In Search of the Durham Cow

The Durham Cow

The Durham Cow

Can you help? I'm trying to find out more about this engraving, entitled The Durham Cow.

I bought it at an antiques fair in Oxfordshire last year. Only after I'd taken it home did I realise that the image had been cut out of an old book a practice I heartily disapprove of, which would certainly have dissuaded me from buying the engraving in the first place, had I but known.

Intrigued, I finally removed the engraving from its frame last week, and read the accompanying text. Horror of horrors it looks as if the book from which it was taken might have been written by Charles Darwin or one of his close colleagues! The style and content of the passage sound remarkably familiar. Here's what it says:

[…] or zoology, that the great Hercynian uri have been less favoured than their contemporaries, bisontes jubati, in the progress of human civilisation, and that no individuals now remain for study and comparison like the aurochs of Lithuania.
"My esteemed friend, Professor Bell, who has written the 'History of Existing British Quadrupeds,' is disposed to believe, with Cuvier, and most other naturalists, that our domestic cattle are the [engraving inserted here] degenerated descendants of the great urus. But it seems to me more probable that the herds of the newly-conquered regions would be derived from the already domesticated cattle of the Roman colonists, of those 'boves nostri,' for example, by comparison with which Cæsar endeavoured to convey to his countrymen and idea of stupendous and formidable uri of the Hercynian forests. The taming of such a species would be a much more difficult and uncertain mode of supplying the exigencies of the agriculturist than the importation of the breeds of oxen already domesticated and in use by the […] of the new colonies. And that the latter was the chief if not the […]

Interestingly, the quoted passage above might itself be a quote: the inverted commas before the words My esteemed friend appear in the original, indicating that the whole passage might be part of an extended quotation. Having said that, the use of inverted commas like this might just be an obscure typesetting convention.

On the reverse side of the page (which could have been the preceding or following page no page numbers are shown) there appears a second, longer passage, which says:

[…] race, fortuitously escaped from servitude and became […] impossible, satisfactorily to solve. The ancient accounts of Urus, or wild ox, declare it to have been an animal of enormous size, and great fierceness; and the horns are described as being large, spreading, and acute. In this country and many parts of the Continent, have been found numerous fossil bones of oxen, with large horns, having the form and direction of those of certain breeds only of our present cattle, particularly of such as are most wild; as, for instance,the celebrated wild white oxen of Craven, of Chillingham Park, and of Scotland (the Bos Scoticus of some authors).
"I cannot but consider it as extremely probable that these fossil remains belonged to the original wild condition of our domestic ox, an option which Cuvier appears to have entertained, who calls the skull, 'crânes semblable à ceux d'un bœuf domestique;' that is, skulls resembling those of the domestic ox. They are found only in very recent deposits, frequently in caverns, mingled with the remains of various other animals, as in the celebrated cave of Kirkdale, and in different parts of Cornwall and Devonshire. I have several teeth, and some fragments of bones, from Kent's Hole, in the latter county, where they were found in the same mass with the remains of the elephant, the rhinoceros, the deer, the bear, and the hyæna. Cuvier, however, considers that they existed after the destruction of the latter species. It has, indeed, been attempted to prove that the ancient remains alluded to, together with the Chillingham and Scottish breeds, belong to a distinct specific type from the common domestic ox; and some modifications of structure have been cited in proof of this opinion.
"It does not appear to me, however, that these modifications are of sufficient value to constitute specific distinctions, as they appertain only to parts which are very variable in particular breeds of dometic cattle; they are some slight differences in the form and direction of the horns, and the existence in old bulls of a short, rudimentary mane, and some hair upon the breast. Now, there is certainly no point of sufficient importance to form a specific distinction, even were the form of the horns less variable than they are in domestic oxen. We require yet a series of well-authenticated and well-directed experiments on the intermixture of the Scottish, or Chillingham cattle, with the the domestic breeds, and the fertile or infertile character of the progeny; which, if the views I have so repeatedly stated be correct, would at once decide the question. Even Colonel Smith himself, a high authority in such matters, although he urges the specific difference in the two animals, says, 'The character of the domestic oxen is absolutely the same as the fossil; and the wild breeds differ only in the flexure of the horns and external appearance, occasioned by the variations of climate, food, and treatment.' But, it may be asked, do variations of climate, food, and treatment, produce specific distinctions? And yet this distinction is held both by Colonel Smith and Mr. Swainson. Upon the whole, I cannot but believe that the fossil bones belonged to the original stock of our domestic ox, and that the wild white cattle (the Bos Scoticus and Urus Scoticus of the authors just named) approach so near to it as to […] matter of doubt, not whether they all belong to the same species, but whether this breed be […]

Darwin was certainly familiar with the work of all the individuals named in the two passages. But so would be many of his contemporaries.

Preliminary Searches

I have carried out some preliminary searches to try to identify the above passages. Google gave some useful pointers, but was unable to find exact matches on key phrases taken from the the two passages. An initial scan through the indexes of some of my many Darwin-related books also failed to identify the passages, as did a search through on-line versions of some of Darwin's works.

Over to You

I still hope to track down the original source of the passages quoted above. You could make my work a whole lot easier, however, if you have access to any old books on evolution and/or domestication of animals, and wouldn't mind casting your eyes through them for the quoted passages.

If you have any useful observations, or manage to track down the actual passages, please post a note in the comments below.

This article was published on 21st January, 2001.

One thought on “In Search of the Durham Cow

Leave a Reply

Please note: Creationist and other religious fundamentalist comments will not be approved. (Yeah, I know, it's all one big, fat conspiracy.) If you are determined to keep spouting your unique brand of nonsense, kindly do so on your own website.