Why did horses die out in North America?

The Yukon Horse (E. Lambei).
The Yukon Horse (E. Lambei). © Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre

What drove horses to extinction in the Americas? Did humans have a hand in their demise, or did climatic changes and altering vegetation trigger it?

A definitive answer has eluded scientists, but improving techniques and the growing value of DNA analysis has painted a clearer picture of events surrounding their demise.

While climate change dominates headlines in the modern era, it loomed large in the lives of the many species that inhabited the Americas thousands of years before mankind began belching carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The end of the Pleistocene epoch — the geological period roughly spanning 12,000 to 2.5 million years ago, coincided with a global cooling event and the extinction of many large mammals. Evidence suggests North America was hardest hit by extinctions.

This extinction event saw the demise of the horse in North America. It survived only because the Bering land bridge that once connected Alaska and Siberia had enabled animals to cross into Asia and spread west.

The end of the Pleistocene also saw the end of the woolly mammoth, American camels, dire wolves, short-faced bears, sabre-toothed cats, stag-moose, woolly rhinos and giant ground sloths.

The story of the North American extinction of the horse would have been cut and dried had it not been for one major and complicating factor: the arrival of humans.

Humans, too, made use of the land bridge, but went the other way — crossing from Asia into North America some 13,000 to 13,500 years ago.

Why could the continent that gave rise to the horse no longer provide a suitable home?




The Bering Strait is a storm-prone stretch of water that separates two continents.

When we talk of a land bridge we tend to conjure up images of a narrow strip of terrain. The Bering land bridge was no such modest affair.

Its fortunes — and very existence — ebbed and flowed with rising and falling ocean levels. During cooler periods in the earth’s past, glacial ice would build up, dropping sea levels to expose or expand the land bridge.

A colder period that ended some 10,000 years ago saw the land bridge reach about twice the size of Texas, and scientists have even given it a name – Beringia.

You could even consider the current state of affairs, with a body of water separating Siberia and Alaska, as unusual. The land bridge has actually been in place more often than not during the past two million years or more.

It has come and gone for far longer than that. It first developed at least 70 million years ago and was a dry land route for the movement of plants and animals, including dinosaurs.

When submerged, sea-dwelling life was able to move between the Pacific and Arctic Oceans.

The distribution and nature of much life on earth have been greatly influenced by this crucial land bridge. Its appearance and disappearance would also have had an influence on climate, with the closing of the land bridge affecting ocean currents.

The bridge enabled near-global distribution for some species. Mammals from as far away as Africa were able to spread north and east through Eurasia and into the Americas. Camels and horses instead went westward from the Americas, where their respective species had developed.

Horses originated in North America 35-56 million years ago. These terrier-sized mammals were adapted to forest life. Over millions of years, they increased in size and diversified.

Horses got larger in size and underwent other changes to their feet and teeth to adapt to changing environments. From five million to 24 million years ago, a number of horses occupied niches to which they had adapted, including grazing the spreading grasslands.

It was about four million years ago that the genus of all modern horses arose. The modern horse, known as Equus, evolved from the horse Pliohippus, which arose around 5 million years ago and was extinct by two million years ago.

The genus comprised three species but quickly diversified into at least 12 species in four different groups.

They co-existed with other horse species which had evolved different features, but it was members of Equus which made a move that not only saved the genus from extinction but profoundly changed the path of humankind.

Equus occupied North America for the entire Pleistocene epoch, from about 2.5 million years ago until their extinction. Scientists believe Equus crossed the Bering land bridge around the beginning of the epoch.

Some made it as far as Africa to evolve into the zebras we know today. Others moved across Asia, the Middle East and northern Africa, evolving into the onagers and wild asses of today, both well suited to desert environments.

A Somali wild ass filly foal with her dam. © Saint Louis Zoo
A Somali wild ass filly foal with her dam. © Saint Louis Zoo

Still others spread across Asia, the Middle East and Europe, evolving into the true horse, Equus caballus.

North America remained home to Equus species for most of the next 2.5 million years until they died out. On the latest evidence, that was just 7600 years ago.


While the genus adapted to life outside North America, the “home bodies” did not fare so well. Their extinction came quickly, as it did for many other large mammals on the continent.

They faced a changing climate, altering vegetation — and the arrival of man.

Artifacts from the first Americans, known as the Clovis, cast some light on the relationship of these people with the horse.

remarkable find of a cache comprising 83 stone implements within the city limits of Boulder City, Colorado, in 2008 provided scientists with invaluable insights.

An artist's impression of the Yukon Horse, dating back 26,000 years. © Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre
An artist’s impression of the Yukon Horse, dating back 26,000 years. © Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre

Biochemical analysis showed that some of the 13,000-year-old implements were used to butcher ice-age camels and horses.

The University of Colorado study was the first to identify protein residue from extinct camels on North American stone tools and only the second to identify horse protein residue on a Clovis-age tool. A third tool tested positive for sheep and a fourth for bear.

All 83 artifacts were shipped to anthropology professor Robert Yohe, of the Laboratory of Archaeological Science at California State, Bakersfield, for the protein residue tests.

“I was somewhat surprised to find mammal protein residues on these tools, in part because we initially suspected that the cache might be ritualistic rather than utilitarian,” Yohe said.

“There are so few Clovis-age tool caches that have been discovered that we really don’t know very much about them.”

Anthropology professor Douglas Bamforth, who led the study, said the discovery of horse and camel protein on the tools was the clincher for him that the tools were of Clovis origin.

“We haven’t had camels or horses around here since the late Pleistocene.”

The artifacts that showed animal protein residues were each tested three times to ensure accuracy.

