CHAPTER 3: KNOW PLACE - SKETCHING PLANET YAK'S MYTH'ING LINKS
Updated: Sep 7
NOTE: Like all YAK chapters on this site, this chapter is a very rough draft very much in progress. Please email me with any ideas, questions, or good suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Yak on!
Word count: 11,810
Yaks know place.
Traditional Tibetan block print of the yak.
This sexy beast is biologically built for cold, high altitude extreme environments. As the planet’s highest-dwelling mammalian species, bos grunniens have been shaped, evolutionarily speaking, by thousands of years of adaptive living in mountainous places most other creatures (including we homo sapiens) find inhospitable. I call this place “Planet Yak.”
To explore Planet Yak, begin with sketching the “myth’ing links” with which we can draw a more complete map of the evolutionary emergence and planetary presence of these remarkable creatures. Simply defined, a “myth” is an explaining story – and the yak has proved a central character in the sapiens story since we hominids emerged from the mists.
Myth'ing Links: Images in France's Chauvet Caves - circa 30,000 years ago.
As my yak research and our Vermont farm work unfolded, I grew to appreciate how our shaggy companions, now living here in northern New England’s Green Mountains, carried within them their “geography of place” - from their inner DNA to their outward physical structure (hairy, hump’y, and horny) to their collective herd behavior - right down to their distinctive grunting. Archaeologists, anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists and other professional “experts” only recently have discovered what indigenous peoples and animals have intuitively understood for eons – knowing place matters, and knowing how we are shaped by our places, is vital to our own survival. Our personal geography, in other words, mirrors our geophysical surroundings – or so it was until the invention of farming (10,000 years ago) and the domestication of animals (8,000 years ago), which, first gradually, and then in accelerated fashion, have separated we sapiens from vital wisdom about where we live, and how our “knowing place” makes us who we are.
Understanding how yaks know place is made more complicated by thousands of years of co-domestication. Our long-standing yak/human relationship has altered both species – yaks and humans - in deep and profound ways that are at first hard to appreciate. “Domesticating cattle – bringing them into human society – sounds like a simple economic fact. But its consequences go far beyond the use of meat or milk or skins, control of breeding and convenience,” explains Paul Shepard in his brilliant book Thinking Animals: Animals And The Development Of Human Intelligence. “In becoming oriented to their keepers, the cattle were changed, genetically and by conditioning, and the changes made by them, by behavior as well as proximity, part of the continuum of the human family.” (92)
The reverse is also true – we humans orienting ourselves to yaks has changed us over time. In sketching Planet Yak’s myth’ing links, it seems vital to explore how each species impacted the other. Considering the yak’s evolutionary emergence is complicated by three challenges. First, the lack of a deep historical trail – little in the way of archaeological evidence, few written records until very recently - makes sketching the yak’s journey from past to present somewhat speculative, at times. Second, the domestic yak (grunniens) has a wild ancestor (mutus) that is, as a species, still with us - although present-day mutus numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate. Here in the 21st century, wild and domestic yaks are co-evolving. Related to this is a third point - yaks are among the last of the planet’s animals to be domesticated, and, with their wild forebearers still in existence, yaks as a species seem to hover between the wild (mutus) and the domus (grunniens), a co-evolutionary opportunity which has been borne out by direct observation and more than a few Planet Yak anecdotes from the global yakking community.
Know Place And Formative Causation
British biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s provocative theory of “morphic resonance” is of interest in considering how the yak may have come to be. 21st century mechanistic science, based on the pioneering work well-known figures such as Francis Bacon and Charles Darwin, suggests that, according to “eternal and immutable laws of Nature,” all species evolve through natural and sexual selection, and geneticists today argue that individuals of any species pass on their “essence” to the next generation via their gene-encoded DNA, with selective mating by females also playing an important parallel role. Sheldrake challenges this paradigm with his theory of “formative causation,” proposing that 1) “nature is habitual” (not “immutable and eternal”), and 2) “all animals and plants draw upon and contribute to a collective memory of their species.” Suggesting that modern science may be overstating the role of genetics in species evolution, Sheldrake’s “formative causation” theory advances the idea of “morphic resonance,” which “implies that the so-called laws of nature are more like habits, a process he imagines as “a resonant effect of form upon form across space and time.”
Have modern yaks as a species somehow inherited “habits” from their ungulate ancestors? The idea may at first seem far-fetched, but the more I learned about yak evolution, the more intrigued I became with Sheldrake’s idea, currently considered “heretical” in mechanistic scientific circles. “Morphic resonance is the influence of previous structures of activity on subsequent similar structures of activity organized by morphic fields. It enables memories to pass across both space and time from the past,” explains Ruppert in his book The Presence Of The Past: Morphic Resonance And The Memory Of Nature. “The greater the similarity, the greater the influence of morphic resonance. What this means is that all self-organizing systems, such as molecules, crystals, cells, plants, animals and animal societies (yaks included!), have a collective memory on which each individual draws and to which it contributes.”
When applied to yak evolution, Sheldrake’s theory seems worth considering, especially when comparing Planet Yak’s present-day denizens to what we know of the yak’s ancestors – the ancient auroch, and more recently, the wild yak. Based on the limited archaeological, genetic and historical evidence we have, both species of cattle’s appearance and behavior mirror that of today’s yaks in surprisingly similar ways. How this creature we call the “yak” evolved from the ancient auroch to wild mutus to today’s domestic grunniens is a bit of mystery. “Diversity among different life forms has been created during the course of evolution by genetic mechanisms in combination with natural selective forces of the environment,” observes Indian researchers. “This gives the chance to breed the fittest individual that can sustain the strain and stress of the surroundings.” The modern yak poses an evolutionary challenge and an opportunity – how did today’s yak get from there to here? “Since the first establishment of the genus Bos for bovids by Linnaeus in 1758 and the assignment of Bos grunniens for domestic yak, also by Linnaeus (1766, 1788), the Latin names and taxonomic classifications of both wild and domestic yak had undergone numerous changes under the genera of Bos, Poephagus, orBison based on very limited morphological or skeleton (e.g. skull) evidence,” explains Jianlin Hin in chapter 12 (Wild yak – Bos mutus Przewaski, 1883) of Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour of Wild Cattle: Implications for Conservation, “which has thus led to great confusion.” (194)
“Great confusion” is what led me to wonder how today’s yaks may have inherited qualities from their ancestors – the ancient auroch and the wild yak. Cross-species mating between wild and domestic yaks is no doubt a prime driver, and these experiments have been ongoing for decades in China, India, and North America, as we will see. But what of Sheldrake’s curious theory? “Morphic resonance involves the transfer of information across space and time,” explains Sheldrake. “Something like morphic resonance is necessary to make sense of inheritance, memory, the evolutionary nature of nature, and many other phenomena.” Modern yaks’ ability to “know place” may not just be an expression of genetic inheritance, then, but may involve tapping into some sort collective yak’like memory field that can be traced back thousands of years.
Know Place: Begin In China
To consider this question in light of Planet Yak, travel to China.
The single saddest yak I have ever encountered is housed at the Beijing Zoo. I use the word “housed” liberally. I found this yak in a tiny outdoor fenced-in enclosure - sunny, flat, hot, and sandy – from which this sorry-assed grunniens could lift its shaggy head just north of the Emperor’s Summer Palace, look up at the smoke-choked urban skies overhead, and wonder, with Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City a few miles to the how the hell she came to find herself in such a hellhole. Of course, any empathetic human finds herself conflicted at the sight of big animals in small cages when visiting any euphemistically named “zoological garden” anywhere in the world, but this sorry sight – right down to the yak’s single horn (where the other horn went was a mystery) almost put me over the edge. China is the 21stcentury epicenter of Planet Yak, but this pathetic specimen was living about as un’yak a life as could ever be imagined.
Know Place? Certainly not for this yak, trapped in a cage in one of the world’s largest cities surrounded by 20 million Han humans.
Now, travel one thousand miles from Beijing to the western Chinese frontier, home to most of Planet Yak’s remaining mutus (wild yak), a population numbering (best guess) 10,000 or so.
