Scientific classification Edit this classification
(Disputed,[1] see § Taxonomy and name)
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Bovidae
Subfamily: Bovinae
Genus: Bos
B. t. indicus
Trinomial name
Bos taurus indicus

The zebu (/ˈzb(j), ˈzb/; Bos indicus or Bos taurus indicus), sometimes known in the plural as indicine cattle, Camel cow or humped cattle, is a species or subspecies of domestic cattle originating in South Asia.[4] Zebu, like many Sanga cattle breeds, differs from taurine cattle by a fatty hump on their shoulders, a large dewlap, and sometimes drooping ears. They are well adapted to withstanding high temperatures and are farmed throughout the tropics.

Zebu are used as draught and riding animals, dairy cattle and beef cattle, as well as for byproducts such as hides and dung for fuel and manure. Some small breeds such as the miniature zebu are also kept as pets.

In some regions, such as parts of India, zebu and other cattle have significant religious meaning.

Taxonomy and name

Both scientific names Bos taurus and Bos indicus were introduced by Carl Linnaeus in 1758, with the latter used to describe humped cattle in China.[3]

The zebu was classified as a distinct species by Juliet Clutton-Brock in 1999,[5] but as a subspecies of the domestic cattle, Bos taurus indicus, by both Clutton-Brock and Colin Groves in 2004 and by Peter Grubb in 2005.[6][7] In 2011, Groves and Grubb classified it as a distinct species again.[8][failed verification]

The American Society of Mammalogists considers it part of the species Bos taurus in analogy to Sanga cattle (Bos taurus africanus Kerr, 1792).[2] The ICZN has not yet published a ruling on the classification of domestic derivatives and no scientific body advocates the abolition of the Biological Species Concept for domestic animals.


A Pillar of Ashoka, dating to the 3rd century BCE, depicting a zebu
Zebu pictured on a coin of the Indo-Scythian king Azes II, late first century BC

Zebu cattle were found to derive from the Indian form of aurochs and have first been domesticated between 7,000 and 6,000 YBP at Mehrgarh, present-day Pakistan, by people linked to or coming from Mesopotamia.[9][10][11][12] Indicine cattle farming is understood to have spread across much of South Asia by 2000 BCE.

Its wild ancestor, the Indian aurochs, became extinct during the Indus Valley civilisation likely due to habitat loss, caused by expanding pastoralism and interbreeding with domestic zebu.[4][13] Its latest remains ever found were dated to 3,800 YBP, making it the first of the three aurochs subspecies to die out.[14][15][16]

Archaeological evidence including depictions on pottery and rocks suggests that humped cattle likely imported from the Near East was present in Egypt around 4,000 YBP. Its first appearance in the Subsahara is dated to after 700 AD and it was introduced to the Horn of Africa around 1000.[17]

Phylogenetic analysis revealed that all the zebu Y chromosome haplotype groups are found in three different lineages: Y3A, the most predominant and cosmopolitan lineage; Y3B, only observed in West Africa; and Y3C, predominant in south and northeast India.[18]


Female zebu in Sri Lanka

Zebu, but also many Sanga cattle have humps on the shoulders, large dewlaps and droopy ears.[19] Sanga cattle can be distinguished from purebred zebu by their having smaller humps located farther forward.[citation needed]

Compared to taurine cattle, zebus are well adapted to the hot savanna and steppe environments. These adaptations result in higher tolerance for drought, heat and sunlight exposure.[20] Unlike many Sanga cattle however, zebu does not exhibit trypanotolerance, making it susceptible to nagana,[21][22] as evidenced by the pattern of zebu introgression into African cattle.[21]

Furthermore, another important characteristic of the Zebu is that they are able to defend against parasites and diseases quite well[clarification needed].[23]


Zebu are generally mature enough to give birth when they are 29 months old. This is based on the development of their bodies to withstand the strain of carrying the calf and lactation. Early reproduction can place too much stress on the body and possibly shorten lifespans. The gestation period averages 285 days, but varies depending on the age and nutrition of the mother. The sex of the calf may also affect the carrying time, as male calves are carried for a longer period than females. Location, breed, body weight, and season affect the overall health of the animal and in return may also affect the gestation period.[20]


Studies on the natural weaning of zebu cattle have shown that cows wean their calves over a 2-week period, but after that, continue to show strong affiliatory behavior with their offspring and preferentially choose them for grooming and as grazing partners for at least 4–5 years.[24]

Breeds and hybrids

Zebu are very common in much of Asia, including Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and China. In Asia, taurine cattle are mainly found in the northern regions such as Japan, Korea, northern China and Mongolia. In China, taurine cattle are most common in northern breeds, zebu more common in southern breeds, with hybrids in between.[25][26]

Zebu market in Madagascar

Zebu were imported to Africa since the Bronze Age and crossed with taurine cattle. Genetic analysis of African cattle found higher proportions of zebu genes along the East African coast, with hardly any taurine component on Madagascar, either implying that the method of dispersal was cattle transported by ship or the zebu may have reached East Africa via the coastal route (via Pakistan, Iran, Yemen).

