Life

The mystery of the origin of the American wild horse

Recently, American researcher Deso began testing DNA in ancient cow bones found at archaeological sites in the hope of learning more about the domestication of cattle in the Americas. When he sequenced mitochondrial DNA in fossilized bovine teeth, he found that one sample had a distinctive sequence. Upon closer inspection, he was surprised to find that the sample — a tooth fragment from an adult “cow” — belonged to a horse, and that the sequence was the earliest ever made of domestic horse DNA in the Americas.
Stumble upon

The piece was found in the town of Leopold, one of the first settlements of Spanish settlers in North America. The town on the island of Hispaniola was founded in 1507 and has been a port of call for ships coming from the Mediterranean for decades. Because of rampant piracy and illegal trade in the 16th century, the Spanish colonists had to consolidate their power elsewhere on the island. In 1578, the town of Leopoldo was evacuated. The following year, the town was destroyed by the Spanish colonial authorities.

Scene of excavation at the site of Leopoldo Town

The ruins of the town were discovered by chance in 1975. Archaeologists excavated the site from 1979 to 1990. At the site of the town of Leopoldo and other similar sites of the same period, horse fossils and horse-related artifacts are rare. This is because the Spanish colonists used horses as status symbols, so horses were not seen as sources of meat and leather. Cattle were seen as sources of meat and leather only, so cow bones are often found in garbage, but not horse bones.
Two views

Deso compared his sequencing results with those of many horses from around the world, and given that the horses brought in by Spanish settlers came from the Iberian Peninsula in southern Europe, he hypothesized that the Leopoldo horse was a close relative. The tests did. He also found that the horse was related to wild horses on Assateague Island, off the coast of Maryland and Virginia, more than 1,600km north of Hispaniola. Although wild horses have lived on the island for hundreds of years, it’s unclear how they got there in the first place.

Leopoldo Town (restoration)

One popular view is that the wild horses on Assateague were brought here by English settlers in the 17th century to avoid cattle taxes. But others point out that the wild horses on Assateague originated from a Spanish galleon that sank and swam to Assateague.
There is little evidence to support either view. Shipwreck advocates say that since horses are so valuable, it does not make sense that they were lost by British settlers and taken into the wild as wild horses. Opponents of the shipwreck theory point out that if there is no record of such a shipwreck, and no history of Spanish colonists mentions horses, how can it be said to have been a shipwreck? In fact, the idea of a shipwreck was first mentioned in a 1947 novel, which was later made into a famous film. If it’s fiction, it could be fiction.
Mustang return

However, the results of DNA tests conducted by Dessau indicate that the shipwreck theory is likely to be true. Deso points out that the Spanish explored this area of the mid-Atlantic in the early 1500s, a fact that is certain, though not well documented. In fact, early records of the subject are patchy, and if they are not recorded, they do not mean that they did not happen.
On the other hand, the wild horses on Assateague are not the only domestic horses to return to the wild on the North American mainland. North American colonists from all over Europe brought horses of all breeds to North America, some of which escaped into the surrounding wilderness and became wild horses. There are an estimated 86,000 wild horses in the United States, most of them in the western states of Nevada and Utah. Dessau hopes that future studies of ancient DNA will help decode complex information about horse introductions and migrations over the past centuries, and help us better understand the diversity of wild and domestic horses today.

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