Douglas Bamforth, Anthropology professor for the University of Colorado at Boulder, left, and Patrick Mahaffy, show a portion of more than 80 artifacts unearthed about two feet below Mahaffy's Boulder's front yard during a landscaping project in 2008. © Glenn J. Asakawa/University of Colorado)
Douglas Bamforth, Anthropology professor for the University of Colorado at Boulder, left, and Patrick Mahaffy, show a portion of more than 80 artifacts unearthed about two feet below Mahaffy’s Boulder’s front yard during a landscaping project in 2008. © Glenn J. Asakawa/University of Colorado)

Bamforth believes the type of people who buried the cache “lived in small groups and forged relationships over large areas”.

“I’m sceptical that they wandered widely, and they may have been bound together by a larger human network.”

Evidence of early Americans hunting horses had earlier been uncovered by University of Calgary scientists, who discovered the remains of a pony-sized horse while excavating the dry bed of the St Mary Reservoir in southern Alberta.

Several of the horse’s vertebrae were smashed and it had what appeared to be butcher marks on several bones.

About 500 metres from the skeleton, they found several Clovis spearheads. Protein residue testing and examination confirmed they had been used to hunt horses.

So does evidence of horse hunting place humans in the frame as being responsible for horse extinction? The weight of evidence suggests not.

One compelling argument centres around the timeline: that the comparatively few humans were unlikely to have played a major part in the demise of a species that was already in decline from climate and vegetation change.

That said, recent discoveries point to a rather longer overlap during which both horses and humans lived in North America.

Some scientists had earlier believed the evidence pointed to horses dying out some 500 years before the arrival of the first humans — a view since disproved by the discovery of horse protein on Clovis tools.

However, statistical analysis by Andrew Solow, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, offered a different view on the possible role of humans. He explored the radiocarbon dating of the 24 most recent known ancient horse fossils.

His analysis indicated the ancient horses of Alaska could have persisted until perhaps 11,700 years ago, providing an overlap of several hundred years.

Solow noted that the fossil record was very incomplete.

“Just because the most recent remain is from 12,500 years ago, that doesn’t mean that the horse became extinct at this time,” he said in one interview after the 2006 publication of his findings — an observation that was later to be proved correct.

A quagga mare, pictured at London Zoo about 1870.
A quagga mare, pictured at London Zoo about 1870. DNA analysis has shown that the Quagga was a subspecies of the Plains Zebra (Equus Quagga). The quagga was hunted to extinction in the late 1800s. Picture: Frederick York (d. 1903), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It was, he suggested, impossible to rule out human hunting as a cause or major contributing factor to North American horse extinction.

Fast-forward to 2009 and DNA analysis added another dramatic twist to the mystery.

Horses, the evidence now suggests, may have survived in North America until 7600 years ago — some 5000 years longer than previously thought. The new timeline suggests an overlap with human habitation approaching 6000 years.

Researchers who removed ancient DNA of horses and mammoths from permanently frozen soil in central Alaskan permafrost dated the material at between 7600 and 10,500 years old.

The findings suggested populations of these now-extinct mammals endured longer in the continental interior of North America, challenging the conventional view that these and other large species disappeared about 12,000 years ago.

It is possible the researchers unearthed the tiny genetic footprint of the last few hundred ancient horses to roam North America.

“We don’t know how long it takes to pinch out a species,” said Ross MacPhee, curator of mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History.

“Extinctions often seem dramatic and sudden in fossil records, but our study provides an idea of what an extinction event might look like in real-time, with imperilled species surviving in smaller and smaller numbers until eventually disappearing completely.”

The researchers’ remarkable findings were made possible thanks to the DNA-preserving properties of permafrost.

MacPhee and his colleagues decided that the permafrost around wind-blown Stevens Village, on the banks of the Yukon River, fitted the bill perfectly.

In this location, sediments were sealed in permafrost soon after deposition.

Cores collected provided a clear picture of the local Alaskan fauna at the end of the last ice age. The oldest sediments, dated to about 11,000 years ago, contained remnant DNA of Arctic hare, bison, and moose; all three animals were also found in higher, more recent layers, as would be expected.

But one core, deposited between 7600 and 10,500 years ago, confirmed the presence of both mammoth and horse DNA. To make certain there was no contamination, the team did extensive surface sampling around Stevens Village.

No DNA evidence of mammoth, horse, or other extinct species was found in modern samples, a result that supports previous studies which have shown that DNA degrades rapidly when exposed to sunlight and various chemical reactions.

“The fact that we scored with only one layer is not surprising,” says MacPhee. “When you start going extinct, there will be fewer and fewer feet on the ground, and thus less and less source material for ancient DNA such as faeces, shed dermal tissues, and decaying bodies.”

His team also developed a statistical model to show that mammoth and horse populations would have dwindled to a few hundred individuals by 8000 years ago.

“At this point, mammoths and horses were barely holding on. We may actually be working with the DNA of some of the last members of these species in North America,” says permafrost expert Duane Froese, associate professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta.

Why then, with such a substantial overlap in human and horse habitation, does the weight of evidence rest elsewhere?

The fossil record indicates that major changes in climate and vegetation at the end of the Pleistocene may have been the last nail in the coffin for the horse.

Extinction is not a rare event among life on Earth. In fact, the vast majority of species that have inhabited the planet are now extinct.

While the extinctions around the late Pleistocene saw the end to mammoths, giant sloths, horses and the like in the Americas, the extinction rate of North American mammals actually reached its highest level some six million years ago, resulting in the demise of about 60 genera. Several species of horses were driven to extinction at that time.

That period delivered the highest rate of extinction in the Americas in 30 million years.

Evidence of climate change and the resulting change of vegetation is considered the most likely cause for horse extinction, but investigations by Johns Hopkins paleobiologist Steven Stanley may have pinned down the cause even more specifically.

