[...] Poland, the country in which that species survived the longest. The last specimen died in the royal forests of Jaktorów in Masovia at the beginning of the XVIIth century. The sources of the present study are as follows: documents proclaimed by kings, old chronicles, descriptions found in literature, old illustrations, etc. Among the reasons why that species of the relic fauna of the Pleistocene epoch survived so long are those the author draws attention to:

i) the special natural conditions, i.e. abundance of forests and climate, offered in Poland, especially in early times,
ii) some cultural elements, the latter being of special interest to him.

The legal protection extended to the aurochs by the State found its expression in the regale or the king's order concerning hunting of these animals; this was strictly observed, as is pronouncedly recorded in the historical sources which say that in the XIIIth century the aurochs were to be found only in the province of Masovia. The local princes of the Piast dynasty, and later on the kings of Poland, made no concessions of their exclusive right to hunt that animal, not even to the greatest magnates, both ecclesiastical and secular. They themselves never abused the hunting law as far as the aurochs was concerned.

Considering the situation of the aurochs in the light of that regale and of the hunting law, the conclusion is offered that the fact of excluding the aurochs from the hunting law and extending to it "a sacred privilege of immunity" which, according to an old custom, only the king was not obliged to obey, was the major factor which contributed to such a long period of survival of that species. This exceptional and almost personal care of the Polish sovereigns for these animals and their intentional will to save them for posterity caused the prolongation of the period of survival of that magnificent species up to the year 1627, in which the last auroch cow died a natural death in her haunts, as is stated in the report of the royal inspection performed in the year 1630.

The fact of the extinction of the last aurochs (Bos taurus primigenius) in the royal forests of Jaktorowski at Mazowsze in Poland at the beginning of the 17th century is well known. It was the last natural reserve of that splendid, once admired animal, in Europe. The original respect for aurochs on the part of Homo sapiens is shown in the famous palaeolithic frescoes of Magdalenian Lascaux and Altamira. Detailed and admiring descriptions of this animal are found in the classical writings of Tacitus (Annales IV, 72 and Germania 45) Giulius Caesar (Commentarii de bello Gallico IV) and Pliny (Historia naturalis VIII, 38). Such a lucky long survival of the original species of aurochs in Poland prompts the question "Why?". Apart from favourable natural conditions, such as the abundance of forest, a favourable climate and so on, there was undoubtedly another equally important cultural factor, namely the legal protection of this statechosen animal, which has its origin in the deep medieval period.


Early Poland was largely covered with forest and marsh (between two thirds and three quarters, that is 65-75% of the total territory) and was full of all kinds of animals. During this period "the fauna of our country was not only richer in kinds but also incomparably numerous" (Buczek, 1960c). Only after the clearance of large areas of forest connected with the expansion of settlements at the beginning of the 13th century, there was a decrease in the kind and number of the animal population.

It is obvious that already before the 13th century, aurochs were no longer common in Poland (Mankowski, 1904), unlike its close relative the zubr (Bison bonasus). According to some researchers, the latter was common all over Poland. Their argument is based on toponymical data derived from zabr=zubr. This seems a weak and risky foundation for supporting the universality of the zubr in Poland. Many of these names could originate from common nicknames of people and not directly from the name of the animal that supposedly lived there (Moszynski, 1959). More critical researchers (Sztolcman, 1926; Heymanowski, 1963) hold the view that the occurrence of the zubr before the 13th century was restricted to a few regions, like Mazowsze and Podlasie.

Aurochs, however, were found only in the Mazowsze region (Masovia), the most afforested part of the country and therefore the least populated one, while "the imagination of our ancestors clothed this forest giant in almost unnatural charm", while some texts compare it to a mythological centaur (Centaurus seu Bubulis vulgariter aurochs).

Hunting (venatio) as a primary form of exploitation of the primeval forest, together with beekeeping (melificio), was probably very important in the economy of early Piast Poland. Anonymous (Gall) in his "Kronica" (Book 1, § 4) reminds us of the wellorganized hunting service at the King's Chroby court, which "had ... fowlers and hunters from all walks of life who, each in their own way, caught all sorts of birds and other animals". This picture is typical of the courts of the earlymedieval Polish sovereigns.

