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The first species of the horse genus (Equus) emerged in North America about 4.5 million years ago. Over time, some migrated to South America, and others crossed the land bridge to Eurasia, and spread as far as Western Europe. Maybe 15,000 years ago, hunters from Siberia discovered America, home to many horses. Over the following centuries, a surge of megafauna extinctions occurred. The last horse in the Americas died in Patagonia about 7000 B.C. In 1493, Spaniards brought domesticated horses to the Americas, and by 1550, there were 10,000 of them rediscovering their ancestral homeland.
Graham Harvey noted that horses are fine tuned for grassland living. They can run at a sustained gallop of 43 mph (70 km/h). Sheep and cattle have complicated digestive tracts, so they need to rest after grazing. Horses can eat and run. They can go up to four days without water, so they can utilize grasslands farther from water sources.
Dixie West added that horses are able to efficiently digest a high fiber diet, so they can live on a daily intake of just 22 pounds (10 kg) of vegetation. They are better able to survive on low quality forage, and they require less pampering than other livestock. Prior to winter, herders had to gather and store hay for feeding cattle and sheep. Horses were able to feed themselves throughout the cold months. They also grew warm coats.
Horses and hominins have had a long relationship. As mentioned earlier, Neanderthals were trapping and killing horses at the Roche de Solutré site in France about 55,000 years ago. Later, around 37,000 years ago, humans killed many horses at the same location. West noted that, when panicked, horses flee in a single file, rather than rapidly scattering in every direction. This made it easier to drive herds into traps.
Over time, hunters got too good at trapping and killing horses. Pita Kelekna wrote an excellent book on the history of the horse-human relationship. She noted that by the Neolithic era (8000–4500 B.C.), the once plentiful wild horses had disappeared across most of Europe. Some were able to survive in small pockets of Spain and central Europe.
To the east, large numbers of wild horses thrived on the vast wide open steppes, where there was no brush or trees to conceal hungry hunters. The placement of a horse’s eyes gives them a 300° range of vision — they can see in almost every direction. The flat landscape lacked ravines or valleys into which herds could be conveniently driven, trapped, and killed.
Humans have been eating horses for tens of thousands of years. Today, folks in many nations continue enjoying lunch dates with horses. In the top eight horse loving nations, 4.7 million are eaten every year.
Long before horses were enslaved, sheep, goats, and cattle were domesticated in the Middle East. Horses remained wild and free until maybe 4000 B.C. They had thrived on the steppes, which were northern shortgrass prairies that spanned a 5,000 mile (8,046 km) range from Hungary to Manchuria. Several scholars have speculated that domestication probably saved horses from extinction, because it transformed them from wild and free into private property — my horsy!
Wild horses were strong, fast, intelligent, and aggressive. They were not easy to domesticate. When cornered, they aggressively stomp, kick, and bite. Swift kicks could be fatal. Zebras, their Equus cousins, have never been tamed, despite countless attempts — the older they get, the meaner.
The domestication of horses was a revolutionary event in the human saga — like fire, agriculture, metallurgy, fossil energy, nuclear technology, and so on. Countless highly destructive new trends did not become possible until after their domestication. Sometimes it’s interesting to play “what if.” What if evolution had selected for untamable zebras, rather than horses?
Kelekna described, at great length, the huge impacts that domesticated horses had on the course of both human and environmental history. At first, domesticated horses were kept for meat, milk, and hides. Eventually folks learned how to effectively utilize horse power, greatly reducing society’s heavy dependence on human muscles. Horses could pull stuff like plows, wagons, logs, and battle chariots. They could carry heavy loads. They could be ridden. A herder with a dog could oversee 150 to 200 sheep, but a mounted herder could manage 500.
Horses enabled humans to quickly travel long distances, a huge boost to human mobility. They made it far easier to hunt large animals, or to raid enemies. Trade networks could extend much farther, and transport larger cargoes of goods back and forth. Long distance travel could also transfer technologies, religions, ideas, infectious diseases, and invasive exotics over long distances. Horse domestication promoted the expansion of farming and herding, spurring population growth and conflict.
Bridle, saddle, and stirrup innovations eventually enabled humans to ride horses, at high speed, while effectively using deadly weapons to kill game or enemies. Military campaigns could travel farther, and strike fast and hard. Horses enabled the emergence of large nomad empires, and the spilling of oceans of blood. Kelekna said that horsepower greatly benefitted the pursuit of “bloodshed, massacres, deportations, enslavement, amputation, beheadings, torture, incineration, rape, castration, famine, pestilence, and destruction.”