Stanley, a professor in the Johns Hopkins Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, looked at the findings of other scientists and found evidence that it was the grittier nature of grass that may have caused the demise of equine species.

For tens of millions of years, as the Earth’s climate became cooler and dryer, the trend toward expanding grasslands and receding forests continued in North America.

About 13 million years ago, the 15 or so species of horses in North America were split between those with long teeth and those with shorter teeth. Also at that time, a few new species emerged that had very long teeth.

Grasses have a gritty compound called silica, which is contained in sand and is used to make glass. As animals chew grass, the silica wears down their teeth. Therefore, animals with longer teeth live longer because their teeth don’t wear as fast, and they can continue to feed.

As grasslands expanded, the horses with long teeth lived longer because they were best adapted to eating grasses instead of leaves. Living longer enabled them to produce enough offspring to guarantee the survival of their species and the evolution of new species.

Researchers dig for evidence of early horse domestication in Kazakhstan.
Researchers dig for evidence of early horse domestication in Kazakhstan.

By 11 million years ago, only the horses especially adapted to eating grasses — those with longer teeth — were surviving in North America.

“Then, there is this sudden event, six million years ago, more or less, and what you see is a big extinction pulse, a big drop in total diversity, and the survivors are all the ones with very long teeth,” Stanley said.

The conventional wisdom has suggested that the long-toothed horses disappeared because of expanding grasses. But that just didn’t make sense, Stanley said, because the horses with long teeth were specially adapted to eating grasses.

“So, why would more grass be a problem for them?” Stanley asked.

Somehow, something about the grasses must have changed, he reasoned.

Meanwhile, other scientists had discovered that, as the climate became dryer and cooler, a different type of grass began to dominate North America. Those grasses, known as C4 grasses, which thrive in dryer climates, replaced many of the previously dominant grasses, known as C3 grasses.

“I thought, well, this seems like a long shot, but I wonder if there are on average more silica bodies in the C4 grasses than C3 grasses,” Stanley said.

His hunch proved correct. Stanley found that, on average, C4 grasses contained about three times as many of the silica particles as do C3 grasses.

“Think about a species that was doing all right eating C3 grasses. Maybe it lived 10 years on average and produced enough colts to reproduce the species. Well, what happens if that horse is suddenly only living seven years, or six years? It may not produce enough colts to perpetuate its species.

“I think that’s what happened. I think there was a big grind down.”

A blow it might have been, but the horse was far from finished in North America. But what led to their ultimate demise, along with a raft of other large mammals?

Several explanations have been offered by scientists, ranging from overhunting by humans to a meteor or comet impact, and novel infectious diseases.

However, most scientists find it hard to look beyond yet another period of substantial climate and vegetation change wrought by the end of the last glacial period.

The last glacial period began about 110,000 years ago and ended about 12,500 years ago, around the end of the Pleistocene epoch. Glaciation was at its peak about 18,000 years ago.

Some 70 per cent of North American large mammals became extinct between 20,000 and 10,000 years ago.

“The causes of this extinction – the role of humans versus that of climate — have been the focus of much controversy,” Dale Guthrie, of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, wrote in the journal Nature.

“Horses have figured centrally in that debate, because equid species dominated North American late Pleistocene faunas in terms of abundance, geographical distribution, and species variety, yet none survived into the Holocene epoch.

“The timing of these equid regional extinctions and accompanying evolutionary changes are poorly known,” he said.

He believes climate change and a shift from grasslands to tundra is the likely cause, resulting in a reduction in the animals’ food supply.

“Horses underwent a rapid decline in body size before extinction and I propose that the size decline and subsequent regional extinction … are best attributed to a coincident climate/vegetation shift,” he said.

Guthrie radiocarbon-dated bones from two species of extinct Alaskan horses. The bones date back about 12,500 years — 500 years before the first signs of human settlement in the area.

He found that the bones were about 12 per cent shorter than those from another horse that lived nearly 15,000 years earlier.

The evidence did not support human overkill and several other extinction causes,” he said.

“Comparable size declines at the end of the Pleistocene are not unique to horses,” he pointed out. “Bison declined more dramatically in an even shorter time span, but at a later date.

“The significance of this size decline among Alaskan horses just before their regional extinction is that environmental pressures provoking smaller body size may well have been the same ones that ultimately resulted in their extinction.”

What of the environmental changes in Alaska at the time of these extinctions? The last glacial period was a time in which the cold/arid northern Mammoth Steppe was most extreme, he said, though still capable of supporting a rich diversity of large mammals.

Evidence pointed to arid and windy conditions with a treeless, short grass-sedge-sage sward.

“Although the region’s large mammals were evidently adapted to handle cold/arid extremes, each species was evolutionarily fine-tuned to different optimal diets and habitats.”

A dramatic pollen shift occurred around 12,500 to 13,000 years ago. Landscape changes included the creation of lakes, bogs, shrub tundra, forests, low-nutrient soils, and plants highly defended against herbivore grazing.

“Vegetation in the north now supports a relatively small biomass of large herbivores, and almost no grazers,” he noted.

J. Tyler Faith
J. Tyler Faith

“The present data suggest that Alaskan horses prospered during the last glacial maximum, and appear to have been particularly well adapted to the more intense versions of the cold/arid Mammoth Steppe.

“Perhaps the declining body size of Alaskan horses and their extinction relate not only to the absolute decline of their access to optimal food resources, but also to increasing competition with other large mammals possessing the physiological capacities to thrive on the vegetation characteristic of this … end-Pleistocene transition.”

However, not all scientists ascribe to this view.

Recent findings from J. Tyler Faith, Ph.D candidate in the hominid paleobiology doctoral programme at the University of Wyoming, and Todd Surovell, associate professor of anthropology at the university, suggest the mass extinction occurred in a geological instant.

