Thou shalt not plow with an ox and an ass yoked together.
—Deuteronomy, xxii, 10
A jumart, allegedly drawn from life at the l’Ecole d’Alfort in France in 1766. Artist: Jean-Pierre Houël
Few scientists today would deem strange mixtures like ox-horses and ox-donkeys possible. But for centuries scholars did claim that they were, that is, they said hybrids can be produced from cattle crossed with equids. And indeed, some asserted that they themselves had seen creatures of this sort. Such animals are known by various names, but perhaps the most common is jumart.
Viewed in an ontological light, the jumart is dubious. It dwells somewhere near the boundary between science and mythology. Perhaps creatures of this sort do not exist and have never existed. Or, then again, perhaps they did. Given available evidence, which is scanty, it seems further investigation might tip the scale either way.
The story of the jumart begins in the 16th century and continues to the present day. In his Historiae Animalium (Liber I, De Quadrupedibus viviparis, 1551, p. 19) Conrad Gesner, the founder of modern zoology, writes,
In the same place, he says that he has
Gesner, who was Swiss himself, was a professor at the Carolinum, the precursor of the University of Zürich. He later (1551, p. 106) refers to the same event:
One source of this information was likely the physician Jakob Ruf (1505-1558), who, according to his German Wikipedia biography, lived as a young man in a cloister at Chur up to the time of the Reformation in 1526, but later lived in Zurich, where he became the leading surgeon of the city. In his De conceptu, et generatione hominis, he mentions this same birth (Ruf 1587, p. 48), and gives a brief description:
Julius Caesar Scaliger (1484-1558), a scholar of the same era as Gesner and Ruf, called a hybrid of this type a "hinnulus." He said (Scaliger 1612, p. 650; see also p. 349) it
The Gabali and Arverni were two ethnic groups native to France. The former lived in the southeastern region of Aquitaine, the latter, in the Auvergne in central France.
The foregoing quoted material constitutes only a small sampling from the many early accounts asserting that this hybrid, between a bull and a horse, or between a bull and an ass, truly existed. In late eighteenth-century France, knowledge of, and belief in, this hybrid seems to have been extremely widespread. For example, after the French Revolution the new official calendar renamed the months, and gave names taken from nature to each individual day of the year. The name of the 15th day of the new month of Messidor was Jumart. A French encyclopedia (Cours d'études encyclopédiques ou nouvelle encyclopédie élémentaire, vol. 6, p. 40), published during the revolutionary era, lists the beasts of burden as follows: "the horse, the ox, the ass, the mule, and the jumart." Voltaire, perhaps the most enlightened Frenchman of the eighteenth century, accepted the reality of jumarts as much as he did that of mules (see Voltaire 1792, p. 200).
Zirkle (1935, p. 34) says this cross "was cited as an authentic instance of hybridization for well over two hundred years." He also notes that many of the descriptions "seem to be independent eyewitness accounts from several different countries, and no one ever seems to have doubted the creature's existence." This last statement, however, is not entirely accurate; many people, for example Buffon (1749-1804, vol. 14, p. 398), did express doubt concerning their existence, which is not surprising, given that cattle are artiodactyls ("even-toed ungulates") horses and asses are perisodactyls ("solid-hoofed ungulates"), that is, they belong to two separate mammalian orders. But there were also many who adamantly embraced the reality of jumarts (the controversy was similar to that seen in the case of cat-rabbit hybrids at the present day).
