On 23 February 2018 an international group of paleogeneticists and zooarchaeologists studying horse domestication published a report in the journal Science. They had recovered and sequenced DNA from the remains of horses found at the Botai site, hoping, as team-member Ludovico Orlando put it, “to catch evolution red-handed, when domestication first started.” Instead, they turned our understanding of domestication, of the wild and the feral, upside down.
The Botai horses did not appear to be the ancestors of today’s domestic horses. They were the ancestors of the Przewalski. Our sacred wild Takhi was, like the mustangs, the brumbies and the New Forest ponies, feral – an escapee from the Botai’s Copper Age corrals. Very like the wild horses on cave walls with their upright manes and dun coats, but taller and tamed. Either so many other wild horses had been added to the gene pool since the Botai vanished that the Przewalski DNA had been erased, or domestication had happened in other places, with other ghost horse herds. All two thousand of our last surviving wild horses disappeared overnight.
Thinking back to Hustai and everything that led to the rewilding of those 121,000 acres of steppe, to the airlifts, the complicated breeding programme, the conferences, studies, rangers, scientists, grants and zookeepers, I thought only what a beautiful irony we’d created. After all that the horse had done for humanity, we’d thrown the world’s resources into returning the earliest horse who’d known a bridle and a fence to a landscape with neither bridles nor fences. The Takhi was tamed, and we had insisted that he become wild once more.
“Ancient genomes revisit the ancestry of domestic and Przewalski’s horses” by C Gaunitz et al. Science, 22 February, 2018.
“Surprising new study redraws family tree of domesticated and ‘wild’ horses” by University of Kansas. Phys.org, 22 February 2018.