A recent popular video circulating amongst the global yakking community captures a camera crew cruising across the rolling terrain in a rugged off-road jeep - in the field, on location, shooting footage of a rare herd of wild yaks for the popular “Wild!” TV show.
The jeep’s driver slows to a stop so his production team can capture some B roll of the mountainous landscape, wild yaks grazing off in the distance. His hands on the steering wheel, he notices a yak bull trotting purposefully towards their jeep, and quietly alerts his camera crew. Without warning, meanwhile, the giant horned yak drops into a full gallop and directly charges the vehicle, smashing into the side of the metal chassis with enough force to rattle the cameras out of focus.
The whole production crew is shouting now, and, as the driver starts up his vehicle in a desperate attempt to escape, the yak wheels, charges a second time, and catches the back flank of the jeep as the driver tries to speed to safety. Collectively yelling in amazement, the truck’s entire human cargo manages to get out of immediate range of the yak attack, the cameramen turning their lenses in time to see the bull, seemingly satisfied, shake his shaggy head almost imperceptibly, and amble back towards the main herd. The whole encounter unfolded in under two minutes, but gives the viewer just a small taste of the primeval Pleistocene power of bos mutus, the wild yak, bos grunniens’ ancient evolutionary ancestor.
These two stories help “bookend” the reach and range of Planet Yak at this historical moment – from “forlorn in Beijing” to “powerful on the Plateau.” To wit: a “yak” is a yak only because of a sustained evolutionary relationship to specific mountainous terrain, and unique yak’like characteristics can best be understood as a product of geography meeting evolutionary history meeting genetics informed by (perhaps) “morphic resonance.”
Know Place: Deep Origins
“It is no surprise that the animals are guides, gatekeepers, couriers, and exemplars, as they are epiphanies of aspects of ourselves,” writes Paul Shepard in his seminal book The Others: How Animals Made Us Human. “Midway between ourselves and the colossal events of the sky, the great beasts become interlocutors, whose lives sift the forces of wind and water and fire, seeming to say that all such phenomena ultimately are purposeful and ongoing expressions of a meaningful world.” (330)
For humans occupying Planet Yak, the grunniens and its ancient ancestors have been such a “great beast,” a (super)natural “interlocutor” mediating between the physical and the spiritual, shaggy symbols suggesting paths to greater meaning for we humans finding our way.
Begin with the Pleistocene period - what we commonly call “the Ice Age” - a geological era that began more than two million years ago, continuing until roughly 9,000 BCE. Epochal, but really an eye blink, given our planet’s estimated 4.5 billion-year-old history. The Pleistocene marks the moment when yaks emerged as bovines of a special variety, working out their evolutionary destiny as they roamed more than one million square miles of territory across what is now the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, nestled in the majestic Himalayan mountains and cradling our Earth’s highest peaks, what some call the “Roof of the World” – a beautiful if unforgiving geophysical landscape. “The yak must be regarded as one of the world's most remarkable domestic animals, as it thrives in conditions of extreme harshness and deprivation while providing a livelihood for people,” explains the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization’s THE YAK: 2nd EDITION (2003).
Know Place: From Ancient Stories To Modern Mythology
Our Neanderthal ancestors – homo sapiens neanderthalensis - emerged in Eurasia 400,000 years ago, and archaeological records indicate they hunted ancient mammals, including wild cattle known as aurochs, as well as wild yaks, as recently as 40,000 years ago. Beginning in 8,000 BCE, early humans – homo sapiens sapiens - began domesticating wild animals, and as Pleistocene hunters morphed into plant-friendly transhumant pastoralists, they encoded stories about animals, including yaks, into their unfolding oral mythology.
Consider the stories of early Tibetan nomads, prime human occupants of Planet Yak. “There are countless high mountains in Tibet, and ancient Tibetans believed that gods resided on every one of them – the worship of mountain gods was one of the most important forms of nature worship among ancient Tibetans; it was fundamental to their entire belief system,” explains Xie Jisheng in his seminal article “The Mythology of Tibetan Mountain Gods.” Ancient Tibetan mythology recounts tales of the royal mountain god – yar-tha-sham-po – personified by a white yak “from whose mouth and nose snowstorms continuously flow.” In awe of bos mutus, Tibetans believed that yar-tha-sham-powas “endowed with extraordinary magical powers: he can destroy rocks, cause floods, and even transform himself into a white man in order to have sexual intercourse with women and father babies.”
Similarly, in what is now modern Pakistan’s Baltistan region, known as “Little Tibet” and “the land of the Balti people,” the ancestors of present-day Mongolian and Tibetan peoples domesticated the “mighty mountainous animal” known as the “hyak,” described as a “steppe dweller and a lethal and mischievous mammal,” according to Pakistani zoologist Shakoor Ali. In ancient Baltistani communities, the yak “was considered to be a family god or totemic animal of several tribes, a king of the rest of the cattle,” Ali observes in his book Yak: Cryophilic Species Of Baltistan, recounting the stories of white (good) versus black (evil) yaks appearing in early mythological traditions, including a variety of Bon (pre-Buddhist) tales, as well as in the genesis (introduction) to the Epic “King Gesar Of Ling,” a famous long-form Tibetan tale traditionally sung by Eurasian bards to celebrate the history of early transhumint peoples. Other early stories recount the tale of a bloodthirsty yak deity known as “Brumponi Khrumpa,” a ferociously hairy Beast who engaged in an epic wrestling match with a human hero for the future destiny of the region’s inhabitants. “During the totemic era” in the Himalayan region, Ali concludes, “the yak possessed the highest status in human belief due to its physical strength and dignity.” (24-26)
In sketching Planet Yak’s myth’ing links, these human manifestations of the yak spirit reveal the intimate storied relationship between yaks and humans. “Each animal knows way more than you do,” anthropologist Richard Nelson observes , explaining a cardinal tenet of early human mythology. “The physical environment is spiritual, conscious, and subject to rule of respectful behavior.” Using animals like yaks as mythological mirrors to reflect back evolving human understandings of the world proved common among our Pleistocene ancestors. “Prehistoric humans were autochthonous, that is, ‘native to their place,’” notes Paul Shepard in Coming Home To The Pleistocene. “They possessed a detailed knowledge that was passed on from generation to generation by oral tradition through myths – stories that framed their beliefs in the context of their ancestors and the landscape of their natural world.”
For early Eurasian humans, then, wild yaks became spirit animals, shaggy touchstones revealing deeper truths about a reality which framed understandings of the world and their place in it. “Our Pleistocene ancestors lived within a ‘sacred geography’ that consisted of a complex knowledge of place, terrain, and plants and animals embedded in a phenology of seasonal cycles,” Shepard explains. “But they were also close to the earth in a spiritual sense, joined in an intricate configuration of sacred associations with the spirit of the place within their landscape - time and space as well as animals-humans-gods - all life and nonliving matter formed a continuum that related to themes of fertility and death and the sacredness of all things.”
Ali agrees, citing the yak’s central place in ritualistic practices still in use today. Baltistanis believe that “the slaughtering of yaks washes away all sins and wrongdoings of a sinner, and that a new yak birth is a sign of good fortune,” explains Ali. “Flags, feathers, tails and bones of the yak [are] used for decoration” and yaks remain “symbols of wealth and status - weddings, dowries, and gifts for Government Ministries” – all are reminders of the yak’s power, status, and influence as fellow creatures co-inhabiting the same sacred Baltistani geography. Even the Baltistani term for “yak,” derived from the Balti (Tibeto-Burman family of language) or Bodic word - “hYak” - symbolically means “mighty, powerful and bold,” Ali points out. “The ‘h’ sound [is] produced swiftly, without putting much stress, lightly exhaling the word from the larynx into the throat.” A light linguistic touch for a powerful ancient animal.