|A jumart skull in the holdings of the Musée Fragonard d’Alfort, the museum of the French National College of Veterinary Medicine.|
So, then, is this animal real or imaginary? A key to resolving this controversy will, no doubt, prove to be the fact that a specimen apparently exists, which, given that it would probably be an F₁ hybrid, would be easily testable with molecular genetic techniques. Ackermann (1898, p. 74) states that there is a skeleton of a jumart in France in the collection of the Musée Fragonard d'Alfort, an anatomical museum associated with the French National College of Veterinary Medicine at Alfort (Écoles nationales vétérinaires d'Alfort), located today in a suburb of Paris. Ackermann's assertion prompted me to explore the museum's website, which did indeed turn out to have a page discussing jumarts, and which includes a photograph of a skull (see figure at right; view a high resolution photo of the skull). The following is a translation of that page (accessed Apr. 20, 2010):
French National College of Veterinary Medicine, Alfort|
Image: Wikimedia, Thesupermat
Webster's Third New International Dictionary states that the French word jumart, which has been adopted into English, derives from Provençal gimerro, jamerro or chimarro, from Old Provençal jumerra, ultimately from Latin chimaera, meaning chimera. Jumart is related to the Latin word jumentum, meaning mule, or beast of burden, and to the French word jument, meaning mare. Many other names have been used, in various languages, to refer to hybrids of this sort. Among them are the following: jumard (Fr.), jumar (Fr. masc.), jumarre (Fr. fem.), jumerre, jumarra (pl.), joumar, gemart, gemar, gimar, ox-donkey, ox-horse, hippotaurus, onotaurus, hippotaure, guimarri (Ital. pl.), guimerri (Ital. pl.), bosmulo (Ital.), bosmuli (Ital. pl.); kumrah or koomrah (Arabic, according to Shaw).
The jumart skull mentioned in this translated text is pictured on the same webpage, which is somewhat surprising given that jumarts today are generally considered imaginary. The skulls of mythical animals do not end up in museum collections. So either this type of hybrid has been produced, or the skull pictured is a fake or that of some other creature. Note, however, that this skull (pictured above), which the Alfort Museum describes as a jumart's, differs markedly from that of a cow, horse or ass. So if it is not a jumart, what is it?
The French College of Veterinary Medicine is one of the world's oldest. Its main branch at Alfort opened in 1766, and its museum, the Musée Fragonard, located at that branch, opened in the same year. The founder of both (as well as the original branch of the college at Lyon, which first opened its doors on January 1, 1762), the veterinary surgeon Claude Bourgelat (1712-1779), began the museum's collection. He was a member of both the French and Prussian academies of sciences. Many veterinary colleges in other countries were founded by his students, who took the French college as their model.
Charles Bonnet (1720-1793), a Swiss scientist, was one of the foremost naturalists of the eighteenth century. While updating his Oeuvres d'histoire naturelle et de philosophie, an encyclopedia of natural history, he happened to read about a jumart once supposedly in Bourgelat's possession. As a result, he writes the following (Bonnet 1779, vol. 6, pp. 349-352):
In his Bemerkungen aus dem Gebiet der Naturgeschichte, Medicin und Thierarzneykunde…(Berlin, Realschulbuchhandlung, 1804-06), the Swedish-born German naturalist Karl Asmund Rudolphi (1771-1832), who visited the Musée Fragonard d'Alfort at the beginning of the nineteenth century, described a specimen, the complete head and neck of a jumart. In addition, he commented that the animal in question in life had an unusual organ, which apparently served the function of water storage: “The animal from which this head was obtained was at Alfort for a long time, and people were surprised by the fact that he was never seen drinking, and they concluded that he in fact never drank. For all attempts to make him drink were in vain. But then, all at once, he drank two buckets of water, which, given the small size of the animal, provoked new astonishment. But at autopsy they found a hollow organ on the upper surface of the stomach of about the same size as the stomach pouch of a llama.” Possibly this hollow, stomach-attached organ was the genetic consequence of crossing a ruminant with a four-chambered stomach with a horse, which has a single stomach?
The skull pictured at the beginning of this section is apparently that of one of the jumarts Bourgelat claimed to have had in his possession during the years he served as director and inspector general of the school. There seems little doubt that such is the case, given that the museum website describes it as the skull of a jumart, and explicitly states that it "dates from the time of Bourgelat." Moreover, it is well-known that Bourgelat began the collection that later became the museum's.
