The horn of the last aurochs bull, which died in 1620

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Aurochs roamed much of Asia and Europe for 250,000 years and were recorded by cave men in striking paintings at Lascaux, France, 17,000 years ago. They were a large breed of cattle, standing up to 1.8m in height, and was ancestor to modern domestic breeds. Aurochs had huge curved horns that characterised the breed – in some the horns could reach 80cm in length – and their legs were longer than modern cattle. Historical accounts suggests the beasts were fast and very aggressive. They were not afraid of humans, and if they were hunted would attack back in response.

Already in the times of Herodotus (fifth century BC), aurochs had disappeared from southern Greece, but remained common in the area north and east of Echedorus River close to modern Thessaloniki. Last reports of the species in the southern tip of the Balkans date to the first century BC when Varro reported that fierce wild oxen live in Dardania (southern Serbia) and Thrace. By the 13th century AD, the aurochs' range was restricted to Poland, Lithuania, Moldavia, Transylvania, and East Prussia. The right to hunt large animals on any land was restricted first to nobles, and then gradually, to only the royal households. As the population of aurochs declined, hunting ceased, and the royal court used gamekeepers to provide open fields for grazing for the aurochs. The gamekeepers were exempted from local taxes in exchange for their service. Poaching aurochs was punishable by death.

According to a royal survey in 1564, the gamekeepers knew of 38 animals. The last recorded live aurochs, a female, died in 1620 in the Jaktorów Forest, Poland, from natural causes. The causes of extinction were unrestricted hunting, a narrowing of habitat due to the development of farming, and diseases transmitted by domesticated cattle. Its horn was decorated with gold with the inscription: ROG. TVRZY. OSTATNIEGO. TVRV, ZPVSCZY // SOCHACZEWSKIEY. OD. WOIEWODY. RAWSSSKIE. STANISLAWA // RADZIEIOWSKIEGO. NA. TEN. CZAS. STAROSTI. SOCHA-// CHEWSKIE. ROK. 1620 (Horn of the last aurochs from the Sochaczew Forest, from Stanisław Radziejowski, voivode of Rawa, at that time starost of Sochaczew. Year 1620). Sochaczew Forest is the former name of the Kampinos Forest.

The Nazis planned to bring back wild auroch cows to hunt. The plan was part of the Nazi obsession with creating a connection to the primeval Germanic tribes of history, which they believed would give them added credibility with the German people. And it was overseen by Herman Goring - Hitler's second in command and chief huntsman of the Third Reich - who sought a larger and more challenging beast to hunt. Goring studied ancient documents and cave paintings about Aurochs, which once roamed across Europe in earlier times. And he planned to breed the animals in zoos before reinstating them in the primeval Białowieża forest in Poland, which was rapidly cleared of its Jewish inhabitants.

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