“Mighty, powerful, and bold” - such was the yak’s mystical power in the mind of Planet Yak’s early human inhabitants, a reverence that continues today. 21st century Buddhists living in the Kingdom of Mustang along the northern Nepal/Tibet border host annual “blood drinking festivals,” in which they carefully slit the neck veins of live yaks, cup the yak blood pouring forth, and drink the steaming red liquid while still hot. “They drink yak blood because they think it has healing properties,” observes photojournalist Jana Asenbrennerova, who has documented this rarely witnessed ceremony, describing local villagers’ interest on accessing ruminant-digested herbs like the celebrated plant yarsagumba. “Yak’s blood is believed to contain the medicinal properties from the herbs they consume which have many health benefits like curing gastritis, acidity, jaundice, muscle sprain, and other bowel diseases.” Note. “The yaks seem fine,” she concludes. “They don’t like it, obviously, but they just run away.”
And here’s Dorje Dolma, young author of a 21st century memoir entitled Yak Girl: Growing Up In The Remote Dolpo Region Of Nepal, describing yaks’ influence on her own maturation into womanhood. “The adult male yaks were completely able to defend themselves from wolves with their massive bodies and long horns - they didn’t need to be gathered at camp every night like the other animals,” she writes of her own experience herding yaks as a girl. “Since they were free and on their own, they climbed to the highest mountains and valleys for months and filled their bellies with fresh flowers, grass, and herbs. When we ran into them during the day, we checked to see if they looked content and left them where they were. We only gathered them back to camp during trading season in late summer. It was important for them to eat as much as they could so they’d be strong enough to carry heavy bags of salt and grain from Tibet to lower Nepal.” (138) Towards the end of the book, as she reflects on her growing independence as an adult, she writes, “I felt like a giant yak on top of the mountain ready to lead the rest of my fellow yaks.” (220)
In my years of trekking across the Himalayas, from Mount Everest to Mustang’s Nepal/Tibet border, I have witnessed signs of yak everywhere. In addition to keeping the company of live yaks, I have slept under yak hides for warmth, helped locals collect yak dung for fuel, and watched as they turn yak hair into rope, light their homes and monasteries’ lamps with yak oil, and admired yak bones and skulls displayed in homes and villages across the spine of the Himalayas, a reality confirmed by many other visiting observers. Yak tails, too, distinctive in their long, straight horse’like bushiness, have long been sought after, and adorn many a villager’s doorway or sitting room. “The bushy tail of the yak is well known, being highly prized in India…for switching away flies, and [they] used to be considered as emblematic of royalty,” explained one traveler’s report in 1890. (Berger, 156-157) Even yak fat (what little of it there is) is valuable. “The fat of the yak was so precious to us that we used to boil it down every ounce of it, and put it in our old cocoa tins,” observed Captain Wellby in 1898, “and eat it as if it were Everton toffy.” (142, Berger)
And yaks transport. Ali highlights a famous ancient trade route between Yarkand, now the modern day Chinese semi-autonomous province of Uyghur Xinjiang (located at the southern edge of the “Taklamakan” – a desert whose English name translates as “Sea Of Death”) and Baltistan, in which the “Baltis used yaks instead of camels” to transport goods through Mustagh Pass, a Karakorum mountain road that now has proven inaccessible for more than a century. "The old Mustagh Pass to the east had been out of use for thirty or forty years, on account of the accumulation of ice upon it, in consequence of which a new pass had been sought for, and another one to the west had been found,” writes Francis Younghusband in an 1888 Royal Geographic Society article entitled "A Journey across Central Asia, from Manchuria and Peking to Kashmir, over the Mustagh Pass.” “This latter pass had been in partial use up to ten years ago. No European had, however, crossed either of them, but Colonel Godwin-Austen in 1862 came very near the summit of the new pass from the southern side, when he was obliged to turn back on account of bad weather." Overnighting in the Taklamakan in 2015, I saw no yaks, only camels, but the yak-rich Mongolian Altai was not too far to our north.
The traditional Himalayan salt trade is another celebrated instance of yak transport. For centuries, high mountain traders exchanged Tibetan salt (as valuable as gold in remote communities) for barley, red rice and other foodstuffs, an ancient commercial exchange made famous in popular Western films as “The Saltmen Of Tibet” (1997) and “Himalaya” (1999). “Ravishing!” the critics said of “Saltmen,” “the closest you’ll get to a Himalayan trek without bringing your own yak.” The latter film, also popularized under the title “Caravan,” features “a lot of yaks,” writes the Nepali Times in 2001, rough tongue in cheek. “Stumbling yaks, yaks plunging to watery graves down vertiginous cliffs, recalcitrant yaks, charming yaks, unexceptional yaks - so many yaks, in fact, that you'd be forgiven for thinking the only animals involved in real-life caravans were, well, yaks.” The “breathtaking” movie, a remarkable film by all accounts, makes yaks the co-stars, and, “invites us to behold an astonishing world,” gushed New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott. Both of these films proved invaluable in projecting Planet Yak onto the silver screen for modern western audiences.
Chinggis (Genghis) Khan’s 13th century Mongol conquest of the entire known world is perhaps the best illustration of strategic yak transport. Paradoxically, the Mongols practiced semi-nomadic pastoralism, a lifestyle which not typically conducive to successful world domination The Mongol army’s strategic use of the horse and the yak, however, made it possible for them to build the largest land empire in world history. “Yak kept company with horses [and would] travel long distances across mountains in their quest to conquer different regions and countries,” Ali explains in Yak. “Each Mongol battalion commander bore a yak tail as his banner,” and “it is said that Genghis Khan’s army had learned a lot about the behavior of Yak which they used in war,” he explains. “The long bushy tail of a Yak was hung over the roof of the Khan’s palace as a flag and a sign of dignity and power, and “the flutter Yak-tail war standards [was] considered to be the symbol of Mongol military aptitude.” Another story Ali recounts? “A divine sign indicated that “the Yak tail standard became a symbol and sign for uniting the Mongols, going before them in war. In this period, horses and Yaks were extensively used by the public and troops to carry loaded and other purposes – Genghis Khan’s army used yak milk whey in cloth bags, tied over the animals’ neck, to drink as temperatures fluctuated, thereby the army quenched their thirst.” (32) While the horse gets all the credit for Mongol expansion, the yak did all the heavy lifting in building human history’s biggest land empire ever seen.
“The big animals are momentary embodiments of the atomic vitality that energizes nature itself,” explains Shepard in The Others. (330) The yak’s “atomic vitality,” then, has “energized” human observers for thousands of years - the evolution of the yak/human relationship began eons ago and is still unfolding. While written records are scarce, it is clear that our human ancestors –from nascent Neanderthals to conquering Mongol hordes - absorbed the talismanic yak’s presence and physical energy, helping make possible the Eurasian emergence of successful sapien communities. Know Place. From ancient Pleistocene hunters to today’s transhumant pastoralists, humans have found in Planet Yak inspiration, survival, and resilience. “Wild species are true Others, the components of wilderness and at the same time are the external correlates of our innermost selves,” explains Paul Shepard in “Wilderness Is Where My Genome Lives,” explaining that for millennia, humans have correlated, through mythology, “reciprocation of the internal aspect of self with an external animal.” For many early Eurasian humans, the yak became that “external animal.”
To know place within the yak umvelt, meanwhile we must consider to the emergence of bos mutus, the wild yak, and before mutus, the impressive creature that may have been mutus’ progenitor– the ancient auroch, the atavistic ancestor of today’s yaks around the world.
Know Place: The Ancient Auroch
Artist's rendition of the ancient auroch - the yak's atavistic ancestor - the first mammal humans pushed to extinction. The last auroch died in the forests of what is now modern Poland in 1627.