Faith’s research revealed the extinctions as a sudden event that took place between 13.8 and 11.4 thousand years ago.

Faith’s findings provide some support to the idea that this mass extinction was due to human overkill, an extra-terrestrial impact or other rapid events rather than slow attrition.

“The massive extinction coincides precisely with human arrival on the continent, abrupt climate change, and a possible extraterrestrial impact event,” Faith said.

“It remains possible that any one of these or all, contributed to the sudden extinctions. We now have a better understanding of when the extinctions took place and the next step is to figure out why.”

So was it climate change and a resulting change in vegetation that drove horses to extinction? With evidence that changes in grass resulted in the extinction of roughly half of North America’s equine species six million years ago, is it not reasonable to assume that a similar vegetative change some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago could not have done the same thing?

The weight of evidence still rests in this camp, but totally dismissing the role of over-hunting is no longer so easy.

Not so long ago, there was no evidence of an overlap between North American horse extinction and the arrival of humans, let alone evidence of their hunting horses.

Then, findings indicated an overlap of perhaps a few hundred years. The latest research suggests at least one pocket of horses in Alaska persisting until some 7600 years ago, creating a potential overlap of some 6000 years.

However, the undoubted regional variations in horse extinction and limited knowledge about the geographical spread and numbers of the earliest human inhabitants of North America further clouds the picture.

There is now clear evidence that mankind hunted North American horses but were they doing so in numbers that made a difference? It is a question that may never be answered.

As for horses, their crossing of the Bering land bridge was a life-saving move for horses – and a life-changing one for humankind.

In 2009, researchers found evidence that pushed horse domestication back to the Botai Culture of Kazakhstan around 5500 years ago — some 1000 years earlier than thought and about 2000 years earlier than domesticated horses are known to have been in Europe.

Evidence suggests horses were originally domesticated, not just for riding, but also to provide food, including milk.

There is also evidence of selective breeding — the first tentative steps towards the breeds we are familiar with today.

So, in North America, was it climate change, altering vegetation or human predation that saw the extinction of the horse and other large-animal species? Could disease have played a part?

“It’s hard to see this as one of those things where a single piece of evidence will make it obvious what happened,” Scott Wing, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, told National Geographic.

“The phenomenon that people are trying to explain is not something that happened in one place at one time. It happened across the globe, at different times on different continents. I think that there are clearly multiple factors involved.”

Douglas Bamforth, Anthropology professor for the University of Colorado at Boulder, places his hand on one of the artifacts unearthed in Boulder. The artifacts, which may have been made during the Clovis period nearly 13,000 years ago, were neatly arranged in a cache near where this portrait was taken, suggesting that the users of these instruments may have intended to reuse them. © Glenn J. Asakawa/University of Colorado)
Douglas Bamforth, Anthropology professor for the University of Colorado at Boulder, places his hand on one of the artifacts unearthed in Boulder. The artifacts, which may have been made during the Clovis period nearly 13,000 years ago, were neatly arranged in a cache near where this portrait was taken, suggesting that the users of these instruments may have intended to reuse them. © Glenn J. Asakawa/University of Colorado)

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Solow concurs. “I think the notion that there was a single cause is probably not right. It’s probably more complicated than that.

“I think that leaves everyone with a big job to do to investigate new sites, date remains, date human occupations, and try to do the best that they can,” he said.

The story of North American horses was far from over when the last few died out.

Horses made their return to the continent from 1493, through the Spanish Conquistadors.

The land that just a few thousand years earlier had proved too big a challenge for survival proved very much to their liking.

By the late 1700s parts of the western rangeland — Texas, in particular — were home to vast herds of wild horses.

While no scientific count was ever done in the 1800s to calculate horse numbers, estimates range up to two million. Researchers have suggested that one million is a more credible estimate.

Today, an estimated 27,000 wild horses occupy the western rangelands, with more than 30,000 held in holding facilities under a management programme viewed by wild horse advocates as controversial.

Horses ultimately played a pivotal role in the settlement and development of the frontier in a land where, just a few thousand years earlier, they were unable to survive.

By any measure, it has been a remarkable journey.


New evidence rewrites time for American horse extinction 16.12.09
Did a cosmic impact wipe out North American horses? 23.7.09
Equine family tree needs a trim, say scientists 29.12.09
Researchers cast light on early horse domestication 18.8.08

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43 thoughts on “Why did horses die out in North America?

  • May 1, 2013 at 10:54 pm

    There have been a few TV shows comparing Eurasian civilizational progress with South American and American stasis.
    They explain it by saying, among other things, ‘there were no large animals to domesticate in the Western Hemisphere’ They say such things as ‘there was just the llama that is not a decent beast of burden.’
    Yet this article would seem to indicate that this is a misrepresentation. There WERE large animals and possibly they died out due to the humans arrival.This article says, “It was, he suggested, impossible to rule out human hunting as a cause or major contributing factor to North American horse extinction.”

    This is never even mentioned on the TV shows aimed at large scale viewer consumption. I wonder why that is?

    • June 27, 2013 at 9:54 am

      tonot suggest native americans were simply too stupid to use them

      • May 11, 2015 at 12:45 am

        Or perhaps it’s because the horse never died out and that would kind of ruin the picture that the white man painted of the ignorant savage.

        It’s actually quite incredible the mental gymnastics that academics will go to to claim that horses died out when the evidence for their continued survival is still there.

        • February 23, 2018 at 7:37 pm

          Most scientists do not believe in diffusion. Listen to the Native Americans and most tribes will tell you they came across the sea on ships from the east, some even speak of horses being here as late as the time of Christ – possibly horses did not die out. There has been stone relics showing man and horses dating to 2000BC – 300 AD. But anything that does not fit into the scientific time line is not approved by a board of archaeologists, hidden up and never spoken of again.