Nomadic herders did not need to trade with agricultural societies in order to acquire food. They enjoyed an independent lifestyle. Seed-bearing grasses were common on the steppe, and nomads simply gathered the wild grain. Herds provided milk, blood, and meat. Nomads were likely better nourished than most of the hungry dirty peasants and slaves in farm country.
Paul Shepard wrote that around 1800 B.C., mounted warriors with iron weapons opened the door to a new and super bloody chapter in the human saga. Sudden surprise attacks from hordes of nomad warriors shattered or destroyed many civilizations, which were plump sitting ducks that were irresistibly tempting to plunder. These attacks inspired the construction of a variety of defensive fortifications — wooden palisades, massive stone walls, moats, drawbridges, and so on. Traditional population management services formerly provided by man-eating predators were now shifting to warriors, starvation, and epidemics.
It was no longer safe to live in many regions. An old Bedouin proverb declares, “Raids are our agriculture.” Describing tribes of horse-worshipping German herders in A.D. 98, Tacitus wrote that fighting was better than farming. “They even think it base and spiritless to earn by sweat what they might purchase with blood.” Shepard noted that these mounted nomadic raiders developed a culture of “hierarchy, theft, rebellious sons, and competitive use of the earth.”
Our wild hunter-gatherer ancestors were egalitarian, no leaders, all were equal. The secret to their tens of thousands of years of success was sharing, cooperation, and an intimate relationship with the land. Nomads had an entirely different worldview, one that favored patriarchy, raiding, conquering, accumulating personal wealth, and competing for status. Primary components of their worldview continue to be the foundation in modern cultures.
Horses and Wheels
David Anthony wrote that wheeled vehicles first appeared in the Old World around 3300 B.C., and were of great benefit to herders. Carts made it much easier to move families, food, tents, and water to greener pastures, for extended stays, to better keep their herds well fed. He said that horses and carts enabled nomads to intensify their exploitation of the steppes, which had previously been little used by humans.
To better appreciate the impact of horses and wheels in the Old World, it’s interesting to look at the Americas. In the New World, the llamas and alpacas of Peru were the only large animals domesticated, and neither was capable of carrying an adult rider. In the Old World, the diabolical invention of the wheel greatly accelerated agriculture, deforestation, population growth, empire building, and on and on. Industrial civilization could not exist in a world without wheels. In the New World, the only wheels were those found on tiny clay toys. Without horses, the pampas and prairies of the Americas had wee populations, and little or no agriculture.
Having no carts or wagons, the Inca civilization in Peru did not need to build smooth roads. They did build bridges, dig tunnels, and cut steps up steep hillsides. Pack trains of llamas could travel up to 12 miles per day (19 km), with each animal carrying up to 101 pounds (46 kg). Speedy long-distance communication was provided by messages relayed from one Inca runner to the next. This was much slower than Genghis Khan’s pony express system, which could move messages 248 miles (400 km) per day.
In Mesoamerica, the pack animals were two legged primates. On a good day, a healthy lad might carry 50 pounds (23 kg) for 13 to 17 miles (21 to 28 km). Without carts or pack animals, Mesoamericans could not create vast sprawling empires like Rome. While the Mayans built some roads, hiking in Mexico was via dirt paths, where they existed. Military adventures were restricted in the New World. Each soldier had to carry his own provisions, which limited the load size and distance travelled. Thus, if supplies could not be snatched from villagers along the way, campaigns would have been limited to round trips of eight days or so.
In Eurasia, huge Mongol cavalries could zoom across the steppe at 68 miles (110 km) per day. The Eurasian steppes experienced century after century of the rise and fall of numerous hordes of horse-mounted nomads like the Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans, Huns, Avars, Bulgars, Magyars, Mongols, and Turks. Mongol empires grew with explosive speed. They peaked between 1279 and 1350, when they inhabited Iraq, Iran, central Asia, most of Russia, and all of China. This was the largest contiguous empire in human history. Later, the British Empire controlled more territory, but in many scattered regions.
Beasts of Burden
Paul Shepard was the opposite of a horse lover, because of the many new imbalances that domesticated horses enabled. Compared to hand labor, the introduction of horses to agriculture allowed farm production to double. This, of course, led to population growth, which often increased faster than the endlessly busy Grim Reaper could keep up with. Agriculture’s faithful shadow is soil destruction. We’re essentially eating soil. The skin is being torn off of Mother Earth. This has no long term future.