Bos primigenius. The auroch (plural aurochsen or ursus), from the German term Auerochse or Urochs, meaning “proto-ox” or “primeval ox,” is the first recorded mammal to go extinct – 1627, to be precise - after an epic if somewhat mysterious past. Once considered a separate and distinct species from Bos Taurus (modern European cattle), the auroch is now classified as one of many Taurus types. Whichever name the Linneans prefer, there is no question that the auroch conjures up images of size, strength, and a sensuous power that clearly impressed our Paleolithic ancestors enough to cover prehistoric caves with stone-carved pictures of this creature (I mentioned Mongolia’s famed rock art complexes in chapter 1). Now a United Nations World Heritage Site Portugal’s Coa Valley is another auroch-rich destination, and, most famously, the paintings of aurochs prominently featured “with hulking muscles and twisting horns” in France’s Chauvet-Pont d’Arc (30,000 years ago) Livernon and Lascaux caves (17,000 years ago) are two famed French sites celebrating the ancient aura of the auroch.
Auroch glyph in Portugal's Coa Valley.
Auroch images featured in France's famed Lascaux caves - circa 17,000 years ago.
“Mighty beasts that stood almost as tall as elephants, with lean, powerful frames and fearsome horns that would make a hunter think twice,” and measuring as much as 1.75 meters at the withers (close to six feet from the ground to the upper back), the auroch must have been an impressive creature - rich reddish brown color for auroch females and young males, with a darker black’ish coat for full grown bulls, featuring a “buff eel stripe” running down the spine.
“Grown up aurochs could hold their ground against big predators such as wolves…the long and thick horns acted as a powerful defence against any outside threat…the animal was up to two meters high and due to its long legs and slender build it was an agile animal,” explains one observer. “The body shape of the aurochs was, like in other wild bovines, athletic and, especially in bulls, showed a strongly expressed neck- and shoulder musculature. Even in carrying cows, the udder was small and hardly visible from the side; this feature is similar to that of other wild bovines.” “They are a little less than elephants in size – their strength and speed are extraordinary,” observes an impressed Julius Caesar of the auroch when the Romans invaded Gaul. “They spare neither men nor wild beast. They cannot be brought to endure the sight of men, nor to be tamed, even when taken young.” The auroch’s life force may have been attributed with magical qualities,” observes a modern history, as “the impressive and dangerous auroch survived into the Iron Age in Anatolia and the Near East, and was worshiped throughout that area as a sacred animal, the Lunar Bull, associated with the Great Goddess and later with Mithras.”
“Like wild boars, aurochs are members of the mammalian order Artiodactyla, and hence they possess an even number of toes and double-pulley foot tendons,” explains Domesticated author Richard Francis (page 131). Making the connection to bos mutus, Francis explains that aurochs “belong to a quite different branch of the artiodactyl tree, one that includes others types of cattle, such as yaks, bison, water buffalo bantengs, and gaurs, as well as sheep and goats” - ruminants all. Their four-chambered stomachs, their speed and size, and their signature horns (note the three characteristic curves) help mark the auroch as a distinct species.
And yet, today we know little about this ancient bos-like beast. Emerging in what is now India two million years ago (give or take), and then migrating into the Middle East and Eurasia, reaching what is now Europe 250,000 years ago, the auroch divided into three sub species – bos primigenius (India), bos primigenius mauretanicus (North Africa) andbos primigenius Bojanus (Europe and the Middle East). (Francis,135) Ranging from the British Isles in northwestern Eurasia to Africa and India (south) to and central Asia (northeast), the auroch once roamed much of the known world, “an impressive animal, perfectly adapted to the diversity of landscapes it inhabited,” explains one history. “The aurochs ranged from open savannah-like landscapes to marshes, forests and lower mountains,” explains another text, “able to fill in most ecological niches encountered in Europe.” Only the European variety survived to the 17th century, when the last known aurochs died in Poland’s Jaktorow Forest. Despite the auroch’s wide-ranging adaptability, “the combined power of men and their beasts ultimately proved unbeatable,” explains Jonathon Keats. “The spread of agriculture foreclosed the natural habitat of aurochs, which once covered most of Europe, Asia, and northern Africa.” A familiar and perhaps tragic story, one confronting the wild yak today, as we will soon see.
“From the auroch’s first contact with humans, its environment began to deteriorate, first from hunting and then ultimately from loss of forest habitat, which accelerated with the advent of farming,” explains Harris (135). “Ironically, they persisted longest in the places they colonized last which, not coincidentally, had the lowest population densities.” Indeed, 10,000 years of cattle domestication have wrought huge transformations in animals, human and land alike. “Large herbivores have shaped the European landscape,” explains Helmer in an essay entitled “Return Of The Aurochs.” “For a million years, they did so in a natural context, and for the past 10,000 years, they did so as livestock,” noting that the dramatic decrease in biodiversity over the arc of the Holocene, as agriculture transformed the geographic contours of large swaths of our Planet.
The evolutionary relationship between ancient aurochs and modern cattle, including our bos grunniens yaks, remains speculative. “Domestication of the aurochs began in the southern Caucasus and northern Mesopotamia from about the 6th millennium BC, while genetic evidence suggests that aurochs were independently domesticated in northern Africa and in India,” notes one source. “Domestication caused dramatic changes to the physiology of the creatures, to the extent that domestic cattle must now be regarded as a separate species.” Planet Yak’s Paleolithic humans hunted the auroch for food, and over time, as agriculture’s invention led to increasingly sedentary living, sapiens “must have adopted something like conservation tactics to ensure a steady supply of auroch meat,” observes Harris, suggesting that for an entire millennium, aurochs and humans co-existed before the arrival of full-blown “co-domestication – dairying, carting, plowing.” (139-140).
“Enthusiasm for the bovine image was inherited by the first planters from an earlier time when the splendid beauty of the great aurochs, or wild cattle, was beheld in ecstasy by hunter/gatherers, whose metaphysics was conceived as a pantheon of animal spirits,” observes Paul Shepard in The Others: How Animals Made Us Human. Chronicling the dairy cow’s replacement of the wild auroch, a Paleolithic symbol of the hunt, of masculinity, of wild power, Shepard observes that over time, domestication shifted the image of the auroch “toward blunt, nonselective sociality, diminished intelligence, and increased lactation.” (206-207). “Within 10,000 years – an evolutionary eyeblink – humans have made of wild aurochs more than 700 distinct cattle breeds,” summarizes Harris in Domesticated, and “the wild aurochs themselves were a casualty of this process.” (145) Without a doubt, the story of the auroch, the first recorded mammalian species we sapiens rendered extinct, serves as a cautionary tale with a modern twist, as we will see. Meantime, we can credit the auroch with providing the evolutionary blueprint for bos grunniens’ immediate ancestor – bos mutus, the wild yak.
Know Place: Bos Mutus
Bos Mutus on the Tibetan Plateau.
The “Wild” story recounted earlier gives us a glimpse of the “atomic vitality” of bos mutus – the wild yak, which emerged in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau as early as two million years ago. The “Qinghai” is a short name for what is an immense geographical space, a rugged rolling landscape that sits atop the earth at between 10,000 to 19,000 feet in elevation, with jagged mountains thrusting as high as 24,000 feet into the sky. India and Nepal sit to the southwest, with Bhutan and Burma to the southeast. Meanwhile, two massive mountain ranges – the Hindu Kush and the Karakorum of Pakistan and Afghanistan – demarcate this sprawling region’s impressive verticality. Like their closest evolutionary cousin, the north American bison, bos mutus evolved to adapt and thrive in this harsh and unforgiving Eurasian landscape, embracing the high mountain cold, powerful winds, deep snow, and intense sun. Ranging as far as Russia’s Balkal mountains, east into the Mongolian Altai, and into the peaks of India and Nepal, the wild yak “is able to defy the loftiest altitudes, the bitterest cold, the most violent snowstorms,” observed Swedish geographer and pioneering explorer Sven Hedin, who took four trips through the region, summarizing his observations in his 1899 travelogue Through Asia. “When it gets too warm for him,” Hedin explained, “he takes a bath in the nearest stream and climbs up into the mountains to the cool expanses of the snow fields and the curving hollows of the glaciers.”
Like their auroch ancestors, wild yaks collectively cut an impressive figure. “In the southwestern area around the yak country, Li Niu (“the wild yak”) lives in the high mountains,” observes Li Shizen in his famed 1578 Compendium of Materia Medica, considered the first written description of bos mutus. “Its appearance, hair color, and tail are the same as those of domestic yak, but its body is larger. The coat color of wild yak is black and its horns are very long.” (Han 198)
By some estimates, wild yaks once numbered in the millions, but present-day population has dwindled to roughly 10,000 across Eurasia. Credible scientific literature on wild yaks is skinny and mostly based on observational field data.