In the present context, it appears significant that (1) descriptions of jumarts regularly mention that the upper jaw is much shorter than the lower (the usual distance mentioned is "an inch and a half"), and (2) that in the picture shown above, of what the museum website describes as the "skull of a jumart," ("tête osseuse de jumard") that the incisors in the upper jaw do, in fact, fall far short of those in the lower. This is not the case in a horse or an ass, and a cow does not have upper incisors. There seems to be no known animal with a similar mismatching of the incisors, nor one with a tooth and skull configuration like that seen in this putative jumart. In an old description of these animals, Leger (1669, p. 7) says this mismatch generally prevented the jumarts he saw from grazing, except that in fields with long grass they could crop by pulling it off with their tongues. Similarly, Paul Zacchias (Zacchias 1660, p. 504, 18) mentions that a jumart belonging to Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577-1633) died because it could not eat grass or hard food.
|Above: A news report about a jumart from page 5, col. 1, of the February 22, 1905 issue of Keowee Courier, a newspaper published in Walhalla, South Carolina (Access Source).|
There is also the fact that this specimen has an obvious knob or prominence over each eye, another feature regularly mentioned in accounts of jumarts.
In the article quoted above, Bonnet (1779, vol. 6, pp. 351-352) includes an excerpt from Bourgelat's letter, a section describing the anatomy of a female jumart:
Louis-Furcy Grognier (1774-1837), a member of the Academie Français and the French Society of Medicine, was a professor, and later, the director of the École nationale vétérinaire at Lyon. Like many French veterinarians of his era, Grognier believed that jumarts exist, though he considered them rare. Thus, he says (Grognier 1841, pp. 83-84; see also Grognier 1805, p. 188),
Three more cases
A donkey-cow hybrid is reported on page 3 of the June 4, 1917 issue of Pilsner Tagblatt, an Austro-Hungarian newspaper published in Pilsen (now in the Czech Republic. The brief notice reads as follows:
“A Monstrosity. In Neuhof near Buchau a cow owned by a farmer named Al. Huml birthed a female calf with the hind legs and tail of an ass. The birth of this vigorous monstrosity, which is still alive, created a great sensation.” [Translated by E. M. McCarthy. Original German.]
A horse-cow hybrid is mentioned on page 3 of the March 17, 1915 issue of Bregenzer Tagblatt, an Austro-Hungarian newspaper published in Bregenz (now in western Austria. The report reads as follows:
“In the stable of the Restaurateur Werkmeister in Friedingen a calf was birthed that had a perfect horse's head. This monstrosity was of the male sex and lived 28 hours.” [Translated by E. M. McCarthy. Original German
Another horse-cow hybrid is mentioned on page 6 of the October 28, 1917 issue of Grazer Vorortezeitung, an Austro-Hungarian newspaper published in Graz in what is now Austria. The brief report reads as follows:
“Half Calf Half Horse. After a 44 week pregnancy, a cow in the belonging to Farmer Alexander Hügel in Neudorf gave birth to a calf, with the rear legs and tail of a horse. The delivery of this highly developed freak, which is still alive, was quite difficult.” [Note: The gestation period of a cow is about 39 weeks, that of a horse 48 weeks or more, so the length of gestation here is intermediate between that of horse and cow. Hybrids typically have a gestation periods intermediate between those of their parents. Translated by E. M. McCarthy. Original German.]