Clive Ponting wrote that before 1800, animals provided just 25 percent of the work energy, and humans did most of the rest (many serfs couldn’t afford work animals). We used very little energy from windmills or waterwheels. Feeding a horse required at least 6 acres (2.5 ha) of grassland, oxen a bit less. In those days, most land suitable for crops was needed to grow food for humans, because agriculture was far less productive than today.
Consequently, prior to 1800, since people couldn’t afford a horse, they walked. In that era, about 95 percent of humans in farming societies were peasants. We have soft lives today, but Ponting reminds us that “Until about the last two centuries in every part of the world nearly everyone lived on the edge of starvation.” My grandmother never tossed out apple cores, because the entire apple was food, seeds and all.
William McNeill noted that another troublesome cargo that domesticated beasts delivered into human society was deadly pathogens. When human communities were brought into constant close contact with animals, it was far easier for diseases and parasites to leap from one species to another. Over time, different diseases emerged in different regions. Eventually, long distance travel for trade or warfare carried diseases from their place of origin to virgin populations that had zero immunity to them. From A.D. 1200 to 1500, isolated regional disease pools eventually combined to form a large pool of civilized diseases.
The Black Death likely arose in China around 1331. From there, by and by, it spread in every direction. It hitched rides on merchant ships, armies, and trade caravans, and eventually appeared in Crimea by 1346. From there, it proceeded to sail to Italy, rapidly visit much of Europe, and promptly delete about a third of the population.
Horses Return Home
Horses originally evolved in the Americas, and then blinked out in 7000 B.C. In 1493, after an absence of 8,500 years, Spaniards brought domesticated horses back to the Americas. Reintroduction eventually had dramatic effects on the western U.S. plains. In 1598, Spanish colonists brought domesticated horses and other livestock to New Mexico. One way or another, plains Indians acquired some of these animals.
Richard White discussed how the acquisition of horses impacted the entire plains ecosystem. Horses quickly became popular with many tribes. Horses were trade commodities, the target of raids, and the inspiration for many bloody conflicts. With horses, it became easy for hunters to kill far more buffalo. With access to more food, population grew, tribal rivalries intensified, and warfare increased. Horse stealing became a normal activity among the people of the plains. Living in a remote location was no longer safe and secure, and corn growing villages were especially vulnerable to sudden raids.
Samuel Gwynne noted that prior to horses, the southern plains were lightly populated. The region wasn’t well suited for agriculture, and hunting buffalo, antelope, and elk on foot was far from easy. The prey was much speedier than the hunters. A buffalo can sprint at 35 miles per hour (56 km/h). The acquisition of horses revolutionized buffalo hunting. A number of tribes abandoned farming, and became hunters. With easier access to food, more people could be fed.
As American colonists began moving away from the Atlantic coast, into a wilderness of forests, prairies, and wetlands, travelling on horseback was difficult or impossible. There were paths, but not roads suitable for wagons or carts. At that time, Indians in the eastern U.S. travelled by footpath and canoe, via predictable routes, where colonists could ambush them. Tribes that raised corn were far more vulnerable than nomadic hunters. When settlers found villages, they burned them. Stored food went up in smoke.
When colonists moved west of the Mississippi, they eventually moved beyond forest country and onto the open plains, where they met Indians on horses for the first time, and got blindsided. It took many serious beatings until they figured out how to fight them. Comanche warriors could readily attack any target within 400 miles. Settlers and soldiers were sitting ducks for fast moving bands of warriors. A warrior could shoot 20 arrows whilst a soldier or settler reloaded his musket once.
James Sherow wrote about the challenges plains Indians had with keeping horses in the Arkansas River Valley. Horses gave them amazing new powers, and painful new headaches. Horses were personal property, and the more you owned, the higher your social status. In 1855, the Cheyennes owned an average of 5.5 horses per person, and the Comanches, Kiowas, Apaches, and Arapahos owned 6.2.
Climate had a major impact on the grassland. One acre (0.4 ha) could produce 3,000 pounds (1,360 kg) of short grass when annual rainfall rose to 20 inches (51 cm). When it dropped to 10 inches, only 450 pounds. During hot spells, rain evaporated in midair. Creeks and springs dried up. During winter, the protein content of grass was half of summer levels. In harsh winters, large herds shrank. Horses in close confinement provided comfortable homes for a variety of parasites.
