Horses transformed human societies. The domestication of the horse, more than any other animal, altered the trajectory of our species – accelerating knowledge, resource and cultural exchange and conflict, leading to cycles of technological revolution . And yet…, ironically, we almost exterminated them all.
Twenty thousand years ago, in the midst of our planets last ice age, perhaps one million or so modern humans like you and me were living as hunter-gatherers. They had no domestic plants or animals – relying entirely on what they could win from a biologically diverse wilderness for survival. They hunted horses… and a number of other large herbivorous mammals besides.
From 20,000 to 12,000 years ago northern Europe and Asia were dominated by the mammoth fauna, including bison, rhinoceros, horse and reindeer. In some places our species were relatively sedentary and made shelters of mammoth bones, tusks and hides. In the south we were more nomadic and followed migrating herds of horses and reindeer. Our late-Palaeolithic ancestors drove horses up against rocks or into corrals – helped by commensal dogs – and slaughtered them with spears . Horses roamed Eurasia in enormous numbers. Their broken remains after slaughter and consumption are common where Palaeolithic people lived.
Planet temperature rose by a staggering 7 degrees Celsius after the final cold-snap of the ice age – called the Younger dryas 12,800 to 11,500 years ago – rapid climate change. Forests advanced over Europe’s receding steppe and the ice-age mega-fauna of gigantic mammoths and woolly rhinoceros retreated to the still cold and far reaches of northern Europe and Asia to finally disappear between 8,000 and 3,800 years ago. Horses still lived in parts of Eurasia but in smaller herds.
It is unknown what contributed most to the mammoth fauna’s collapse and the final demise of the wild horse over most of Europe and Asia – climate and habitat change or hunting – probably a combination. It is certain, however, that we hunted horses and the Eurasian wild horse is now extinct.
But then, sometime, just before extinction took the last Eurasian wild horse, some were domesticated.
Today we seven billion people and our few domestic animal species, a fragment of the planets vertebrate biodiversity, populate the world. Together we are the majority – a staggering ~97% – of the world’s land-living vertebrate biodiversity by weight (biomass) . The 65% of vertebrate biomass attributable to domestic stock is made up largely of the five big herbivores- sheep, goats, pigs, cattle and horses .
Horses were domesticated last of the ‘big-five’ domesticates but are most responsible for the composition, distribution and relationships of our species races and cultures today. Horses transformed agriculture, industry, medicine, communication, and conflict because they were adaptable as beasts of burden, for food and clothing, and more rapid transportation. Almost 60 million horses again populate our planet – check out the informatoin available from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations.
There is a lesson our relationship with horses for the conservation of other species and their habitat. A few domestic survivors of the horse – an animal we exploited to extinction in the wild – became fundamental to advances in the quality of our lives. How many species extinctions since were, or in the future will be, plants and animals with yet unrealised potential to make our lives better?
In future posts under the category ‘People & Horses’ I will explore the relationship between our species and the horse, beginning with what we know about how they were domesticated and the consequence of that new relationship for both our species.
1 Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond, J. (1999) W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
2 Animals as Domesticates. Clutton-Brock, J. (2012) Michigan State University Press
3 Eating Our Future: The Environmental Impact of Industrial Animal Agriculture. Appleby, M. (2008) World Society for the Protection of Animals