The encyclopedist Victor d'Azyr (1821, p. 391) concurred with Grognier's view that hybrids of this type are rare, for he says that in his native Cantal (a little populated region in the Auvergne) he had only seen only two, though, he adds, several other people from the same region had assured him that they had seen others. Given that these animals are rare, if they exist at all, the attitude expressed by Grognier (1805, p. 194) seems reasonable enough:
|Claude Julien Bredin, Director of the French School of Veterinary Medicine at Lyon (1815-1835)|
In the same publication, Grognier (1805, pp. 194-195) mentions his friend and colleague, Claude Julien Bredin (1776-1854), who also served as a Director of the French School of Veterinary Medicine at Lyon (1815-1835), and "who in the year 11 [of the French Revolutionary calendar, which in terms of the Gregorian calendar corresponded to the time interval between 22 Sept. 1802 and 21 Sept. 1803] while at Sospello [modern Sospel] in the Maritime Alps department [of southeastern France] where he was performing his duties as a veterinarian to the artillery, was shown an animal that was supposed to be the offspring of a bull and a she-ass. It was 3 feet 5 inches in height. Its body
Over the years, various anecdotal accounts of such hybrids have appeared in publications targeting rural readers. For example, the following is from Baily’s Magazine of Sports & Pastimes (1891, vol. 56, p. 284): “We hear from Thorney Abbey, in the Isle of Ely, that Mr. Patrick, an eminent grazier of that place, had a two-year-old filly which proved to be with foal. She produced a few days ago a very uncommon creature. One side of it is like a calf red and white; the other side like a foal, quite black, except a few red spots interspersed. It has a head like that of a calf, and two horns already about three inches long. Its fore feet are like those of a foal. It sucks at the mare and continues in health. (Extract from weekly paper bearing date June 20, 1768.)” http://tinyurl.com/pap5wsl
Many French naturalists, however, who were not veterinarians held the opposite view. This school of thought seems traceable in its origins primarily to the Comte de Buffon (Histoire Naturelle, 1829, vol. 16, pp. 392-393), who tried and failed to produce a jumart:
And it was this opinion that eventually prevailed, but not until many years later. Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, the eminent French zoologist Paul Gervais (1855, p. 154) commented that "Naturalists have accepted the opinion of Buffon, but such is not the case with veterinarians, who are far from convinced." (Translated by E. M. McCarthy. Original French.)
He went on to explain why he did not believe in jumarts himself: "Unfortunately, these singular productions have either not been described with the care they deserve, or in those cases where they have been, they are easily recognized as
An injunction against jumarts
The strictures of Deuteronomy (22:9-10) suggest the Israelites were concerned to prevent the production of hybrids of this type: “Thou shalt not sow thy vineyard with divers seeds: lest the fruit of thy seed which thou has sown, and the fruit of thy vineyard, be defiled. Thou shalt not plow with an ox and an ass yoked together.”
Jumarts in Turkey
In his Botanick Essays Dr. Patrick Blair (c. 1680–1728), a Scottish surgeon and botanist, and a Fellow of the Royal Society, mentions jumarts (Blair 1720, Part II, p. 310): “of a Bull and a She-Ass is procreated a certain Animal, called Joumar, as I am credibly inform’d by the Intelligent Dr. Sherard, who has often seen them in Turkey, where they are very frequent, and of great Use, as being excellent Beasts of Burthen, and of a quick Pace upon a March, a property not very incident either to Father or Mother. This Animal is a compound Mixture of both, and by being so, of a very unusual Shape.”
As usual, in the case of any hybrid of disputed status, I leave open the question of whether jumarts exist. Reservation of judgment on such issues is a matter of strict policy here on this website. However, it is clear that genetic testing of the alleged jumart skull (pictured at the beginning of this article) held in the Musée Fragonard's collection would resolve this issue, at least with respect to that particular specimen (such testing would be straightforward given that it is presumably an F₁, if it is a hybrid at all). Such a study could have potentially important results, in that any definite verification that this specimen is derived from hybridization between an equid and a bovid would demonstrate that the limits of mammalian hybridization extend far beyond what many scientists currently believe possible.
I'll close with a brief article I found during my ongoing search of newspaper archives. It appears on the page 5, column 1, of the February 22, 1905 issue of the Keowee Courier, a South Carolina newspaper (Access source).
C. W. Hunt, of Mountain Rest, reports a curiosity, monstrosity, malformation or phenomena at his farm in the shape of a combination calf—half calf and half mule—which was born last week. Its feet are those of a mule, small and shapely, and have no sign of the calf's cloven hoof. Its head and ears also are quite mulish, bearing a decidedly closer resemblance to a mule than a calf. The remainder of the body of the creature is that of a calf. At three days of age the little freak was alive, apparently healthy and gave every promise of growing to maturity. (See also)
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