"Chronicle Kadlubka" (Book IV, § 4) with its account of a draconian system of government by separate dukedoms under Mieszek III Stary in Kraków (11731177) is convincing proof of the existence of a royal privilege in the Poland of that time. A monarch had the exclusive privilege of hunting a "large animal" on private lands as well as on the sovereign's own lands. In other words, the monarch or prince, or their hunting service, could hunt anywhere exclusively. In practice, the interference of the state was sporadic and limited to some
territory, leaving large parts of forest for communal use, although probably only for the hunting of the smaller animals, which could be caught by individual hunters. For example, roe deer were hunted up to the end of the 13th century by the peasants themselves. The royal privilege (regale) was respected where a large animal was involved, as this required special hunting skills and organization, and this could not be done in secrecy.

Hunting was regarded as a noble recreation and a preparation for combat, and it also provided a rest from administrative duties and an income for the monarchy (the meat, skin and horns). Animals were protected in some particular cases by the socalled "holly law". This "holly law of inviolability" protected in particular large animals, the noblest and most dignified, and endangered species.

According to medieval documents, the primeval hunting law divided the hunt into venatio magna or venatio animalium superiorum and venatio minuta or venatio parva. However the aurochs and the zubr, the "principal and patriarchal animals", those "emperors of the primeval forest" as they were so accurately described by Mickiewicz, were excluded from this law (Mankowski, 1904). In Poland these animals were always regarded as being strictly covered by the regaleducale law. Only the monarch could hunt them, which, it seems, was done in moderation.

This hunting custom was probably a legacy from the times before the creation of the state, when it was difficult to hunt individually for a large animal. It needed some organization of people, and leadership. The leader had a right to distribute the bag but also, together with his tribesmen, had a duty to look after the remains of the herd.

This primeval custom developed into an observed law in state society, and gave rise to exclusive hunting for the monarch. In the 13th century, individual provincial princes passed many of their privileges, including hunting privileges, to other nobles. For example, Wladyslaw Odoniec, the Prince of the Wielkopolski region, as seen in the Kronika Wielkolska a summary of a now lost original document of immunity for the Poznan bishopric from 1232 -, resolved that local bishops "possint venari in quolibet loco episcopatus sui".

Similarly, Kazimierz Konradowic, the prince of the Kujawy and Leczyce regions, awarded the local bishop, in the Skierniewicki Documenty of 1250 to the Bishop of Wroclaw, the privilege to hunt all types of animals (ius venari in omnibus silvis ... bestiarum cuiuscumque generis) between Zlotoryja, Ciechocin and Raciaz. In the Welborsk castellany, which according to the law belonged to the bishop, the prince awarded the bishop the full right to hunt all types of animals on the property of the prince, knights or others, in particular in the Sieroslawice forest, where only the bishop was allowed to hunt (specialiter in silvis Syroslave sibi soli liceat venari ... bestias cuiuscumque generis) (see Krzyzanowski, 1959; Grodecki, 1959).

Lastly, when Henryk IV Prawy in 1290 awarded the bishop of Wroclaw, Tomasz II, the castellany Nysko Otmuchów together with full princely rights they included the right to hunt all kinds of animals. In all the regions mentioned above there were in fact no aurochs. But the princes of the Mazowsze region, where the aurochs took refuge, excluded this animal from the hunting privilege for large animals.

For example, Boleslaw, Prince of Mazowsze, awarded to one of the knights in 1298 the village of Karwowo and Nosarzewo together with hunting privileges "excepto Pomilione qui dicitur Tur, quem volumus spectare nostrum ad ducatum" (KDMaz no. XLIII, Mankowski p. 516). Ziemowit Trojdenowicz, prince of Mazowsze, in his Skierniewicki Document of 1359 conferred on the Bishop of Gniezno the freedom to hunt all kinds of animals in the whole region of his principality "excepta dumtaxat bubula vulgariter tur venacione ..." (KDW, Mankowski, p. 516). The prince did not share this "ducale" even with the archbishop. Although these are documents from a later period, it can be believed that this was also the case during the earlier reign of Mieszek and Boleslaw.