          • March 1, 2018 at 4:17 am

            There are some horses/ponies in the northern woods, I wish they would do genetic analise on, the natives stories seems to confirm that not all horses died 10000 years ago. I would tend to believe them.

          • January 18, 2020 at 5:18 am

            not sure who this “board” is or why it would be hidden and never spoken of again, I’d be the first guy to scream “look what we got here!” if i recovered horse faunal material from that period.

      • June 25, 2023 at 6:24 am

        The scientific research indicates that the ancient horse in the Americas went extinct around 7500 BC, and were hunted for food by Native Americans for several thousand years before that. The horse was not domesticated by humans until around 3500 BC, in the Eurasian steppe, and was hunted for food before that. The horse when first domesticated was a more modern version of the horse that went extinct in the Americas.
        Native Americans had brilliant cultures, if you have ever studied them.

    • December 19, 2016 at 8:12 am

      After the Bering land bridge was cut off by rising sea levels the population of the Yukon horse started to decline, and they were actually already on their way to extinction from the continent when humans showed up. It’s even speculated that humans probably rarely saw horses while they were still there, if they saw any at all. However it’s very possible that humans did see them even though their populations were low and hunted them as a source of food when they could.

      • February 23, 2018 at 7:39 pm

        You have not talked to too many Native American elders have you. Science is wrong.

        • November 4, 2018 at 3:04 am

          So is horizontally oppressive revisionist history that ignores the natural selection biases that oral cultures face in presenting information. Coercively third-gendering trans women is not wokeness and inclusion, today or centuries ago. You should know better than most that we tend to forget the socioeconomic circumstances of the unsuccessful (people’s answers regarding what they think income distribution is and what it actually is should be telling, for example), and that we in the West also disproportionately give our queer people crappy jobs in media, that sometimes, sometimes, but very-rarely, result in massive pay and aplomb.

          Relics and media can talk about things that are no longer here. Kinda like the cartoons I watched as a child with a Dodo as a character.

          Science is not wrong, it is just ignorant when compared to omniscience, and story-tellers can come to erroneous conclusions based on their biases when presented with limited data. Besides, the longer horses co-existed, the more the mythology of the ecosensitive indigenous nation is just that. Maybe people are just people, and the effect of privilege is not cultural so much as material…

          But that would apparently make your head explode if I don’t talk to people who happen to all enjoy the selection bias of being disproportionately long-lived. Poor people live a decade less on average than rich people in North America… there are also life expectancy gaps with white people… and with the female-assigned… So just, for a second, I implore you, ask yourself: what happens when you talk to those among OUR elders who can speak? Are you really getting an inclusive perspective? Or are you just reinforcing horizontal oppression because it’s been branded as woke?

        • May 8, 2020 at 1:54 am

          I think it’s funny that I have a T-shirt that says “ science doesn’t care what you think”

  • February 27, 2014 at 8:44 pm

    I’m sorry but this is just absurd. There is no proof that humans preyed or even hunted a good majority of the megafauna of North/South America and Australia. The only reason why people or even scientists assume it was humans is the dates of humans arrival and the very few kill sites that has very few megafauna bones. No matter how much bitching people do the only reason why people want to think it was our ancestors fault is because of the recent extinctions of the past 600 years and the extinctions of the moa in New Zealand and a few large sloths that inhabited Madagascar. Everyone wants some type of justification for the megafauna demise but there is not a shred of proof that a populaton of a few thousand aboriginals with only rocks and primitive spears hunted every animal to extinction. It is also absurd that people think that primitive humans killed every creature that was bigger than them in N/S America within a thousand years or so. Like WTF are you talking about, yes humans killed a particular species like mammoths or mastodons and others but to say a population of 4-5 million people, man, woman, and child with an life expectancy of 35-40 years at best, generation after generation to kill off every living thing they see just for the fuck of it?! It is not even ethical nor is it even gullible to sit here and say that our ancestors were stupid. They must have known the probability to kill a giant creature and how successful they could or could not get the creature to go down. I apologize for the bickering but this grap needs to end, it was climate change, climate change, climate change. What proof to you have besides reading off an article that says they have evidence it was humans when most of it is pure speculation and in the end, until there is proof, it is just another hypothesis brought up with only claims that don’t even have proof to back up the claims.

    • October 14, 2016 at 10:40 am

      I agree. Killing larger game was risky and required planning and organization of larger groups of people. It was easier, took less energy, and prevented a couple broken bones if food could be obtained by hunting smaller game and digging roots. Smart or dumb has less to do with survival than conserving energy and avoiding personal injury.

    • October 19, 2016 at 10:40 am

      Well there is the DNA on the hunting weapons. Not sure why this is an inflammatory article. Evolution is simply put the survival of the fittest, the definition of which changed as the environment changed, hence the process of evolution. [Culminating with the geniuses that roam our planet today.] And we do continue to consume horse meat in some parts of the world. Dismally, we send over 100,000 domestic horses to slaughter each year from the U.S. alone. My take home from this article is that there has been a connection through the ages of survival and evolution of man or hominoids with the horse. Prior to the wide spread use of the combustion engine (in the life time of our grandparents), we still relied on horses for transportation, harvesting of crops and fighting our wars. Along with eating them.

    • June 1, 2017 at 3:42 pm

      what about the Neanderthals?
      they were thinking beings and they say they were driven to extinction by bad Europeans?

