The Mythic Mithun

Magnus Lidén is a plant systematist who has taught in India as guest faculty at Rajiv Gandhi University. Recently, he encountered the strange and mythical mithun ox and dug into researching its history and cultural uses.

The mithun (or mitun or gayal, Bos frontalis) is a curious, stocky and semi-domesticated ox. With its uniquely triangular forehead and striking, thick horns, there is nothing else quite like it in the world of cattle. The mithun has a complicated hybrid-breeding history, stemming from the wild gaur (Bos gaurus) and domesticated cattle, possibly with its earliest roots 6,000 years ago.

The mithun plays an important socioeconomic and cultural role, particularly in the Tani group of tribes in Arunachal Pradesh, where it is eaten at grand festivities like weddings. It is also a way to keep score socially, like a more clumsy version of gold; perhaps more importantly, however, it is the standard price of a bride for a groom and his family.

Compare this with the Indian “mainland” practice, where you instead have to pay to get rid of your daughters! One might, therefore, expect a profitable bride market at the borders of tribal lands, but no! This is not at all the case, as there are complicated rules and restrictions for extra-tribal marriages when it comes to property and the like. The mithun is woven inseparably into these rules.

The flat and triangular forehead, outward-pointing horns and huge dewlap make a mithun bull recognizable from other cattle. (Photo by Magnus Lidén)

Mithuns stroll more or less freely in the jungle and along the roads, but do not go very far, and, of course, are all marked by their owners. Not everyone is happy with the mithun institution, however (an Adi friend called it “the most superfluous animal in the world, next to malaria mosquitoes”), because they destroy fences and eat crops, and are usually not put to work as pack or plough animals—at least not among the Tani tribes.

I was very surprised to encounter this massive bull at 4,300 meters of altitude in the Tibetan district of Tawang in NW Arunachal Pradesh. If not a stray animal from the southeast, I speculate that it may belong to the Bhutan strain, which is genetically distinct and is used to produce hybrids with cattle and yak. The normal Arunachal Pradesh mithun is not found above 3,000 meters. (Photo by Magnus Lidén)

However, they are great converters of vegetable forest biomass and they produce fat milk (though in small quantities) and superb leather. In the last two decades the number of mithuns has dropped, as families have chosen to capitalize on their stocks as a consequence of entering a monetary economy—and an increased demand for mithun meat in the urban Itanagar area. Scientists at the Rajiv Gandhi University (AP) warn that this currently uncontrolled trend may lead to genetic depletion, inbreeding and loss of environmental sustainability. With such handsome faces, it would be a real shame to see them go!

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There are regional variants of mithun. In the Mishmi societies in the Lohit river basin in the far East of Arunachal Pradesh, they are commonly darker than those held by the Adi, Nyishi and Galo further West. (Photo by Magnus Lidén)

Read More by Magnus Lidén

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Meet the Author
Since 2005 senior scientific curator at Uppsala Botanic Garden (50%) and researcher at Evolutionary Biology Center, Uppsala University (50%). Travels a lot, not least hunting plants in Himalaya in my research. Lately, mostly NE India, SW China and Iran.