“Wild yaks have a hidden story, shrouded in a high-elevation enigma that may change as lofty heights deglaciate,” notes conservation biologist Joel Berger in his book Extreme Conservation. Due to inhabiting “militaristically sensitive and remote regions,” mutus wear no radio collars and are difficult to study. “Such tools as we have mainly include our meager ground observations, and past accounts. The other tool is inference.” (154) Berger notes that close to sixty accounts gleaned from 28 trips containing 217 “inferable observations of male and female yaks by habitat” provide an anecdotal skeleton of what little westerners know about mutus in the wild.
While Himalayan peoples and wild yaks co-existed for centuries, westerners discovered bos mutus only recently. 19th century British explorers observed that wild yaks live “in the coldest, wildest and most desolate [treeless] mountains…northwards to the Kuenlun, at elevations between 14,000 and 20,000 feet. “The cows are generally to be found in herds varying in numbers from ten to one hundred, while the old bulls are for the most part solitary or in small parties of three or four.” (Berger, 153) “The habitual separation of the large (female) herd into numerous smaller herds seem to be an instinctive act,” explained US naturalist Joel Allen in 1875. Allen gave the world what has come to be called Allen’s Rule, an ecogeographic principle stating that colder environments push animals (like wild yaks) to adapt limbs and other body parts that are short, small and less protruding. Allen’s Rule aside, bos mutus’ physical presence is monumental. “Standing almost six feet high at the shoulders, wild yak bulls can weigh up to a ton,” explains Daniel Miller. “Their horns, which can reach three feet in length, are still used as milk pails by Tibetan nomads. Wild yaks are magnificent animals. Their long hair hangs like curtains, almost sweeping the ground, and makes them appear even more massive than they actually are.”
Modern Chinese accounts provide vivid descriptions of the wild yak, with a life of 20-25 years on average and divided into two main types (Qilian and Kunlun), as follows:
An adult wild yak has a large and compact body with short, strong legs. Its ears are small and hooves are large and rounded. It develops a long, hairy coat consisting of long coarse hairs, and a dense wooly undercoat covering its chest, flanks, and rump, almost reaching the ground in mature males. Its tail is also fully haired and horse-like. The coat colour is dark brown to black, except the recently discovered golden-brown genotype in Qiangtang. Compared to its domestic counterpart, the wild yak has a silvery-grey colour line down the back of the body and behind the withers, as well as grey-white hairs around the muzzle. The large horns are smooth and round, slightly oval at the base in old animals, curving outward and upward at first, then forward, inward, and upward, and slightly backward at the end. (Han 203)
Indian scientists on the Subcontinent, meanwhile, note that “the wild yak is very massive in size, fierce in look, and extraordinary in strength – there are reports that wild yak would attack caravans of tame yak oxen that were only half their size, to death,” and then “wild yak bull would intermingle with domesticated herd and breed with the females in heat – the progeny from such interspecies crossing have wild temperament and massive size.” Wild yaks have also been known to attack humans, they explain. True enough – and more than one herder I have met in my travels has displayed a limp or other yak-inflicted injuries. And yet, wild yak bulls can be gentle, as well. “Wild yak bull is known for the paternal care, particularly when calves are born in the herd.” Wolves, snow leopards, and sapiens are yaks’ biggest predators, and their arrival in the area prompts protective herd behavior. “Young calves are encircled by their dams and yak bull sits outside circle and reacts sharply at the site of some intruder or predator,” explains Indian field researchers. “A yak bull will not allow the hound of wolves to take away the carcass of the dead calf form the herd and chases them away and may even ill them.”
Wild herds of between 10 and 100 yaks are “despite their fierce appearance, generally very timid,” “active and agile,” “strong power of smelling” with bulls able to “recognize herd mates and cows in heat from a distance,” ‘females can easily pick up their calf from large herd for suckling, and normally do not allow other calves to suck them,” Indian scientists suggest. “Wild yaks can swim across chilled streams and fast-flowing high-altitude rivers,” and their “short and stocky legs help them stand firmly undulated surfaces and to walk for long distances in search of forage of choice, and sure-footedness enables them to climb and graze along sloped and rocky terrain.”
Russian and western observers agree on mutus’ group habits, inherited, perhaps, from the wild auroch. As impressive as they are, wild yaks are still prey animals, and exhibit this in their herd behavior. “When in danger they form a phalanx, the calves in the centre,” observed 19th century Russian explorer and geographer Nikolai Przhevalsky, “some of the full-grown males advancing to reconnoitre.” “When a herd obtains the scents of a human being, they all rush together and remain thus with their heads turned toward the present danger,” explained Cecil Rawlins in 1900. They then “move away at a trot and a gallop, their tails waving side to side keeping this pace for hours and never halting until many miles have been covered.” (152, Berger)
Like the auroch, wild yaks know place, embodying the geography and climate of this region in their genetic, physical, and behavioral makeup. “The total geographic area of wild yak’s habitat surrounded by the Kunlun and Aerjin mountains in China is 1.4 million km squared with minimum altitude 4,000 meters,” explain Indian researchers, with “an average rainfall less than 10 cm with grass growth of 100 days, average normal grazing temperature is about minus 8 C, and the wild yak travels 200-300 km in grazing areas in search of good pastures, sometimes more in extreme situations.” “The wild yak is an indicator species – its presence reveals a special place,” writes Daniel Miller. “With wild yaks roaming the landscape, an ecosystem is still intact – if the land can provide habitat for wild yaks, many of the other species of Tibetan wildlife will be there, as well.” (7)
Know Place: Bos Mutus Today
Today, only 10,000 bos mutus remain, making the wild yak our planet’s most threatened mammal, still hunted by poachers and now vulnerable to rapidly changing temperatures in the high mountain region. Systematic slaughter of wild yaks began in the 1930s, “by highway workers, illegal gold miners, the military and the police,” observes Extreme Conservation’s Joel Berger, “and reached its apogee in the 1980s and 1990s.” (172)
Planet Yak HQ? Central Asia’s Tibetan Plateau, still home to a dwindling number of wild yaks being pushed higher and higher onto steeper terrain by the geophysical impacts earth’s warming surface. China maintains a giant patchwork of nature preserves on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau – Changtang, Kekexili, Sanjiangyuan, Aerjinshan, Zhongkunlun, Qilianshan, Yanchiwan, and Gonggashan – where most of the remaining global population of wild yaks are found in this, some of the world’s most expansive and rugged country. “Think of an area the size of Arizona and New Mexico combined to get a sense of the scale of the Chang Tang and then picture the landscape – about 230,000 square miles – with few roads and inhabited by only a small population of Tibetan nomads,” observes Daniel Miller in his travels across Planet Yak. “The Chang Tang is a wilderness region so immense that it rearranges your whole perspective on wildness and freedom.” (Miller, 4) It is here, in the midst of what Joel Berger calls a “protected network of unimaginable dimensions, equivalent in size to all of Kenya, or Montana and Nebraska combined,” that we can find the remaining planetary population of wild yaks.
Sketching the picture of today’s wild yaks, first notice mutus come in four recognizable varieties – the Qilan (called “gaxi” by local Tibetan nomads), characterized by a smaller body size, brownish black hair, and a long and puffy tail, while the second Kunlun Mountain type (“hengde” in Tibetan) is marked by a large frame, massive body, short face, thick horns, and blackish brown hair - the adult males of this type prove extremely aggressive. A third mutus variety, known as the Tibetan type, is distinguished by a medium-sized frame with noticeably long-haired body, while the fourth Golden Yellow represents an evolutionary mixture of yellow and black wild yaks found in on Tibet’s western edge (Ritu county) as well as in the Lumadongchuo - the south Kunlun mountains.