The Piast monarchs of Mazowsze so zealously guarded this privilege that they did not share it even with other members of the royal family. For example when Prince Ziemowit in 1359 allowed his aunt Elzbiecia to hunt over the whole territory of his principality, he excluded the aurochs: "Prefatum quoque dominam ducissam venacionem omnium et ferarum solo animali, quod Thuer vulgariter dicitur, dumtaxat excepto..." (KDPol., Mankowski p. 516). Similarly in 1451, when Prince Wladyslaw gave his wife Anna Sochaczewski land and the town of Raciaz together with all legal authority, he reserved for himself the right to hunt aurochs: "venacionibus omnium ferarum tam magnarum quam parvarum centauris seu Bubulis vulgariter thur dumtaxat exceptis, quos pro nostris successoribus reservamus" (KDMaz, no. CXCVI).

Also, during the Jagiellonian dynasty later, in the Litwa and Podlasie counties, only the monarch had the right to hunt this animal. These hunting restrictions were designed mainly to protect the interests of the monarch and the state (revenue and food supply). On the other hand, it can be seen that there was a general will on the part of the monarchs to protect these noble and increasingly rare animals for their successors. All the same, the numbers of aurochs and zubr in Poland were decreasing fast, because of general changes in the natural environment. It was the result of the rising economic interference of society, including hunting, as well as a deep passion for hunting on the part of the monarchy.

Kazimierz Wielki's love of hunting is well known from traditional lore that is preserved today and for which there is ample documentary evidence; his hunts in the Niepolomice forest or the traditional autumn deer hunts in the primeval forests by the River Pilica at Przedborze: "from birth he was keen on hunting ... always making sure that nobody could interfere with his favourite hobby ... Those who interfered with his entertainment could never be forgiven". It is enough to look through the Dlugosz itinerarium of Jagiello or through the accounts of the court to see how much time and expense was devoted to that favourite entertainment of the King. But this activity was not purely for entertainment; it combined pleasure with duty. Before the great war with the Monastery of the Black Cross in 1409, the King organized a great hunt to provide his army with meat.

Dlugosz (Annales, 1409) talks about the King's war conference with Prince Witold of Brzesc, and his hunting expedition afterwards to Bialowieza, where while enjoying himself for eight days he killed a lot of animals which were then sent down by the Narwia and Wisla rivers to Plock as provisions. There is a related legend about one of the oldest oak trees in the Bialowieza forest, which was destroyed by the late October hurricane in 1974.

The same legend talks about another old tree of the Niepolomiecki forest, also called the King's oak or Jagiello's oak, growing on the socalled Gibiela. The King distributed much of the spoils of the hunts. For example Kazimierz Wielki, Jagiello, Kazimierz Jagielloncyk, "great hunters as well as famous knights", gave away part of the spoils to the bishops and other people of rank in the Kingdom. Sometimes he sent some of it abroad as a present. In the winter of 1417, at the time of the council in Konstancja, Jagiello ordered three zubr from Litwa (Lithuania) (since there were no more in Malopolska) to be delivered to Kraków, intending to send them to Konstancja. One was to be a present for King Zygmunt Luksemburski, another for the King of England, and the third for the Polish delegation to the council. It became a sensation, according to one of the members of the council, Ulryk von Richental:

"On Friday 9th February 1417, the King (Zygmunt Luksemburski) received a present, a huge animal captured in Litwa by the King of Poland, who captured three animals like this alive ... This animal looked like a big, black ox, but with a larger head, fatter neck, wider breasts and two small, pointing horns in a forehead about a foot apart, and a short tail. It was similar to an ox which is known in Poland as an aurochs. They took out its bowels and filled it with fresh roots and herbs. It was sent down the Rhine to the King of England and word was spread so that everyone could see it ..." (Dabrowski, 1923).

