To tell how an alleged cow’s tooth unearthed in the Caribbean could corroborate the mythical origin of wild horses off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia, let’s start, of course, with a children’s book, Misty of Chincoteague.
If you know, you know, horse girls, I’m looking at you. FOR ALL OTHERS: This beloved 1947 children’s novel tells the story of Misty the pony, born on the beaches of an uninhabited barrier island. The story is fictional, but the setting is real. A pack of wild horses still roam this island today, eating seagrass and largely ignoring tourists who come for selfies with a real-life version of Misty.
No one knows how the horses got there, but Misty of Chincoteague tells a dramatic part of local lore. It literally opens Sturm and Drang. A Spanish galleon carrying Moorish ponies to the gold mines of Peru is wrecked off what would later become Maryland and Virginia. The crew perishes, but the ponies swim to a nearby island and survive. “The seasons came and went,” the book says, “and the ponies adopted the New World as their own.” In their newfound freedom, they became wild – or technically, wild, domesticated but untamed. Today, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which manages the southern half of this horse population for historical reasons, promulgates the origin story of the sinking of the island’s ponies. The National Park Service, which manages the northern half, tells a much less romantic story: 17th-century settlers likely brought these horses with them.
Now enter the “cow” tooth, actually a horse tooth, mistakenly cataloged decades ago by archaeologists excavating an abandoned 16th-century Spanish settlement. And curiously, recent DNA analysis suggests that the modern breed this Spanish colonial horse is most closely related to is none other than the Chincoteague pony. Given the genetic similarity, could the myth be real after all – were these mystery ponies also shipwrecked Spanish colonial horses?
Nicolas Delsol, now a postdoctoral researcher at the Florida Museum of Natural History, thought none of that when dealing with the troublesome “cow” tooth for his doctorate. thesis. He was interested in the domestication of cattle in the Americas, and the museum’s collections contained hundreds of cow teeth from Puerto Real, a 16th-century Spanish colony in present-day Haiti. Delsol chose 24 of them to analyze the DNA and – just his luck – one tooth had sequences that looked really, really weird. He put it aside for weeks to complete his breeding project. When he finally got back to the tooth, however, he saw that his DNA sequence was similar to that of a… the Chincoteague pony. Delsol, who is French, had never heard of it. “I was like, wait, what are they exactly? What are these Chincoteague ponies?
Because this tooth was buried at a well-documented site in a Spanish town that only existed from 1503 to 1578, archaeologists are pretty sure the Spaniards brought this horse to Puerto Real. And given its similarities in DNA, the Chincoteague pony also appears to have Spanish ancestry. But Delsol and his co-authors are careful not to extrapolate much more. DNA alone cannot prove that horses survived a shipwreck. (Other authors have identified a 1750 Spanish shipwreck which they claim to be a plausible origin event.) Another explanation, Delsol told me, could be that the Spaniards brought horses with them while exploring the mid-Atlantic coast in the 16th century. This story is less well known than the Spanish incursions further south and west, but there are still remnants of Spanish forts in the Carolinas. Perhaps the ancestors of the Chincoteague ponies came on a journey to one of these settlements.
Where did the first horses on the island come from, however, the horses that live there today are not exclusively descended from them. They have been bred and crossed several times with outside horses. In the 1920s, for example, Shetland ponies were introduced to the island to add pinto coloring to the herd. And in 1975, after large numbers of horses fell ill with swamp fever, sausage tycoon Bob Evans donated mustangs to help the people of Chincoteague recover. “They are of largely mixed ancestry,” says E. Gus Cothran, a professor emeritus at Texas A&M University who studied the island population using older methods in the 1990s. This work, he says, “strongly supports that there is a certain Spanish influence”. But it is unclear whether this Spanish influence came from shipwrecked horses, other horses brought over by the Spaniards, or residual Spanish ancestry in horses crossed with the original Chincoteague ponies. This question is particularly difficult to answer because Delsol’s analysis of the horse tooth was limited to mitochondrial DNA, which is easier to extract from old degraded samples but only passes through the maternal line, giving an incomplete outline of ancestry. Plus, it’s always difficult to tell a story from a single sample, says Cristina Luis, who studied equine genetics at the University of Lisbon.
This sample adds to a growing body of horse DNA that exposes the larger and larger history of horses. The ancestors of today’s horses actually evolved in North America and likely crossed the Bering Strait into Eurasia, where they were first domesticated. About 10,000 years ago, however, equines disappeared from the Americas for unknown reasons. It was not until the arrival of Spanish, then British, French, Dutch and European settlers in the United States that horses again roamed the continent. Today, American breeds are largely a mix of horses from all over, much like the Americans themselves. The wild mustangs of the American West, for example, Cothran told me, were originally the descendants of Spanish horses. But when American settlers moved west, they brought with them horses that had more Northern European ancestry. Today’s mustangs are a mixture of several bloodlines. By telling the story of horse breeds, “you’re also telling the story of how humans moved around the world,” Luis told me. Indeed, regardless of when the first Chincoteague ponies arrived in America, their story is tied to events in human history.
Yet we humans can’t help but attach more epic stories to horses. Kristen Guest, an English professor at the University of Northern British Columbia who studies the history of horse breeds, says she has come across the story of a shipwreck several times during her research. One of the ancestors of the iconic Clydesdales, for example, was allegedly an Arabian horse that was shipwrecked and swam to Scotland. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you keep having the same versions of the story everywhere,” she told me. “There’s something about the idea that these ordinary little horses have this romantic history.” We also romanticize our own past. “Human beings, when they imagine their genetic history, nobody imagines that their ancestors dug ditches,” Guest said. We rather imagine ourselves as descendants of Charlemagne.
For Delsol, this has all been quite a fascinating detour into the history of the horse. He’s still trying to get his doctorate in livestock research. published work. But, he admitted, “I don’t know if it’s going to get as much attention as the Chincoteague ponies.”