“Wild yaks characterize the elemental wild nature of the Tibetan Plateau,” explains Miller. “No other animal so evoke the raw energy and start beauty of Tibet.” ( 5) “The region is warming at an estimated rate of two-to-three times faster than other parts of the world, and with that comes changes in precipitation patterns, including less snow which is their main source of water,” explains Alex Taylor, reporting on ongoing research being done in the Keke Xili National Nature Preserve. “Snow patches have become increasingly restricted, which is especially problematic for female yaks – they lactate through the winter and have to drink more water in order to produce milk – this means that mothers must go to greater lengths to adapt, including climbing steeper and riskier mountains to find snow.”
When combined with Sheldrake’s theory of “morphic resonance,” emerging observational field data suggests that wild yaks, like elephants, possess a collective “historic memory” of hunting, and yak females, in particular, are taking adaptive steps to protect their young from both poachers and warming temperatures by climbing higher into the mountains. “What happens in the Keke Xili National Nature Reserve can provide valuable lessons as conservation planners prepare for similar climate change impact in other parts of the world,” explains Joel Berger. “Recent history has not been kind – “wild yaks were slaughtered by road crews, by miners working illegal claims, and by military and organized bands bolstered by corrupt officials. No one ever knew the historical numbers of wild yaks. Like bison, the species collapsed; wild yaks survived only in the most remote areas.” (134) “Without the wild yak, Tibet will have lost one of its characteristic species,” concludes Daniel Miller. “A loss the world cannot afford and should not allow to take place.” (36) Berger is even more direct. “Without improved conservation for wild yaks, the next generation will know them only as lifeless etchings on rock.” (178, Berger)
Know Place: Bos Grunniens
When sketching Planet Yak’s myth’ing links today related to co-domestication - sapiens and grunniens in intimate quarters – we quickly encounter an interesting mystery. As their grunniens’ name suggests, domestic yaks grunt. Wild yaks – bos mutus – do not. How to explain this? No firm answers, but many yakkers speculate that the “grunt” emerged as yaks and humans began to communicate. Meanwhile, the co-evolution of grunniens and mutus side by side creates both challenges and opportunities for deepening our understandings of this sexy beast as a species. Yaks are among the last mammals to be domesticated, and to this day, as Joel Berger explains, “the distinction between wild and domestic [yaks] remains fuzzy.” (157) “The reality is that little is known about the frequency of mixing within yak populations. No one seems to be scooping poop and using DNA to distinguish wile genotypes from those of the less wild. The intensity of selection in wild yaks awaits discovery.” (159)
Scientists who tend toward genetic purity are quick to draw distinctions between mutus and grunniens – size and coloring being the most obvious. Other scientists, like conservationist Joel Berger, are less convinced that genetic differences matter. “If free-roaming (nondomestic) yaks have a peppering of white on their tails or faces, yet group like wild yaks, graze similarly, and segregate sexually like wild yaks, than just maybe they fulfill the same ecological role as the wild species,” Berger speculates. In my own Vermont farm observations, males behave differently than females, even in confined spaces – with the bulls tending towards solo or small group clustering during non-mating season, with females and their calves tending to group in larger herds. “If pure wild yaks have a better chance of thwarting disease, adapting to changing conditions, withstanding the vagaries of unpredictable weather, or consistently yielding larger babies, than mixing with domestics may not be to their advantage,” observes Berger. Does this hold true for grunniens, as well?
And of course, these questions are complicated by we sapiens’ complex history of co-domestication with yaks that extends back more than 4,000 years. “Humans and wildlife have been painfully but inextricably connected since our first cultural moments,” observes Joel Berger (10). This is a central truism of the yak/human evolutionary relationship. How the wild yak (bos mutus) become domesticated (bos grunniens) is an evolutionary story we are still piecing together.
Once again, consider the most provocative difference between mutus and grunniens – the latter vocalizes, having developed a series of grunts to communicate with – each other? Co-domesticated humans who “tamed” the wild yak over time? The “why did yaks evolve a grunt?” question is one of the many mysteries surrounding the yak, one without a conclusive answer. No one knows for sure – one of the great conundrums of yak/human co-evolution. “Free ranging biological ancestral forms are not especially popular today,” observes Joel Berger. The overlapping evolution of mutusand grunniens provides us with a rare opportunity to study and learn from the parallel stories of “wild” and “domestic” yaks as they continue to evolve in real time. “What about wild yaks?” Berger asks. “Are there legacy effects – attributes of a population shaped by interactions over time?” That yaks know place may be a result of “legacy effects,” which, astute readers may note, sounds similar to Sheldrake’s theory of formative causation. Perhaps morphic resonance, biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s provocative theory about species’ “habits of memory,” explains how mutus and grunniensshare a co-evolutionary history, beyond genetics alone. “When two distinct cultivated varieties were crossed” by animal and plant breeders, Sheldrake explains, “the characters of the offspring sometimes resembled neither of the parental types, but rather those of the wild ancestors,” a phenomenon known as “reversion” or “atavism.” Might mutus-grunniens mixing, then, produce wilder yaks? Aurochs, even?
And how are we humans are tangled up in this hairy, horny story? For those sapiens who live with yaks, the answer is - more intimately than we may realize. As Paul Shepard observes, “there is overwhelming evidence of likeness, from molecular to mental, between men and animals.” (7) Pastoral Qiang people living on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau are credited with being the first sapiens to co-domesticate the wild yak as early as 4,500 years ago. Yak/sapien co-domestication process remains one of history’s great mysteries. Researched speculation suggests that the Qiang caught and raised wild yaks as young calves, and over time, bred into them human-happy qualities, creating more docile boscapable of vocalization. “Yak was domesticated about 4500 years ago by the native ethnic group of the Tibeto-Mongolian race for food, clothes, and shelters…their life is no way (sic) different from that of Tibetan nomads of the present day,” writes Pakistani zoologist Shakoor Ali in his book Yak. “They lived in tents of Yak-hair, on the produce of their numerous herds of Yaks, goats, sheep and chased the Kiang, the wild sheep and the wild Yak; for in those times all these animals seem to have had their feeding grounds a long way farther to the west than they have now a days, if rock carving and folklore do not deceive us.”
“Once the yak was domesticated, it became a valuable member of the nomadic community, providing transportation, meat, milk, wool – and trade goods for nomads,” explains Dianne Latona in her IYAK paper summarizing the North American history of yakking . “Over the centuries, domesticated yaks acclimated to warmer temperatures and the Qiangs could bring their herds to the lower valleys where other ethnic groups raised cattle.” Ongoing interbreeding between wild yak bulls roaming the mountains and valley-bound domesticated yak cows continues to the present in some yak-rich areas of the world, as many travelers have observed, and scientists in China, India and other regions of Eurasia continue to experiment with cross breeding to try and determine answers to many of these questions. (2-3)
Over time, the nomadic Qiang facilitated the spread of domesticated yaks across Eurasia – “north to Siberia, west to Afghanistan, south to India, and east to the Yunnan Province of China,” Latona explains – where humans incorporated grunniens into local and regional Eurasian economies. Few written records chronicle grunniens’ domestic deployment across Eurasia – for obvious reasons, pastoralists aren’t keepers of extensive written records. A 21st century snapshot reveals current Eurasian yak numbers. China, Planet Yak’s eastern edge, contains the largest population of both wild and domestic yaks – 3 million, or 90% of the world’s yak population. Western Mongolia, Planet Yak’s second most yak populated country, contains fewer than 500,000 yaks, and their numbers are declining. Yaks number 130,000 in the Russian Federation countries – including Kirgizia, Tajikistan, Tuva, Altai, Buryatia, Yakutia and the northern Caucasus. Bhutan, where yaks remain an integral part of the nation’s pastoral economy, is home to 50,000 yaks, while India to the south is experiencing a rapidly dwindling population of yaks – from 130,000 in the 1970s down to 30,000 yaks as of the new millennium. Nepal, which has witnessed the popular explosion of a global mountaineering culture, exposing yaks to the larger world since the 1950s – contains fewer than 10,000 yaks, co-domesticated most famously by the high mountain Sherpa people, who began raising yaks hundreds of years ago in high mountain Himalayan regions such as Khumbu and Pharak.