    • February 5, 2018 at 6:58 pm

      Human populations can increase very rapidly under the right conditions – you don’t have to go back 15000 years to observe that phenomena. You can observe it in contemporary times in Central American countries like Costa Rica – where the population occurred without the support of mass immigration. When human beings arrived in the Americas the right conditions were in place – the absence of other people, lack of diseases, verdant resources. The new arrivals in the Americas were not primitives. They had a vast tool bag and, best of all, of course, the clever, conniving human brain.

  • March 4, 2014 at 11:40 am

    The trouble with arguing that human hunting was decisive for the demise of American horses is, if fairly small bands of humans were enough to kill off the equids all over North America, then how could horses survive in Eurasia, where numbers of men were far larger and humans also had the advantage of knowing the local terrain? Horses were actually not domesticated in Asia until several thousand years later, so it’s no answer to say “the Asians opted to tame some of the horses and breed flocks of these, when they could have killed all of them”.

    Also, horses had crossed over into Eurasia long before the end of the last ice age. Maybe 200,000 years ago or more. Zebras and donkeys are closely related to modern horses, it’s the same genus, and those species developed in Asia, not in America, so there will have been a long time span when modern equids existed in Eurasia and Africa.

    • July 7, 2017 at 12:26 am

      Usually this is explained because the non eurasian/african animals are not accostumed with humans and therefore ‘naive’ (= dumb) with them.

      This is the base for the blitzkrieg theory.

      But this is false. The african megafauna, as example, is NOT afraid by humans (even if it should be!), look to elephants, rhinos, buffalos, lions, giraffe.

      And not only this: if the overlapping time is more than few centuries, even on continental scale the blitzkrieg became absurd. And overkill is not good enough: why mammuth died and elephants not? Why the wholly rhinos yes, but the african and asian not?

      Even in Siberia mammuth and humans co-hexistend for several x0,000 years and still, the beast vanished only at the end of ice age. In the Wangler isle, they lasted until 4,000 years ago. So why they vanished at all? Who knows.

  • March 24, 2014 at 6:51 am

    We need these ancient zebra/horses for they are a vital part of our history, since the beginning of time.

  • June 12, 2014 at 12:02 pm

    i say kill alll the people hunting and make them extinct because our human society is so ferrel!

  • September 29, 2014 at 4:00 pm

    There are several well-known extinction events where humans encountered species that were not adapted to see humans as a threat (think, “Dodo Bird”). This permitted hunters to easily kill so many animals in such a short time, that extinction progressed quickly. Is in not possible that the species of horse left behind in the Americas were behaviourally unaccustomed to humans and naively allowed predation? This has happened on many islands and the climate in North America may have reduced it to an ‘ecological island’. In Eurasia and Africa, on the other hand, horses may have evolved as primitive humans arrived from Africa and were therefore more wary.
    Another possibility could be that humans arriving over the Bering Straight may have inadvertently brought horse-born diseases with them. These diseases would have evolved in Eurasia over a long period and, like Scarlet Fever in humans, may have been devastating to the isolated horses of the Americas.

    • May 11, 2015 at 2:25 am

      Surely the disease would have been brought over by a horse accompanying the humans … so what happened to those horses? Or are you saying that the humans carried a disease that jumped species? Which seems a little implausible given the potentially limited interaction if the horses were not domesticated and the only vector was during the hunt where they’d be killed … so how could they have time to catch let alone pass on the disease?

  • February 11, 2015 at 12:04 pm

    6 Clayton E. Ray, “Pre-Columbian Horses From Yucatan,” Journal of Mammalogy vol. 38 no. 2 (May
    1957), p. 278.

    In 1895,
    Henry Mercer explored 29 caves in the Yucatán
    Peninsula looking for evidence of prehistoric
    habitation. In the Loltún Caves of the Yucatán
    he found the bones of many ancient animals,
    but no fossils.3
    Between this dig and 1977,
    ancient horse bones were found in the Huechil
    Grotto of this same cave system. Exactly how
    they got there is unknown, but it is probable
    that they were brought in by early inhabitants,
    since it is believed that early man hunted native
    Because these bones are not fossilized,5
    there is a limit to how old they might be. A
    tantalizing (but rarely mentioned) sidenote is
    that these horse remains in some caves were
    found alongside potsherds and other human

    The above excerpt is from this article:

  • June 22, 2015 at 4:33 pm

    So horses live for 30 million years in North America and die out when humans arrive. Must have been the weather.

  • September 9, 2015 at 3:28 am

    I am very skeptical of this article. I am very skeptical that horses even existed in North America until the Spanish brought them here in the 1500’s. There are many skeptical claims being made in this article, and I am skeptical there is any reliable skeletal evidence to support this claim that horses existed in North America. Horses are much more mobile than many of the species that went extinct in North America, and probably would have migrated south into the lower United States prior to the ice age. They make the claim that horses migrated back across the Bering strait into Asia and made it all the way to Africa. How would horses make it to Africa? If horses existed in North America, they most likely would have made it South into USA. They also make some claim about finding instruments/tools used to kill different mammal species including horses using DNA sampling/testing, I find this also to be questionable. This would only mean that horses migrated South into the USA and probably would not have gone extinct if this were true

  • October 3, 2015 at 10:52 pm

    The Pleistocene inhabitants of Britain couldn’t ride the native horse, or Tarpan either, although they hunted and ate it. If it was anything like a zebra, it wouldn’t have been very domesticable.
    they did leave pictographs of it on cave walls and pieces of bone and it had a zebra-like bristly mane.

  • May 29, 2016 at 11:24 pm

    I will be interested to see some dates attached to the above mentioned studies, but it is good to at least have the names of some resarchers and the Universities they belong to. Most of these research has been done in Canada and North United States while very little seems to be coming from Central and SouthAmerica where horses may have migrated (as hinted by some sources/finds). The evidence may still be there waiting to be unearthed! Stay tune people, there may be a few surprices yet to be had!

