Mustangs: Evolution And History

By Thomas Keyes
Mar. 17, 2005

Mammalia constitute a class of the animal phylum, Chordata (mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians), and are divided into 27 orders, one of the orders being Perissodactyla, which include the three families, Rhinocerotidae, Tapiridae, and Equidae. The family Equidae consist of a single genus Equus, which is subdivided into from 7 to 9 species, including horses, donkeys and zebras of various kinds. The supposed relation of horses, donkeys and zebras to tapirs and rhinoceroses is based on microbiological comparison, rather than on a continuous fossil record, and even the evolution of Equus caballus, the modern horse, is attested only by an array of fossils characterized by discrete jumps, rather than by gradual development, and so challenges the theory of evolution, as it now stands. Mathematical probability will simply not allow for the existence of 1000 rhinoceros fossils and 1000 horse fossils with no intermediate fossils. I personally am at a loss for an explanation of this state of affairs, and must reserve entertaining any opinion on the validity of the theory of evolution.

At any rate, horses are supposed to have originated in North America with Hyracotherium, a minature horselike mammal of about 50,000,000 years ago, and in succeeding ages, horses migrated to Asia. About 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, they became extinct in North America but continued to thrive in Asia. Their range included Central Asia, Mongolia, Siberia and the Caucasus, where they were first domesticated about 3000 BC. By that time donkeys, cattle, sheep, goats, cats and dogs had already been domesticated. Donkeys and cattle were used for drawing wagons and other work, and, of course, cattle were used for food. For the first 1000 years of their domestication, horses may have been used principally for meat, milk and work. Airag or koumiss--fermented mare's milk--is still drunk in Mongolia. Sometime about 2000 BC, they began to be used as mounts, which naturally led to their application as animals of warfare, a practise that continued right to the time of WW2, when, for instance, Polish cavalries faced German tanks. The tragedy of the death of millions of horses over the centuries in wars they didn't start or even understand is something I don't like to think about.

From around 2000 BC to 1500 BC, the use of horses spread to China, India, the Middle East, Iran and Egypt. Their introduction into Egypt, Anatolia and Mesopotamia explains the ascendancy of the Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, Persians and other civilizations in the region. From Egypt and the Middle East, the proliferation of Equus caballus to Greece, Rome and Northern Europe was inevitable.

When Columbus discovered America in 1492, there were no horses in the Western Hemisphere. Some people, recalling the vivid picture of American Indians mounted on horses, may suppose that great herds of mustangs, or feral horses, were native to America, and that American Indians had domesticated them and developed horsemanship on their own, but that is not the case. Only the small camelline animals of the Andes--llamas, alpacas, vicuñas and guanacos--were available to be ridden, and they can bear only very light loads.

In the late 1530's and early 1540's, two Spanish explorers, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and Hernando de Soto conducted expeditions in what is now the United States. Coronado explored New Mexico and Arizona, seeking El Dorado, a mythical city of gold, which, of course, he never found. Soto explored Florida and the Southeast generally, and is credited with the discovery of the Mississippi River, which he sailed from an inland point southwards to the bayous. Several horses escaped or were abandoned on each of these expeditions, and it was from these strays that the great herds of mustangs that ranged the West sprang.

Nor did the American Indians develop horsemanship on their own, once the feral herds had been established. It was only in imitation of Spanish and English settlers that the Indians began to ride. Good horsemanship was what accounted for the rise to power of some of the more successful tribes like the Sioux and the Comanche, who, before the horse, were relatively obscure and undistinguished among Indians. Since the time of Coronado and Soto, of course, additional horses from Europe and Arabia, introduced in America, have made their contributions to the gene pool.

By 1900, there were 1,000,000 mustangs in the US. Mustangs were hunted greedily for meat and hides, as mounts, and because they ranged in pasturelands ranchers intended for cattle. Today, there may be only 100,000 mustangs left in the US, mostly in Nevada. They're protected by federal law, but some ranchers may still kill them illegally as pests.


About the author Thomas Keyes: I have written two books: A SOJOURN IN ASIA (non-fiction) and A TALE OF UNG (fiction), neither published so far.

I have studied languages for years and traveled extensively on five continents.

Email: udikeyes@yahoo.com

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