Planet Yak photo sampler - many types and breeds.
Yaks have “considerable variation in the body confirmation traits,” Indian scientists explain in Yak Production, an exhaustive 1997 book produced by the subcontinental republic’s National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources. “The phenotypic appearance suggests that yaks found in various parts of the world have large variation.” In plain English, both the types and breeds of grunniens vary widely when considering Planet Yak as a global community. Again, consider China, where domestic yaks, like their mutus forebears, can be classified into two main types, based on “the influences of natural and socio-ecological environments such as topography, conditions of water, humidity, weather, type of grasslands, grazing and feeding levels” (48). Northern China – the famed Qinghai Tibet plateau, Gansu province, and the northwest Sichuan grasslands - contain the “plateau type” of yak, while the alpine yak type is found in China’s more southerly regions - eastern Tibet, southwest Sichuan province, as well as the Dichan Tibetan and Yunnan provinces.
Beyond types, yak breeds are even more varied. China alone contains more than a half a dozen yak breeds, from Gansu province’s “very docile” Tianzhu White, the big sized Jiulongs and smaller Maiwas of Sichuan province, a Xinjiang Bazhon native strain found in Uyghur country, the Zhongdian yak (native to the Yunnan province), the famed Tibetan type, and the Qinghai Alpine yak, whose distinctive look represents the world’s largest population of domestic yaks. Indian yaks, meanwhile, possess “wide variation in body size, confirmation, and types” – mountain, plateau, bisonian, bareback, and exotic looking breeds such as the Himachai breed - sturdy, massive, hardy, with an elongated but compact body, wide forehead, smaller eyes, and thick glossy hair. Beyond China and India, one can find Russian yaks, Altai yaks, Buryat yaks, Pamir yaks (larger grunniens found in Pamir and adjoining areas of Tajikistan and Kirgizia), Nepalese and Bhutanese yaks (slightly smaller than classic Tibetans) Europe and North America sport their own types and breeds. Of all western yakkers, the Swiss seem to sport the most varieties of yak, while unusual breeds, like the rare goldens, can be found on only a few yak ranches in the United States and Canada. My favorite yak type? The beautifully colored blue yaks of Mongolia – despite their “anger management issues,” my Mongolian friend Doya tells me, after we wrestle a particularly recalcitrant blue yak cow mama onto her halter line for morning nursing.
As with the wild yak, the modern West discovered grunniens only recently. A Flemish Franciscan monk, William of Rubruck (Willem van Ruysbroeck, ca. 1210-ca. 1270) provided what may be the first written record of yaks in his grandiosely entitled account The journey of William of Rubruck to the eastern parts of the world, 1253-55, as narrated by himself, with two accounts of the earlier journey of John of Pian de Carpine. “To the east among those mountains are the Tanguts, most valiant men, who captured Chingis Khan in war; and he, peace being made, and once freed by them, subdued them,” observed the good friar, a participant in French King Louis IX Crusade to Palestine. “These people have very strong cattle, with very hairy tails like horses, and with bellies and backs covered with hair. They are lower on their legs than other oxen, but much stronger…and have slender, long, curved horns, so sharp that it is always necessary to cut off their points. The cows will not let themselves be milked unless sung to. They have also the temper of the bull, for if they see a man dressed in red they throw themselves on him to kill him.” (151).
More famously, Marco Polo celebrated yaks – both wild and domesticated - in his seminal 13th century travelogue. “There are wild cattle in that country [almost] as big as elephants, splendid creatures, covered everywhere but on the back with shaggy hair a good four palms long - they are partly black, partly white, and really wonderfully fine creatures [and the hair or wool is extremely fine and white, finer and whiter than silk,” Polo’s account narrates in Book 1, Chapter 57 - Of the Kingdom of Erguiul, and Province of Sinju. “Messer Marco brought some to Venice as a great curiosity, and so it was reckoned by those who saw it]. There are also plenty of them tame, which have been caught young. [They also cross these with the common cow, and the cattle from this cross are wonderful beasts, and better for work than other animals.] These the people use commonly for burden and general work, and in the plough as well; and at the latter they will do full twice as much work as any other cattle, being such very strong beasts.”
Perhaps it is 18th century British captain Samuel Turner who deserves credit for the most remarkable early description of yaks from a modern westerner. He wrote in his 1800 Account Of An Embassy to the Cort of the Teshoo Lama in Tibet:
We crossed the bridge…and on the opposite side saw several of the black chowry-tailed cattle; their backs were lightly whitened with hoar frost, which gave them a very remarkable appearance, as their bodies were covered all over with think long black hair. This very singular and curious animal deserves a particular description.
Comparing the yak to an English bull, “which he resembles in the general figure of the body, head, and legs,” Turner noted that “the Yak is covered all over with a thick coat of long hair.” Appointed the first Governor-General of India, Turner traveled to Bhutan in 1783 – the same year as the United States achieved actual independence from Great Britain - to visit Bhutan’s newly-installed infant lama at the behest of his cousin, Warren Hastings, and managed to acquire and send back to England two yak bulls. The first died on the journey, while the second soon became a celebrated creature in the British Isles. The popular press christened the never-before-seen Bhutanese bull “the Yak Of Tartary” and the “Camel of the Snow,” and in 1791, Hastings commissioned livestock artist George Stubbs to paint a portrait of the impressive beast, an image repurposed in an 1800 engraving by William Daniell, the same year as Turner published his travel account, featuring this extended description of the yak:
The head is rather short, crowned with two smooth round horns, which, tapering from the roots upwards, terminate in sharp points; they are arched inwards, bending towards each other, but near the extremities are a little turned back. The ears are small: the forehead appears prominent, being adorned with much curling hair; the eyes are full and large; the nose small and convex; the nostrils small; the neck short, describing a curvature nearly equal both above and below; the withers are high and arched. The rump is low; over the shoulders rises a think muscle, which seems to be the same kind of protuberance peculiar to the cattle of Hindostan, covered with a profusion of soft hair, which, in general, is longer and more copious than that along the ridge of the back to the setting of the tail.
The tail is composed of a prodigious quantity of long, flowing, glossy hair; and is so abundantly well furnished, that not a joint of it is perceptible; but it has much the appearance of a large cluster of hair artificially set on; the shoulders, rump and upper parts of the body, are clothed with a sort of thick soft wool; but the inferior parts with straight pendant hair, that descends below the knee; and I have seen it so long in some cattle, which were in high health and good condition, as to trail upon the ground.
From the chest, between the legs, issues a large pointed tuft of straight hair, growing somewhat longer than the rest; the legs are very short; in every other respect he resembles an ordinary bull.
There is a great variety of colours among them, but black or white are the most prevalent. It is not uncommon to see the long hair upon the muscle above the shoulders, upon the ridge of the back, the tail, and tuft upon the chest, and also the legs below the knee, white, when all the rest of the animal is jet black.
These cattle, though not large boned, seem, from the profuse quantity of hair with which they are provide, to be of great bulk. They have a downcast, heavy look; and appear, what indeed they are, sullen and suspicious, discovering much impatience at the near approach of strangers. They do not low loud, like the cattle of England, any more than those of Hindostan, but make a low grunting noise scarcely audible, and that, but seldom, when under some impression of uneasiness.
English painter George Stubbs celebrated 1791 portrait of the "Yak Of Tartary."
The “Yak Of Tartary’s” unprecedented arrival in the British isles marked the beginning of the modern west’s relationship with grunniens, as stories of the yak and its exotic nature rippled outward across Europe and the Atlantic, helped along by popular images like The Saturday Magazine’s 1834 “Yak Of Thibet.” Over the next several decades, yaks began to appear in urban European zoological gardens – Antwerp (1843), Berlin (1844), Frankfurt (1858), Amsterdam (1878), Basel (1895), and Zurich (1929), with the first British yak born in London’s Regent’s Park Zoo in January 1902. The country of France imported twelve Tibetan yaks to Paris’ Museum of Natural History in 1854. “A first-rate animal in terms of its usefulness, the yak supplies good material for cloth and shawls in its wooly undercoat; the yak is a beast of burden, and drags the plough,” explains an 1853 Once A Week article entitled “The Yaks In France.” “The yak is at once the camel, the horse, and the sheep of the Thibetan…derived from the existing wild animal which is still hunted on the northern slopes of the Himalayas.” (391-392).
