On Aurochs and the Inadvisibility of Night Herding

I’m becoming increasingly interested in cognitive archaeology, especially in terms of virtual reality and immersive 3d learning. More on that at a later date; but when I describe this thread to colleagues, I sometimes begin by pointing to the caves of Lascaux, and the wall paintings, as a kind of virtual world.

Some of the most impressive paintings at Lascaux are of bulls, cattle – that is, aurochs (and here). These wild, massive animals (much larger than domestic cattle today) went extinct in Europe in the 17th century. We look at the paintings, and think to ourselves, oh yes, aurochs, how big! look how they seem to move in the firelight.

I think we’re missing the terror of these animals. Let me explain.

We’re living in a farmhouse at the moment. The pasture surrounds us, with a field to the east, and a field to the west, which are connected by a narrow path & bridge, just outside the house. The other night, at about 2 in the morning, a single cow in the west field began to low plaintively, irregularly. The night was quiet and still, and her lowing carried right to the house, waking us up. Just when I thought I’d fall asleep again, she’d low once more… it was maddening.

So, farmboy that I once was, I decided to solve the problem, and out I went in my housecoat, armed with a plastic broom handle. I figured if I could drive her to the east field, she’d shut up.

Problem 2: electric fences are invisible at night.

Problem 3: so are black angus cattle.

Problem 4: so is an adult human male wearing a blue housecoat, for all intents and purposes.

I couldn’t find her at all. So if I can’t find the one I want, want the ones I’ve got: it seemed like a good idea at the time, but I figured maybe I could drive the rest of the herd (surely I could find the herd?) to her, thus shutting her up.  My foray into the east pasture startled the rest of the herd in the east field, who all rose up and began to run. The only sound they made came from the thunder of their hooves as they began to circle the field. And I couldn’t see them, not a one; just vague, rushing shapes.

Vague rushing shapes who each weighed approximately 500 – 700 kg.

Vague rushing shapes with horns.

Vague rushing shapes who had but one outlet.

Where I was standing.

So I can now appreciate the terror, the majesty, however dimly, of what that cave painter was trying to convey.

(by the way, once the cattle had run to the west field – and I had vaulted the electric fence – all was quiet again. Except for the one cow left in the east field, who began to low plaintively…)



2 thoughts on “On Aurochs and the Inadvisibility of Night Herding

  1. The link you give for cognitive arch is subscriber only and my institution does not have a subscription (rats)! I’ve been hearing a lot about cognitive arch lately since I’ve become interested in using GIS w/ archaeology to model visibilities. What was it you were linking to? An article? A journal?

  2. Ah, sorry about that. The link was to an encyclopedia article from MITCogNet, by Steven Mithen (from Reading University in the UK). The Google cached version is at http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:dRMSKlGtC5QJ:cognet.mit.edu/MITECS/Entry/mithen.html+cognitive+archaeology+mithen&cd=6&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=ca

    The real link is at http://cognet.mit.edu/library/erefs/mitecs/mithen.html

    Some bibliography from Mithen’s article:
    Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    D’Errico, F. (1995). A new model and its implications for the origin of writing: the la Marche antler revisited. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 5:163-206.

    Flannery, K. V., and J. Marcus. (1983). The Cloud People. New York: Academic Press.

    Gowlett, J. (1984). Mental abilities of early man: a look at some hard evidence. In R. Foley, Ed., Hominid Evolution and Community Ecology. London: Academic Press, pp. 167-192.

    Hodder, I. (1986). Reading the Past. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Hodder, I., Ed. (1982). Symbolic and Structural Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Isaac, G. (1986). Foundation stones: early artefacts as indicators of activities and abilities. In G. N. Bailey and P. Callow, Eds., Stone Age Prehistory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 221-241.

    Marshack, A. (1991). The Tai plaque and calendrical notation in the Upper Palaeolithic. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 1:25-61.

    Mithen, S. (1988). Looking and learning: Upper Palaeolithic art and information gathering. World Archaeology 19:297-327.

    Mithen, S. (1990). Thoughtful Foragers: A Study of Prehistoric Decision Making. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Mithen, S. (1994). Technology and society during the Middle Pleistocene. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 4:3-33.

    Mithen, S. (1996a). The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Science and Religion. London: Thames and Hudson.

    Mithen, S. (1996b). The supernatural beings of prehistory: the cultural storage and transmission of religious ideas. In C. Scarre and C. Renfrew, Eds., External Symbolic Storage. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research (forthcoming).

    Perles, C. (1992). In search of lithic strategies: a cognitive approach to prehistoric chipped stone assemblages. In J-C. Gardin and C. S. Peebles, Eds., Representations in Archaeology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 357-384.

    Renfrew, C., (1985). The Archaeology of Cult, the Sanctuary at Phylakopi. London: Thames and Hudson.

    Renfrew, C., and P. Bahn. (1991). Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice. London: Thames and Hudson.

    Renfrew, C., C. S. Peebles, I. Hodder, B. Bender, K. V. Flannery, and J. Marcus. (1993). What is cognitive archaeology? Cambridge Archaeological Journal 3:247-270.

    Renfrew, C., and E. Zubrow, Eds. (1993). The Ancient Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge Univerity Press.

    Shanks, M., and C. Tilley. (1987). Re-Constructing Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Shennan, S. J. (1989). Cultural transmission and cultural change. In S. E. van der Leeuw and R. Torrence, Eds., What’s New? A Closer Look at the Process of Innovation. London: Unwin Hyman, pp. 330-346.

    Shennan, S. J. (1991). Tradition, rationality and cultural transmission. In R. Preucel, Ed., Processual and Postprocessual Archaeologies: Multiple Ways of Knowing the Past. Carbondale: Center for Archaeological Investigations, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, pp. 197-208.

    Shennan, S. J. (1996). Social inequality and the transmission of cultural traditions in forager societies. In S. Shennan and J. Steele, Eds., The Archaeology of Human Ancestry: Power, Sex and Tradition. London: Routledge, pp. 365-379.

    Wynn, T. (1979). The intelligence of later Acheulian hominids. Man 14:371-391.

    Wynn, T. (1981). The intelligence of Oldowan hominids. Journal of Human Evolution 10:529-541.

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