  • October 12, 2016 at 6:18 am

    Recently tool marks were found on a seal with an estimated 30,000bc not 11,000 on the Channel Islands just off the coast of Santa Barbra, California. But how did they get here? Well walking and swimming doesn’t sound practical. I know, boats. Usually the simplest answers are best. The Bering Straights must have had quite a traffic jam. Having spent a few years on the tundra myself as a forester I’ve come to the conclusion that those ancient First peoples were sailors who followed the hunt on the seas before land and were better sailors than farmers and ranchers. Those skills came later. Also, there is some indication the first of the two was hearding so it’s not too difficult to imagine a senario with them moving back and forth across the Straits as “hunter gatherers ” following and pushing the herds. In other words humans could have been directly responsible for enticing all different types of creatures to move on. Perhaps with the loss of our heat sink we’ll find that evidence.

  • October 17, 2016 at 8:32 am

    Is it logical that all horses in the America’s would die out due to some climate change, when animals of similar and larger size like deer, elk, moose and bear survived?

    • July 7, 2017 at 12:06 am

      No, it’s absurdy IMO. I don’t have any answers about this. Even if a lot of ‘scientist’ follows the Martin or Flannery blitzkrieg system.

      As example, even if the horses in Alaska died because the weather, then why the texan or Patagonians died as well? Still because the climate change?

      And why the modern horses are adapt to live in America, while the older horses were not despite born in USA?

      OTOH, the possibility that horses were killed all by indians is ridicolous as well. Too fast, too strong, too many. What about the reindeer, then? The most hunted animal in the human history and still around today. Plus bison, deer, elk etc etc.

      And not only this:

      1) there are signs of humans well before Clovis, today there are sites older than 100,000 yrs (!!!!!). How to explain the ‘naiveness’ of american animals, then? Even alaskan horses and mammuths lived for x,000 yrs along with humans, and Alaska is just a small part of Americas.

      2) what about the horses that survived even later? I’ve read of mor than 50 examples found in more than 20 sites in America, from 7,000 to 700 yrs ago. And even, that Sioux had horses in the mid XVI century and their horses were different than the europeans, but similar to the ‘polish’ horses i.e. the Pzerawsky (wild horse!) Is it possible that wild horses survived until Colombo and even in the XIX century atleast?

      To me, the demise of american horses is inexplicable, to sum it. Even the domesticated horses were never affeceted by indians (despite being accostumated to hunt big game like bisons!) when they became wild (mustang), and readily numbered millions in few years.

      As example, neither aborygens, accused to have extinct the australian big beasts, did nothing to stop the explosion of wild horses, camels, buffalos, cows introduced in Australia.

      And even in Madagascar, the megafauna disappeared within not centuries, but thousands years because human activities.

      While the africans failed to extinct a single zebra species in historical times atleast.

      Too strange, really.

  • July 10, 2017 at 1:42 pm

    I have heard that native American oral stories indicate more than 30,000 years of residence, much more than around 10,000. They may have been here for millions of years. Absence of evidence is not good evidence of absence.

    It is the nature of bone evidence to be spotty. Especially if not immediately buried. When discovered, then better to assume that much more co-existed but failed to be preserved. Like when you see one rat, it is best to assume there are many more lurking nearby.

    If buried, bone evidence would last much longer in the permafrost of Alaska and northern Canada. Check out this link:

  • May 28, 2018 at 2:54 am

    In 1972, A 700 yr old pipestone carving of a horse was unearthed on the 4 mile ruins located in Taylor az. It was found by John and Evelyn Brinkerhoff. Many people as well as myself have seen it. No question to its authenticity .

  • October 30, 2018 at 5:04 am

    Why is the introduction of new disease left out of these discussions. We know that diseases introduced by Europeans decimated the Native American population. A disease that killed large mammals could have been come across the land bridge and killed or nearly killed off a stressed population. Hunting could have done in the weakened survivors.

  • February 23, 2019 at 2:25 pm

    Weather is a local phenomenon while “climate” is global, correct?
    Why did only the North American horses die out?
    I believe there is so much angst associated with this subject because it has the potential for casting shade on the assumptions and beliefs held by many westerners regarding the nature of indigenous cultures. We have all grown up being told about the Noble Natives who eschewed personal property and lived in utopian balance with Mother Gaia, taking only what they needed to survive, and of course never wasting resources or polluting the environment. Another way of looking at it might involve descriptions of aggressive invaders plundering unprepared and uncompetitive species with no real thoughts about the “future”, as they probably were not yet sophisticated enough to envision a future beyond their next meal. You know, kind of like how the Maori hunted the Moa into extinction within 200 years of arriving in New Zealand.

    • November 9, 2022 at 11:55 pm

      Yes, current sensitivities teach that the colonizer Europeans were the “only aggressive ones” in the Americas (North, Central and South) while in reality many (if not all) indigenous pre Colombian American tribes war constantly with other tribes long before any European arrived in the continent.
      Many have tried to rewrite our peoples’ history but not all had been lost as yet!

  • April 11, 2019 at 5:57 am

    Climate change, Thousands years ago in North America the vegetation fauna and grasses were a factor of slow reproduction, first peoples where not the cause of extinction but hunting for food didn’t help the reproduction, I think horses had a living time of 10 to 13 years, not enough time to reproduce, those days humans needed a high level of protein daily in order to survive for the fast pace of their migration, they were no farmers. Enough of “my ancestors” and the earth did open and “my ancestors” pop out like special people. We’re humans and predators and we always need to survive in order to preserve species…we don’t eat each other but we sure kill ourselves. If your are special people do something about…like preserve and take care of them, after all horses serve you well long ago specially on the plains and nomadic ways.