From the above description it is obvious that the Europe of that time, except Poland, knew neither aurochs nor zubr. An indirect indicator of the use of spoils for provisions in the Middle Ages is the well documented fact of well-organized transport, called chivalrous transport. It was the fastest means of transportation, used particularly for food. There is another example of the fact that these animals were unknown to Renaissance Europe. Erazm Ciolek, bishop of Plock, a diplomat and humanist, was a representative of King Zygmunt in Rome in 15181522. When Pope Leon X watched a bull fight, comparisons were made to the Polish hunt for aurochs.

The Pope, who was a keen hunter, took a great interest in it, and even asked for the stuffed animal to be sent to him so that he could see it. Ciolek asked his house poet, Mikolaj Hussowiecki, to write a poem about the aurochs, dedicated to the Pope. The Lithuanian Hussowiecki, probably a son of Alexander Jagiellonczyk (one of the King's officials and responsible for hunting) was trained by the side of his father and knew well all the "old hunting customs" for the large animal, called also "Diana's craft". He wrote the poem "De statura, feritatea ac venatione bisontis", based on reflections from his childhood and full of realistic expressions. Unfortunately, the huntsman Pope died before seeing it. Hussowski published it in Kraków in 1525 and dedicated it to Queen Bona. This was the first Polish printed publication about hunting (Plezia, 1925; Chrzanowski, 1930).

Eight years earlier, in 1517, the Haller publishing house printed a work by the Master of the Kraków Academy, Maciej from Miechów: Tractatus de duabus Sarmatiis Asiana et Europiana et de contentis in eis, which became a scientific sensation. In the description of the Great Lithuanian Principality we read as follows:

"There are large territories covered with primeval forest, completely unpopulated, spreading for 10, 15 and sometimes 25 miles. Only the boundaries of the forest are inhabited. The forest is populated with many wild animals. There are forest oxen, called in the language of Lithuania tury and zumbrony (aurochs and zubr)... etc."(Miechowita, 1974). This information is imprecise. One can conclude from it, although there is no other written proof, that these animals were found in the Lithuanian forest at the turn of the 15th century (which is not contradicted by Buczek, 1960).

However, there may be some information supporting the presence of the aurochs in the bordering forests of Podlesie. These facts relate to place names. For example, the names Turowisko and Turzycowisko (from tur=aurochs), the name of a range in the Bialowieza forest. On the other hand, there can be another more probable conclusion from the information supplied by Miechowita. It is that these aurochs were in fact only bison. The fact that both animals were unknown in Europe for a long time contributed to the confusion between them. They were regarded by many to be one and the same animal.

However, Zygmunt Herberstein, a diplomat who represented the Emperor Maximilian of Vienna in Moscow during 1516-1551 and visited Poland several times and even took part in the Polish monarch's hunts for aurochs, included in his Rerum Moscovitarum Commentarii (about 1556) two drawings, one of the aurochs and one of the bison, underlining the differences. Above the aurochs he writes "Urus sum polonis tur, germanis Aurox. Ignari bisontis nomen dederant" (my name is Urus, in Polish I am Tur, in German Aurochs. Ignorants call me Bison). Above the bison he writes "Bison sum, poloni suber, germanis bisont. Ignori turi nomen dederunt" (my name is Bison, in Polish Zubr. Ignorants call me Aurochs) (Gloger, 1903; Brnckner, 1929).

According to Herberstein, the aurochs existed only in Mazowsze (central Poland) in his time, but the zubr was in Lithuania, Podlesie, Mazowsze around Sochaczewo and Ostroleka, and in the primeval Skawanski forest by the River Skwa. Except for Lithuania and Podlesie, they survived longest in the primeval Kurpiowski forest until the 17th century (Sztolcman, 1926). Proofs of the existence of this animal in the Mazowsze region at the end of the 15th century are the numerous mentions of it (tigris alias zubr) in the account book of Janusz II, prince of Mazowsze, and in bills of the King dated 1478.

