Do the bloodlines of extinct Ice Age horses live on in Yakutian horses?

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Yakutian horses in winter. © Унаров Максим Владимирович CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons

Some horses that inhabit northern Yakutia may harbour genes from the extinct Ice Age horses that once roamed the vast region, an academic believes.

Yakutian horses are natives of the Siberian Sakha Republic. They can survive without shelter in temperatures that plunge to minus 70 degrees Celsius. The animals have the ability to effectively forage in deep snow for vegetation to eat.

Professor Ivanov Revoriy Vasilievich, a doctor of agricultural sciences, chief researcher and head of the Laboratory of Horse Breeding with the Yakutsk Research Institute of Agricultural Sciences, recently published descriptions of five distinct types of Yakutian horses.

The professor, in an examination of the origins of Yakutian horses, believes there is a good chance that some of them, particularly those in the north of the republic, may carry genetic material from the now-extinct Ice Age horses that once roamed the region with the likes of mammoths, woolly rhinos and other mammals.

The professor notes that many researchers stick to the hypothesis that Yakut horses come from ancient crossbreed wild horses from the north.

However, there is an opposing view that the ancestors of the Yakut people claimed the territory of Yakutia on horseback, and this gave rise to the local breed.

The foal found in Siberian permafrost is remarkably preserved. Photo: North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutia
The foal found in Siberian permafrost in 2019 is remarkably preserved. It is estimated to be 40,000 years old. © North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutia

He says a special methodological approach is needed to determine if Yakutian horses are descendants of the original wild horses of the region, or were brought to the region by man.

“The origin of the Yakut breed horses has long been of interest to researchers,” he says.

The head of the first scientific expedition to study horse breeding in Yakutia was M.I. Rogalevich, who carried out his investigations in the early 1940s. He put forward a hypothesis that the northern types of horses of the Yakut breed had the blood of wild horses.

Rogalevich considered it likely that wild horses in the north had asserted their influence on the domesticated horses of the north, noting that in some parts of the region the horses seemed to be larger.

“This question, without doubt, must be resolved through further research of the horse breeding of Yakutia,” Rogalevich wrote.

M.F. Gabyshev, referring to the works of the first researchers-explorers of Yakutia from the late 1800s, put forward a hypothesis about the deep roots of horse breeding by the inhabitants of what is now northern Yakutia before the arrival of the Yakut people.

Frozen in ice for millennia, the Siberian foal is the best-preserved ancient horse ever found. The two-month-old Ice Age horse even had perfectly preserved hair.
Frozen in ice for millennia, the Siberian foal is the best-preserved ancient horse ever found. The two-month-old Ice Age horse even had perfectly preserved hair. © Michil Yakovlev/SVFU/The Siberian Times

Gabyshev, writing in the 1950s, considered it indisputably established that wild horses — contemporaries of the mammoth — lived well within the Arctic Circle, downstream of the river Yana and on the Novosibirsk Islands.

Later, in 1980, P.A. Lazarev concluded that the modern Yakut horse is identical in all its skeletal and exterior features to the late Pleistocene horse, based on a detailed comparative anatomical analysis of the size and structure of each skeleton bone of the late Pleistocene and modern horses of Yakutia.

“Based on this, he proposes that this horse did not become extinct like the mammoth, woolly rhino and other mammals, but became part of the modern fauna of Yakutia and continues to exist in the form of the modern Yakut horse.”

Professor Revoriy noted that I.P. Guryev, in 1990, was the first to study the immunogenetic and craniological characteristics of Yakut horses, comparing them with the Kazakh horses (the Jabe type) and Mongolian horses.

The study found there was high genetic similarity between the Yakut horses of the central region and those of the southern steppe horses. However, significant genetic differences were found between these southern steppe horses and the Yakutian horses of the north.

Guryev concluded: “Despite the existence at the edge of the range, the Kolyma population (the breed type in northern Yakutia) turned out to be the most heterozygous and polymorphic, which is probably due to its formation from two (or three) small groups that do not coincide in genetic structure …”

The Kolyma type of Yakutian horse.
The Kolyma type of Yakutian horse. © A.N. Ilyin

“This conclusion, in our opinion, quite convincingly affirms the origin of the horses of the Kolyma type from their wild ancestors and the horses on which the Yakuts first arrived in the Kolyma lowlands. This is probably why the Kolyma horses are much larger in their dimensions than the indigenous horses.”

However, N.D. Alekseev, on the basis of many years of research into the adaptations of horses to the extreme conditions of the north, considers the introduction of the bloodlines of wild tundra horses to modern horses in the north to be wrong. He attributes their ability to withstand the winter conditions to the innate ability of horses in general to withstand harsh cold, and successful acclimatisation of local horses to the frigid winter conditions found in the region.

Professor Revoriy then turns to more recent genetic investigations.

In 2015, P. Librado and his colleagues published the results of genetic analysis of nine modern horses and two horses excavated in the Eveno-Bytantai district. The study team compared the genomes of these horses with those of two late Pleistocene horses, 27 domesticated horses and three wild Przewalski horses.

An artist’s impression of the Ice Age horse.
An artist’s impression of the Ice Age horse. Image courtesy Michil Yakovlev/SVFU/The Siberian Times

“The authors came to the conclusion that modern Yakut horses do not descend from local horses that inhabited the region until the middle of the Holocene.”

They did, however, consider the unique adaptive features of the Yakut horse to be one of the fastest cases of adaptation to extreme temperatures in the Arctic.

Professor Revoriy noted that the horses of the Eveno–Bytantai district were crossbred by the ancestors of the Yakuts, who first settled these territories on horses of southern origin. Also, the work by Librado and his colleagues involved only nine horses from the district.

He believes, in order to get a definitive answer, it is necessary to take samples from at least 30 horses, and, most importantly, in several northern districts: Verkhoyansk, Abyisk and Kolymsk.

Yakutian horses are well adapted to harsh conditions. Photo courtesy of Egor Makarov

“Even in one district, samples should be taken from several settlements, because, as we assume, wild horses lived scattered and in small numbers.”

He singles out the horses of the Abyisky district of the republic as being of particular scientific interest.

“Here, in 2016, snow fell one and a half meters deep. Of the stock of horses available at the beginning of winter, only 30% survived. This is a little over 600 head.

“It seems to us that among these remaining, the most hardy and unpretentious horses, we must look for the descendants of the wild horses of the North.”

The professor suggests that before the arrival of the Yakuts in Abyy region in the north, there were already people there engaged in hunting, fishing and horse breeding.

Some Yakutian people in the northern region to this day voice their self-identification — “Биhи хотугу сахалар”, which means “We are the northern Yakuts”.

“Indeed, they are quite different in appearance from representatives of other districts.

The Yansky type of Yakutian horse.
The Yansky type of Yakutian horse. © А.Н. Ильин

“In the same way, we experts can easily distinguish between horses of the Kolyma and Yansk types.”

The northern horses have a distinct barrel-shaped body, a compactness about their shape, and the predominance of a light-mousey coat with a belt on the back that distinguishes them from the Abyy horses.

The professor suggests that that, with methodical testing and a careful focus on research sites in the north of Yakutia, the search should continue for evidence of vestigial bloodlines from the local Ice Age horses.

The professor’s original paper and references can be read here.

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