  • November 27, 2021 at 4:12 am

    Don’t be so ignorant too assume that even you, the reader of these words, haven’t been influenced by biased traditions and the modern-age-lack-of-scope.
    I agree with alternative histories that archeology suggest to us that differ from the approved written or oral history.
    I believe the “board” that was previously mentioned are the academic institutions with a vested interest in the popular narrative displayed in their museums and written in their books. Institutions like the Smithsonian or the Israeli Antiquities who actually really do box up and store in their basements anything radical to the narrative. Your fictional “Indiana Jones” warehouse was a colorful dramatization of such a place. The reality is, these rooms are small, numerous, and in the basement of the same places tourists visit.
    These omissions are usually political, as it often happens in the Middle East between Egyptians, Israelis, and Palestinians. In North America, just think about Lief Erickson and how we have long had proof (with more discoveries happening every day) but it will still be decades before school books are modified to reflect factual history. Of course one person’s proof is another person’s hoax.. and there will forever be debates on everything we’re sure of.
    But, as time goes on items like the Jame’s Ossuary or the Kensington Rune Stone which create such passionate arguments (just as wether or not native pre-Colombian inhabitants of the Americas over-hunted large game to extinction) will have to be re-examined with all of the newly found and collected data and with an unbiased scientific mind, put these items in their proper place in our continuing story.
    I’m not going to site. Everyone here is intelligent enough to find whatever answer they choose as their truth.
    The southern tip of South America has a village where local people to this day have Australian Aboriginal DNA that predates European contact. The evidence is also in the cultivation of potatoes on Polynesian islands, suggesting travel on the Pacific Ocean went both ways. Voyagers could push hard to the east, and glide on sail winds back west if needed.
    Cave paintings in this area suggest a contact with northern warriors that decimated their civilization leaving them with the trace DNA that’s present today. These warriors, as the paintings show, hunted all the large game until the people suffered a period of famine. It’s suggested that this over-hunting that led to a memorable period where people starved, gave rise to the philosophy of preservation and modest hunting habits that we have come to associate with American plains Indians.
    Furthermore I believe with absolute certainty that what we perceive, biased by traditions, as stone using nomadic bands of native tribes are the remnants of a great multi-kingdom empire whose center was in the Yucatán peninsula and reached far out to Florida and the entire East coastline and Canada, bringing variations of the Aztec Nahuatl language and the technology of corn cultivation with them. These people were building terrace farms in Georgia and were the Mound Builders who made earth memorials that were models of the stone temples of their ancestors.
    The nation of Spain worked for nearly three hundred years before English European arrivals to erase the native people from their history, and proof of their complex civilization. The native plains Indians was an effort to evade and survive the occupation of Spanish conquistadors who were set on washing their existence from this bountiful land with their blood.

    But I digress. I’m not here for an argument. I really don’t care if you know it or not. It’s there in stone, and the stone will be here after we’re dead. We live in an age of arm chair scientists and historians.
    One day we won’t have emotional connections to which stories are true. One day it’ll be cold, remote, scientific data that will be considered without grandma’s myths effecting expectations.
    And then, the books will be re-written.

    • January 20, 2022 at 12:18 pm

      I’m WITH you to date PLUS very open to other, different & even new possibilities! I’m a “WHY?” gal to my toes. Have reached the point that I actually see science accepting and adding “religions” to their interpretations of evolving but don’t see the reverse taking place very often. IF it does it is VERY slow. I personally view religion as infinity with “the creator” as a “higher power” (unknown & not named). which I feel secure enough to also say it can be verbally expressed as YHWH, God, Allah or any other’s choice.

  • February 17, 2022 at 5:58 pm

    Various animals went extinct prior to the evolution of human beings on this planet. Of course if one does not believe in science than that poses a challenge. DNA studies of the various North American horse breeds has concluded they are the direct descendants of those European breeds that were reintroduced by the Spanish and others.
    Indigenous myths about ancient pre-European native peoples riding horses are just that, myths. However, many of the plains culture had a strong equine culture that was developed in a relatively short period of time after the arrival of the Spanish. So yes the westward moving Americans and Canadians encountered various tribal groups riding horses. They also encountered native people with firearms purchased from European peoples. It is hopeful to imagine that a species of ancient horse survived and inspired legends of an equine culture amongst the native populations, but this is wishful thinking and not science.

    • February 18, 2022 at 1:31 pm

      Science is catching up. Various horse species and mammoth / elephant species are now being found to not be as old as previously thought. Despite science, remember Science is technically just theory, Native American legends of horses should not be ignored as they spoke of horses long before the Spaniards arrived, as well as elephant effigies have been found in Adena mounds across north America.

      Horses and Elephants, at least artwork based on them, existed in North America as early as 3000 BC.

      Science can argue their theory all it wants, but again at the end of the day, Science is just a theory, not fact.

      Claiming science in and of itself it greater than history passed down through generations, misses the entire point of open minded research. The minute you think Science has all the answers, is the minute you have totally misunderstood the point of science.

      • February 19, 2022 at 8:39 am

        WELL SAID. That is why science and religion are NOT really fighting with each other. In fact they are getting closer as research & understanding continues on both sides. I think as homo sapiens evolved, developed ways communication, social groups, animal husbandry, agriculture, etc. they also developed ways to explain the “mysteries” around them. Religions developed first and then what we now call science. Just remember the fact of child growth and development. Those stages are still the same!

  • February 18, 2022 at 11:19 am

    Yes, I also believe this scientific evidence. In addition, horses are prey animals which gives them an instinct to bond with humans and gain protection.

    • February 16, 2023 at 8:42 am

      I don’t know what possessed me but being the analytical person that I am and interested in animal species and their various extinctions, I concluded two things: first, magical thinking serves myth making and, two, I found your comments the most interesting.


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