Partial resistance to rinderpest caused a further increase of zebu breeds in Africa.[citation needed]

Geneticists at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, Kenya and in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia discovered that cattle had been domesticated in Africa independently of domestication in the Near East. They concluded that the southern African cattle populations derive originally from East Africa rather than from a southbound migration of taurine cattle.[27] The results are inconclusive as to whether domestication occurred first in Africa or the Near East.[28]

Other scientists[who?] consider the African Sanga cattle breeds to have originated from hybridization of zebu with indigenous African humpless cattle[clarification needed] leading to the Afrikaner, Red Fulani, Ankole, Boran and many other breeds.

Some 75 breeds of zebu are known, split about evenly between African and Indian breeds.

List of widely distributed zebu breeds[citation needed]
Hariana breed of zebu type cattle in north India

Other breeds of zebu are quite local, like the Hariana from Haryana, Punjab[30] or the Rath from Alwar district, Rajasthan.[31]

Zebu, which are adapted to high temperatures,[32] were imported into Brazil in the early 20th century. Their importation marked a change in cattle ranching in Brazil as they were considered "ecological" since they could graze on natural grasses[Is there a ruminant that can't? clarification needed] and their meat was lean and without chemical residues[definition needed].[33]

In the early 20th century in Brazil, Zebu were crossbred with Charolais cattle, a European taurine breed. The resulting breed, 63% Charolais and 37% zebu, is called the Canchim. It has a better meat quality than the zebu and better heat resistance than European cattle. The zebu breeds used were primarily Indo-Brazilian with some Nelore and Guzerat. Another Charolais cross-breed with Brahmans is called Australian Charbray and is recognised as a breed in some countries.

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From the 1960s onwards, Nelore which is an off breed of Ongole Cattle became the primary breed of cattle in Brazil because of its hardiness, heat-resistance, and because it thrives on poor-quality forage and breeds easily, with the calves rarely requiring human intervention to survive. Currently more than 80% of beef cattle in Brazil (approximately 167,000,000 animals) are either purebred or hybrid Ongole Cattle which is originated from Ongle region of Andhra Pradesh.


Draft zebu pulling a cart in Mumbai, India

Zebu are used as draught and riding animals, beef cattle, dairy cattle, as well as for byproducts such as hides, dung for fuel and manure, and horn for knife handles and the like. Zebu, mostly miniature zebu, are kept as pets.[34] In India, the number of draft cattle in 1998 was estimated at 65.7 million head.[35]

Zebu cows commonly have low production of milk. They do not produce milk until maturation later in their lives and do not produce much. When zebus are crossed with taurine cattle, milk production generally increases.[20]

In 1999, researchers at Texas A&M University successfully cloned a zebu.[36]

Jallikattu in India is a bull taming sport differing from European bullfighting in that humans are unarmed and the bulls are not killed.

In Madagascar, zebu outnumber people, and there are an "astonishing" 6,813 Malagasy proverbs, common sayings, and expressions referring to zebu in parlance on the island.[37] Zebu are wrestled by young men in a competitive ritual of courtship called tolon'omby.[37][38]

Hindu tradition

Further information: Cattle slaughter in India

Zebu are venerated within the Hindu religion of India. In the Vedic period they were a symbol of plenty.[39]: 130  In later times they gradually acquired their present status. According to the Mahabharata, they are to be treated with the same respect 'as one's mother'.[40] In the middle of the first millennium, the consumption of beef began to be disfavoured by lawgivers.[39]: 144  Cows appear in numerous stories from the Vedas and Puranas. The deity Krishna was brought up in a family of cowherders, and given the name Govinda (protector of the cows). Also, Shiva is traditionally said to ride on the back of a bull named Nandi.

Milk and milk products were used in Vedic rituals.[39]: 130  In the postvedic period products of the cow—milk, curd, ghee, but also cow dung and urine (gomutra), or the combination of these five (panchagavya)—began to assume an increasingly important role in ritual purification and expiation.[39]: 130–131 

See also


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