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THOMPSON: Where do horses come from?



Where do horses come from? It sounds like the question a five-year-old child might ask. Sadly, our answer would likely be more razzle-dazzle parent-speak than, well, actual fact.

Not that razzle-dazzle parent-speak doesn’t have its place in answering a five-year-old’s questions…which can quickly devolve from, “Where do horses come from?” to “How about unicorns?” to “Could a horse beat Godzilla?” Eventually, your answers elicit the same single-word question…“Why?”…time and time again. Five-year-olds are devious questioners.

But, back to my first real question…“Where do horses come from?” One hundred scientists from two continents spent the past five years trying to answer that question. Now we know…maybe horses came from the steppes near the Volga and Don rivers…what is now southern Russia. Notice I said, “maybe”…but later we’ll discuss why only “maybe.”

Horses were our ancestors jets for centuries. Horses revolutionized transportation, communication, warfare, migration and more…for more than 4,000 years. The origins of domestic horses - far from being dinner conversation for most of us - have long been debated among scientists. DNA tests of bones and teeth can tell scientists much, but unlike livestock, it’s not always easy to discern domesticated from wild horses.

Ludovic Orlando, a molecular archaeologist at Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse, France led the scientific team, painstakingly collecting more than 2,000 bone and tooth samples from Iberia, Anatolia, the steppes of Western Eurasia and Central Asia…all areas that might have given birth to the modern horse.

Science…it’s so full of…you know, facts and truths. Fiction can’t live long in an atmosphere of science. The scientists acquired complete genome sequences from 270 of the 2,000 samples. They radiocarbon dated them to determine sample ages, and gathered field archaeological evidence to support their findings.

They tracked various horse populations before, during and after domestication. They were able to pinpoint that until 4,200 years ago…there were lots of distinctly different horse populations throughout Eurasia. Then, things changed as humans began to selectively breed animals for the best balance of strength, speed and disposition among other traits…and the modern horse was born.

And based on the scientists analyses of old horse parts, the demand among humans for faster, easier transportation exploded about 4,200 years ago…again, in what is now southern Russia. And from all appearances, the demand was like when Ford introduced the Mustang…our ancestors wanted the hottest new transportation.

Also, the new research proves that long-held beliefs and theories that horses played a role in human migration a thousand years sooner during the early Bronze Age by nomadic herders Asia…didn’t happen. Other research of human genomes proves the migration of people…but the recent equine genome research proves…that horses didn’t make the trips.

But within 500 years from the time when horses were domesticated on the steppes…horses spread like wildfire from Spain to Mongolia. Now, about that “maybe” as to whether horses originated in the steppes of what is now southern Russia. The DNA from the steppes horses…like every other sample ever taken from anywhere…doesn’t exactly match the modern horse of today.

Even so, think about those horses from the steppes of Russia…people’s ability to domesticate and refine a horse that was strong but docile meant they could with relative ease travel….migrate if needed…trade with cultures hundreds of miles away. It was a pivotal event in the development of humans.

Somewhere there was a culture - people - who domesticated horses…and their DNA will maybe match a modern horse more closely. It is a little like looking for a needle in a haystack scientists admit…but that’s often the case with science.

The domestication of horses and breeding practices are complex subjects. Consider that most of the selective breeding habits that gave us the modern horse happened during just the past 200 years. That recent and condensed history is another reason it’s so difficult to answer, “Where do horses come from?”

Of course, we have horses…and we have grandchildren. So, this question could easily be in my near future. Science will one day give me a precise answer. Meanwhile, I’m doing the only sensible thing: practicing my razzle-dazzle grandparent speak.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.

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