The origin of the Assateague horses was a mystery wrapped in folklore. Turns out, the folklore may have been right all along.
There is a little island named Assateague midway up the US East Coast, where Delaware joins Maryland and Virginia. It used to be inhabited by a little hamlet of no more than 200 people, but that community has long since been abandoned.
Even if you wanted to relocate to Assateague, it probably wouldn’t be a smart idea because storms appear to demolish whatever infrastructure humans try to create, and the island’s shape and even its location in the water are continuously changing. In actuality, Assateague’s wild horses are the island’s most prominent year-round inhabitants.
Even many people who have never visited the island are familiar with Assateague’s wild horses, according to the National Park Service (NPS). But despite their widespread use, one question has persisted: Where did they come from? Nobody has ever had a conclusive response to this issue, but that has changed suddenly.
Nicolas Delsol, a postdoctoral researcher at the Florida Museum of Natural History and the lead author of a new paper pointing directly at early Spanish explorers as the likely source of the horse population, said, “It was a serendipitous finding.” The paper was published today in the journal PLOS ONE.
Fittingly, Delsol was first looking into an issue that was substantially different from the one he ultimately resolved. For my PhD, I was sequencing mitochondrial DNA from prehistoric cow molars, he said.
When I examined the sequences, “[I] knew something was really unusual with one of the specimens.”
It was a whole different species, thus different is correct. The original teeth belonged to an adult horse that lived more than 400 years ago in Puerto Real, a town in what is now Haiti that was founded in the early 16th century.
The researchers state that “Puerto Real… functioned for decades as the last port of call for ships heading from the Caribbean.” The Spanish were compelled to solidify their influence elsewhere on the island in the 16th century, however, and in 1578 the inhabitants were given the order to leave.
They continue, “Spanish authorities razed the abandoned settlement the next year.
The location wasn’t rediscovered for 400 years, but since then, several artifacts from Puerto Real have been found. The majority, however, had nothing to do with horses, as the research notes: “Of the nearly 127,000 vertebrate specimens discovered from Puerto Real thus far, only 8 were assigned to horse when this study began.”
Since this is the earliest DNA ever discovered from an American domesticated horse, analyzing the tooth’s genome was already a fascinating proposition. The true surprise, however, came when Delsol matched the samples to the DNA of contemporary horses.
According to the article, while speaking to the Assateague wild horses, “the specimen that displays the closest connections with the Puerto Real horse is an individual belonging to the Chincoteague pony breed.”
And that’s quite fascinating because it fits in well with one of the primary fallacies about the population of horses.
According to the article, the children’s book Misty of Chincoteague from the middle of the 20th century popularized the origin of the Chincoteague ponies by retelling a local oral tale. A tiny herd of horses that managed to survive the shipwreck of a Spanish galleon during the colonial era is said to be the source of Chincoteague ponies, according to the legend.
The galleon is reported to have left the Caribbean but ran aground close to [Assateague’s neighbor] Chincoteague Island after becoming trapped in a storm.
This concept hasn’t been embraced by everyone. According to NPS, “[the] dramatic narrative of struggle and survival is popular, but there are no documents to substantiate it at this time.”
The Service claims that the most likely reason for their existence is that they are descended from horses that mainland owners imported to barrier islands like Assateague in the late 17th century to get around fence regulations and livestock taxes.
Delsol countered that “early colonial literature is sometimes sparse and… just because they don’t mention the horses doesn’t imply they weren’t there.” The genome sequencing results from the recent study also support the Spanish account, showing that the Puerto Real horse is a member of the maternal equine haplogroup A, which is often found in Central Asia and Southern Europe.
The Puerto Real horse can be considered something of a “missing link” between Spanish horses and their Assateague cousins since this species of horse has been discovered in Spain since the Bronze Age.
The researchers contend that the results are nevertheless noteworthy for a variety of reasons even if they recognize that their conclusion is based on a single mitochondrial genome. They add that their research “highlights how ancient DNA might aid us in understanding cultural and historical processes, not just in the distant past but also in understudied instances of more recent history.”
“A intriguing yet little-examined issue is the investigation of the arrival of European domesticates (such as the horse) in the Americas,” they write. Our findings “confirm the Iberian origins of these species, but they also emphasize another narrative: the early colonial Spanish exploration of the mid-Atlantic coast.”
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