George Catlin studied western Indian tribes from 1832-1839, when buffalo herds were still enormous, and natives used bows and arrows to hunt during high speed pursuits on horseback. He did many drawings and paintings, and wrote extensive notes. While he was fascinated by the many things he learned, he was also sad, because the plains Indians and the buffalo were on a dead end path. The arrival of civilized people brought lots of dark juju to the west. Buffalo were hunted in winter when their fur was thick, and their hides were most valuable for the buffalo robe market. After skinning the animal, the rest of the carcass was left for the wolves. Indians living far from traders wasted no part of the animals they killed.
In May of 1832, a mounted hunting party of 500 or 600 Sioux chased a large herd for several hours, and killed many. At the end of the day, they came to the fort with 1,400 buffalo tongues, for which they received a few gallons of whiskey, which did not last long among the thirsty lads. The hides and meat of the dead animals were left on the grass.
The whites were making a nice profit today, and it never occurred to them to give consideration to the future of the buffalo. Among the tribes, there was an ancient and widespread belief that the buffalo were a gift from the Great Spirit, infinite in number, and whatever they took would be replaced. Whites also overhunted the buffalo. Catlin could see that the buffalo could be gone in as soon as 8 to 10 years, and was deeply disturbed about the insanity of it all.
The use of horses for transportation and traction peaked early in the twentieth century. Clive Ponting noted that the U.S. was home to 20 to 30 million horses in 1900. About a quarter of the nation’s cropland was needed to produce their food. Model T Fords did not require six acres of good grassland to fuel them.
My grandparents witnessed the advent of Peak Horse, and my parents saw work horses largely disappear from farms and cities. Venerable physicist Albert Bartlett calculated that, with regard to the all-time total volume of oil extracted by humankind, more than half of it will be consumed within the lifespan of the generation born since 1966. We are living during a temporary explosion of staggering waste, and this idiotic binge has an expiration date. So, we’ll just have to go back to horse power, right? Well, umm, there are some challenges.
Eric Morris wrote a fascinating essay to help us remember life in the Peak Horse era. By 1898, big city streets were jammed with horses, carriages, and wagons, squishing through a deep layer of manure and urine, past rotting horse carcasses, amidst dense clouds of flies and overpowering stench. Cities were rapidly growing, as hordes immigrants moved in to enjoy miserable industrial jobs, while living in crowded, filthy, disease ridden slums.
Each horse emitted 15 to 30 pounds (7 to 14 kg) of manure daily — 3 to 4 million pounds in New York City every day. In 1800, farmers would pay haulers to bring manure to their fields. By 1900, there was way too much poop, and it piled up on empty lots. Some heaps were 60 feet high (18 m). Clouds of flies picked up pathogenic microbes and brought them to your kitchen, spreading typhoid and other fecal-oral diseases. In 1880, 41 horses died each day on the streets of New York. The average horse weighed 1,300 pounds (590 kg). Carcasses were often left to rot, making it easier to dismember them, so they could be hauled away.
Horses were jammed into filthy, poorly ventilated stables — excellent disease incubators. In 1872, the Great Epizootic Epidemic struck, as huge numbers of horses were infected by the equine influenza virus. Coughing spread it from one animal to the next. Typically, they recovered in two to three weeks, but severe cases could immobilize an animal for six months.
During the epidemic, available horse power was drastically reduced. Folks had to use wheelbarrows and handcarts to transport goods. The postal service was hobbled. Freight piled up. Coal deliveries stopped. Food distribution wheezed. On farms, plows and other equipment fell idle. Boats quit moving on the Erie Canal. Horse-drawn fire engines and street cars did not move. When a big fire roared in downtown Boston, firemen had to pull their heavy equipment from the station by hand.
Almost certainly, there are people alive today who will see the peak of motor vehicle production, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some (or many) will experience the extinction of motor vehicles, and the lights going out on civilization as we know it. Bye-bye railroads, air travel, sea transport, refrigerators, elevators, mining, supermarkets, and so on. Sewage treatment plants, municipal water systems, and digital technology will blink out. Vast areas of cropland will cease being plowed, planted, irrigated, and harvested. Humans may actually have to walk (eek!!).
Future generations will gather around campfires and laugh at hilarious stories about how people used to live. It’s sad that we the living can’t see this.