English engraver William Daniell's1800 "Yak of Tartary" - based on Stubbs' painting.
Over time, French scientists dispersed the original herd into the countryside for research purposes, marking the beginning of ongoing effort by European countries to cultivate grunniens, with little long-term success. “Yaks survived in the mountains of France for some time,” explains IYAK historian Dianne Latona. “Eventually the population dwindled to nothing, which is the case today - aside from a few small herds in Great Britain, Switzerland, Italy, Norway and Sweden, the only yak found in Europe today are in zoos.”
Yaks imported into 19th century France.
One successful exception? The Whipsnade Wild Animal Park in Dunstable Downs, England – a glorified zoological garden - imported its first yaks in 1940, and reported thirty yaks in 2003, building a herd from yaks imported from Sweden, Germany, and Alberta, Canada. Spring 2020 witnessed the birth of a new yak calf to “Mum” Hermione and “Dad” Voldemort at Whipsnade, which has a tradition of naming all its yaks after Harry Potter characters – author JK Rowling would be pleased. “It’s magical to be able to share the wonderful news of the newest arrival at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo. The calf is doing really well, sticking close to mum while they are exploring the herd's paddock together,” the Zoological Society of London notes of the new calf – soon to be named Ginny or Draco? - in a public statement. “While so much is changing in the world, it’s wonderful to be able to come to work and see life go on with our animals – and even more so to see new life beginning.”
London, England's newest yak calf - born at the Whipsnade Zoo during March 2020.
In his recent photo/essay book The Yaks Go West: Die Geschichte de Yaks in Europa, Amerika, und Neuseeland Pioniere der westlichen Yakhaltung von 1783-2012 (The history of yaks in Europe, America, and New Zealand pioneered western yak farming from 1783-2012), 21st century Swiss yak pioneer Daniel Wismer has assembled chronological and photographic highlights from the first century of European/yak relations, an indispensable resource, one he was kind enough to share with me when I visited his Swiss high mountain yak lodge on a November 2020 visit. More than any other European country, the Swiss Yak Federation has managed to build a national yakking network over the past few decades - we will visit with the SYF in a later chapter.
Pioneering Swiss yakker Daniel Wismer's photo essay book "The Yaks Go West."
Across the Pond in North America, meanwhile, both Americans and Canadians began to take an active interest in the grunniens. “Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire, and other eminent naturalists in France, are beginning to consider the domestication of animals which have hitherto been known to Europe only as objects of scientific curiosity,” noted Scientific American in June 1854. “They have recently received for the Jardin des Plantes a number of Yaks from China – an animal which Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) says ‘is more precious than all the gold of the New World.’ In Thibet and China this animal draws large loads, supplies milk, has flesh which is excellent, and hair which can be wrought into warm clothes. To naturalize him, therefore, in Europe, would be an immense service to mankind.”
Oddly, the late 19th century US trolley industry proved the first to incorporate grunniens into their business model, funding “pretty little parks” during summer seasons to encourage city-dwelling patrons to travel via local rail, animal menageries that featured an occasional yak by the turn of the century. According to an 1898 New York Times article, the trolley industry obtained these “yak from India” via Hamburg, Germany’s Carl Hagenbeck, “perhaps the most famous animal broker of all time,” according to IYAK historian Dianne Latona. “Hagenbeck originated the idea of the zoo without bars, displaying in enclosures that mimicked the natural environment…and practiced and promoted the philosophy of training animals through the use of kindness and rewards rather than the crueler methods more commonly used at that time.”
The New York Department of Parks mentions yaks “deposited for exhibition” in 1871, Manhattan’s Central Park zoo listed a “yak antelope” in its collection in 1901, and Washington, DC’s National Zoo witnessed the birth of the first US yak that same year – the yak yearling was traded to London’s Regent’s Park Zoo the following January. In 1913, the Bronx Zoo acquired two of Hagenbeck’s black yaks from Germany, reputedly the first black yaks in the United States and allegedly “wild” in nature, though a Bronx Zoo photo from that year clearly indicates two grunniens rather than mutus. Throughout the 20th century, US zoological gardens began to garner yaks for their growing population of visitors – Milwaukee (as early as 1914), San Diego (as early as 1928), and Chicago (1974) all acquired yaks- with a dramatic uptick in US zoo yak acquisitions by the 1980s.
Yaks in the Washington D.C. Zoo (2013 - above) and NYC's Bronx Zoo (2002 - below).
It was in Canada, though, that North America’s most ambitious yakking projects unfolded, bringing yaks out of North American zoos and onto the Canadian prairies. “The yak is about the size of common cattle, but is better fitted to endure the cold of a northern winter,” observed Ernest Thompson Seton, famously known as the founder of the Boy Scouts, in a February 1909 Country Life In America magazine article entitled “The Yak – A North American Opportunity.” “Valuable for milk, beef, hide and hair, and easily nourished on sparse vegetation,” he wrote, “yak herds may render productive the barren tract of North America.” (354). The magazine, aimed at a high brow audience with interest to spare and money to invest, attracted the attention of a variety of other newspapers, which quickly popularized Seton’s idea, one he had been promoting through official Canadian government channels for several years.
Governor Central of Canada, Lord Early Grey mentioned Seton’s yak importation idea in a November 14, 1907 letter to Lord Elgin, Secretary of State for the British Colonies, referencing Premier of Canada Sir Wilfred Laurier’s request of a formal report on the yak idea from Seton himself. The following March, Seton traveled to England to “make inquiries” of the Duke of Bedford, who maintained a small herd of yaks at his Woborn Abbey, England estate, and the following year, the Duke sent a “starter herd” of yaks – two bulls and four cows – to Ottawa, Canada. After several years of failed attempts to expand the herd in Ottawa – one bull and one cow died and the other pair continually failed to reproduce – the Canadian government transported the remaining pair to Banff, Alberta’s Rocky Mountain Park in 1912, and then, by 1919, on to Wainwright, Alberta’s Buffalo Park for “hybridization” trials.
By the 1920s, then, Planet Yak established a number of “hoof holds” in North America – both the United States and Canada –marking the beginning of a century of co-domestication between sapiens and grunniens. While North American zoological gardens introduced the yak to growing audiences, it fell to small groups of yakkers who experimented with co-domesticating yaks and moving the formerly exotic beasts into the North American agricultural mainstream.
London, England's newest yak calf - born at the Whipsnade Zoo during March 2020.
From the ancient Eurasian auroch to the modern North American grunniens, yaks’ evolutionary efforts to “know place” have been both challenged and enhanced by their thousands of years of co-evolution with we sapiens. Today’s yaks know place, and they have inherited these “habits of memory” their shaggy ancestors. At first, looking at the 2020 birth announcement photos of “the adorable new yak calf” featured on the London Zoological Society’s Whipsnade web site, I have difficulty drawing an evolutionary line from this tiny brown four-legged British fuzzball, reclined in rest, to the aurochs - the thundering atavistic beasts that once roamed most of Eurasia. But traveling through the heart of Planet Yak makes sketching these myth’ing links much easier, the complete picture more clear. “All organisms inherit a collective memory of their species by morphic resonance from previous organisms,” concludes Sheldrake, and “individual organisms are subject to morphic resonance from themselves in the past, and this self-resonance provides the basis for their own individual memories and habits.” (183) Sheldrake’s theory suggests that to truly know place - for both yaks and humans – means tapping into the presence of the past, the memory of nature. Truly appreciating Life By The Horns, then, requires traveling into the mountainous geographical terrain of the Himalayas to explore how yaks and humans co-exist in high mountain cultures today.