The nuncios of the Pope and diplomats to Poland often mentioned these animals in their letters as the greatest attraction of Poland. Mucante describes King Zygmunt III's reservation, situated about two miles from Warsaw, where he has seen aurochs. Gratiani talks about places in Mazowsze by the River Rava that are full of aurochs herds, and states that it is a capital offence for anyone other than the King to kill an aurochs. The earlier game laws regulated the protection of animals, particular big game and game in forests belonging to the King. To enforce all these laws there was a large administration overseeing hunting.

The inhabitants of the villages nearby were free from some of the obligations to the King in return for protecting the animals. The Spear Act (rule 32) of Zygmunt Augustus (1557) forbids village people to go to the forest, without an official permit. While in the forest nobody, not even a forester, may have a harquibus or dog with him, to stop him from killing an animal. On his own fields a subject could kill only small game and birds (Jablonowski, 1910). So the King's prohibition or regale on the big animals did not change. Gratiani continues that only the King and some nobility would eat the meat of the aurochs and the zubr. They "put it out into the frost" and its taste is not very different from beef. He describes bison in the following way:

"... its appearance and strength more fierce, its neck open and wide, its drooping horns, larger than the aurochs's, its colour black, with small ears, enormous shining eyes, and a gloomy look".

At the turn of the 16th century, the last few herds were left in the Jaktorowski primeval forest. From comparisons made between documents of the Princes of Mazowsze between the 13th and 15th centuries and those of the Kings dating from the second half of the 16th century, the conclusion can be made that there were significantly fewer aurochs in the Mazowsze region. They were found only in the small region between Radziejówka and Kuklówka (tributaries of the River Pisa, itself a tributary of the River Bzura), between the three villages of Jaktorów, Kozlów, and Wiskidka or Koscielne. The main concentration was near Jaktorów. The inhabitants of those villages were preoccupied mainly with hunting. They were free of any obligations towards the state except to support the King's hunts and to protect the aurochs. One of their duties was to supply hay for the animals during winter.


According to inspections from 1564 from the village of Kozlów, "eight 'wlók' (old measure of area = 16.8 hectares) were given to village gamekeepers, who do not pay any taxes, but only look after the aurochs. In the Jaktorów there are many fields where grass is grown only for aurochs". Further on we read:

"In the Jaktorowski and Wislicki primeval forests, we found a herd of about 30 aurochs. Amongst them were 22 mature cows, 3 young aurochs and 5 calves. We could not see any mature males, because they had disappeared into the forest, but we were told by the old gamekeepers that there are 8 of them. Of the cows, one is old and skinny, and will not survive the winter. When we asked the keepers why they are skinny and why they do not increase in number, we were told that other animals kept by village people, horses, cows and so on, feed at places for aurochs, and disturb them".

According to the law it was forbidden for the villagers to keep large numbers of domestic animals and to graze them in the forest, "to keep [the forests] free for the aurochs and to prevent them being disturbed by other animals". In 1597 an incident occurred when locals used these fields for their own flocks. The representative of the King seized them and the villagers had to appear in court. Another audit of the King's property comes from the Rawski region. The exact figures are given of what was probably the last herd in the Jaktorowski forest. In it we read that in 1602: "There are three males and one female left. The reports say that there were many more, but the "illness" spread among them from other cows, and many have died".

Eighteen years later we read that only one female is left. Four males have died; the last of them probably shortly before 1620. Its antlers according to the old custom were set in metal and sent to King Zygmunt. They spanned 46 cm. At present they are in the King's armoury in Stockholm. In 1976 they were shown at the Wawel [the castle in Kraków] during the exhibition "Art of Waza". The sign engraved into the metal ring reads: "Horn of the last aurochs of Sochaczewski primeval forest, sent by the woiwod of the Rawski province, Stanislaw Radziejowski, the starosty of Sochaczewo, in the year 1620".

In 1630, the King's inspector of Jaktorow found out from the local people that the remaining female had died three years earlier in 1627. The inspection of Kozlów in the same year mentions the local people who in the past used to look after the aurochs.

This is the end of the story of the aurochs.