Cattle thrive across the Fifth World. Domesticated by humans in the Middle East more than 10,000 years ago, their range and population grew alongside civilization’s own. After its collapse, those herds that went feral became the ancestors of the Fifth World’s cattle.
As ungulates, the grazing behavior of cattle both relies on and creates prairie. Their hooves trample small trees and underbrush that would otherwise become the first step in succession towards a forest or woodland. A herd of cattle can quite effectively maintain a patchwork of prairie and woodland, as well as an extremely ecologically productive edge between them.
Cattle also serve as a prey species for a wide variety of predators, including wolves, lions, bears, tigers, and leopards. Cattle have eyes on the sides of their heads, giving them a wide range of vision that makes it more difficult for predators to sneak up on them, but this also means that they have poor depth perception. They also protect themselves from predators by forming herds. While predators might easily snatch a single animal, especially a young calf, a large herd can fend off almost any predator, forcing them to rely on strategies that aim at isolating a single individual. As with many other herd animals, individuals seem to often separate from the herd almost intentionally, as if offering themselves up as a sacrifice to save the rest of the herd.
Matriarchal herds of cows, calves, and young bulls wander far and wide, while bulls more than a year and a half old form bull herds composed of mature males of different ages. Older bulls that no longer reproduce often become solitary and territorial. Matriarchal herds often wander much longer distances, moving between bull herds to facilitate reproduction.
Cattle herds form dominance hierarchies. To avoid dangerous, direct acts of violence, cattle engage in agonistic competitive behavior to establish a hierarhcy, like pushing others out of the way while foraging or chasing them off when they don’t get out of the way quickly enough. Dominant cows and bulls often show off their profiles and raise their necks as a dominance display. When cattle fight, they engage head-to-head, pulling and pushing each other with their horns. Many sages hold that humanity’s brief (and disastrous) experiments with hierarchical life were inspired by the domestication of hierarchical herd animals like cattle. To domesticate these animals, humans inserted themselves into other-than-human hierarchies as their most dominant individuals. This eventually seeped into the humans’ own behavior, extending an other-than-human hierarchy to fundamentally egalitarian humans — to calamitous effect.
The cattle found across the Fifth World today descend from the feral cattle that escaped the end of domestication and civilization centuries ago, making them very much the product of their relationship with humans. If one believes those elders who say that this act of domestication also taught humans the concept of hierarchy, then one might argue that the humans of the Fifth World, insofar as they still struggle with the legacies of civilization, owe as much to cattle as cattle do to them.
Hunter-gatherers often hunt cattle, just as so many other predators do. The feral cattle of the Fifth World have lost the trust of humans that marked their domesticated ancestors. Mostly, the cattle of the Fifth World try to avoid humans as they would any other predator. Like other predators, human hunters primarily succeed when they find ways to isolate members of the herd.
When a community focuses on its relationship with cattle to make a living, it can shape their lives in a wide variety of ways. A few examples include:
- Some hunter-gatherer bands focus on large cattle herds. Usually, they’ll follow the larger, matriarchal herds. These bands often lead a much more nomadic existence as they follow these far-ranging herds. This emphasis on mobility can often lead them to strike alliances with horses. They’ll emphasize the small and portable in their material culture. They’ll often favor tents that they can more easily carry with them, like tipis or yurts. These bands may harken back to ancient traditions of cowboys or gauchos. Even nomads like these have a territory, but they define their claims in terms of time as well as space. To avoid conflicts with other communities, such bands will often try to drive the cattle into a regular, annual circuit. This can align with the cows’ natural instincts, so drives may not occur often.
- Other hunter-gatherer bands may not rely on cattle as a primary food source or follow them so closely, but still accord significant cultural value to them. Often, when older bulls become isolated and territorial, they can disrupt other herds. The elders in some communities build these bulls up in stories as fierce beasts, and then task the young people yearning for a chance to prove their heroism to confront them, either to slay them or to drive them off to a less intrusive territory. This gives young people a chance to start their own legends and helps attract younger, more useful herds to the community’s territory. Communities like these often mythologize bulls as symbols of aggression and power, and may tell stories of minotaurs, or use bull imagery in their art and stories to denote ferocity and strength.
- Though full domestication doesn’t really work anymore, some villages have maintained relationships with local cattle herds that have left them only semi-feral. In these villages, you will find people who form bonds with individual cows so intense that the cow will allow these people to milk her. These village rarely drink cow’s milk, though. Rather, they will more often use it to create butter or cheese. Though they generally do not produce enough to provide a dietary staple, it often provides a critical cornerstone of the village’s traditions and cuisine, as well as a rare and valuable trade item. These villages build a great deal of their identity on the close bonds formed between individual humans and individual cows.
- A community focusing on relationship with cattle will likely burn clearings out of the jungle to provide grassy areas for cattle to graze. They may or may not practice this controlled burning in addition to swidden cultivation.
- As Hinduism has a long tradition of venerating cattle, a community focusing on relationship with this animal could very well practice an animistic form of Hinduism, or trace their descent from at least some Hindus. They do not necessarily have to live in India; as climate change flooded many heavily-populated coastal regions of the subcontinent, Indian climate refugees spread across the world. Communities that have retained a more traditional Hinduism will not hunt cattle, but may very well burn out meadows for them or form close enough relationships with them to allow some milking.