost complete skeleton of an aurochs was found in a terp in Britsum (Friesland), 15 km from Holwerd. It dates back to between AD 257 and 421. It was long thought that this was the most recent evidence of the aurochs that would be found, and that the aurochs had therefore become extinct in the Netherlands sometime in the fourth century AD. However, the horn core from Holwerd shows that the aurochs must have been grazing the Frisian meadows for at least another 150 to 250 years.

The find is reported in the newsletter ‘Van Warden en Terpen’ (From Mounds and Terps), published on 4 December 2008 by the Terp Research Association.

Please contact Ms W. Prummel, Associate Professor of Archaeology, tel. +31 (0)50-3636732, e-mail: W.Prummel@rug.nl for more information.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.12 p.m.
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