Tarpan—A pair of tarpan stallions fight during the breeding season. This hardy animal is widely considered to be the ancestor of most modern horses. (Renata Cunha)
Scientific name: Equus ferus
When did it become extinct? The last known pure-bred tarpan died in 1887.
Where did it live? The tarpan was native to the steppes of central Asia.
It may come as a surprise, but the domestication of the horse stands out as one of the most significant moments in human history. This seemingly insignificant event changed the way we lived forever. It enabled our ancestors to travel quickly over huge distances, and they harnessed the strength and tenacity of these animals to do tasks that before required several men. Also, when the useful life of the horse was over, its flesh provided sustenance and its skin, bones, and sinews were turned to a multitude of uses. What are the origins of these first domestic horses? What were they, where did they come from, and how did they live? It is widely accepted that the ancestor of the majority of modern horses was an animal known as the tarpan. This sturdy horse was only around 1.5 m at the shoulder and therefore very small compared to a modern thoroughbred racehorse. However, what the tarpan lacked in size it more than made up for in resilience and stamina. Being an animal of the Asian steppes, it was able to survive in the very harsh conditions that sometimes sweep over these treeless plains. In the wintertime, its grayish brown coat grew long to give it added protection from the cold. In some of the more northern reaches of its range, the tarpan may even have been white.
How Tarpan disappeared ?
According to some of the Evenk people, ivory hunters searching for the tusks of mammoths in the deep permafrost of Siberia would often find white horses. It is possible that these could have been white tarpan that met their end in a bog, only to become entombed in ice as the earth entered another of its many glaciations. Like other horses, the tarpan was a grazer and a herd animal. Like many other fleet footed animals, the tarpan found protection from its predators by living in a herd. Long ago, the Asian steppe was prowled by many different predators, many of which were perfectly able to catch and subdue an animal as large as the tarpan. One by one, the tarpan’s predators died out, leaving only the wolf, the occasional bear, and of course, humans. By all accounts, the tarpan was a very spirited animal and quite capable of defending itself by kicking and biting. Humans are known to have killed the tarpan by driving herds of them off cliff s, a surefire way of killing lots of them quickly. Horses are shown in many cave paintings throughout Europe, and it is very likely that the tarpan and its relatives were simply hunted before an ancient innovator thought it would be a good idea to try to tame them. Hunting these animals on the steppes must have been very hard as horses have excellent smell and hearing and can sense the approach of danger way before they can see it. When the domestication breakthrough came, hunting was made much easier on the back of a tame tarpan, and the species began its slow, inexorable slide toward extinction. Hunting was not the main problem facing this species. As people became aware of the usefulness of the tarpan, more and more would have been taken from the wild to supplement the young that were reared from the tame individuals. The numbers of the domesticated tarpan grew, and over time, their distinctive characteristics, such as aggression and spiritedness, were fi ltered out in the process of selective breeding to produce a horse that was calm and cooperative. These animals were less like tarpan and more like today’s horses. Unfortunately for the tarpan, it could still mate with these domesticated horses, and its unique genes were diluted. This continued until the middle of the nineteenth century, when it was realized that purebred tarpans were very rare. In 1879, the last wild tarpan was killed, but some had been taken into captivity years before and were often kept on the private estates of noblemen. These captive animals dwindled due to neglect, and the last one died in Poland in around 1887. When the tarpan became extinct, domesticated horses had found their way all over the world, as human explorers took them wherever they went. In a vain attempt to resurrect the tarpan, the Polish government collected together a number of ponies that were considered to have tarpan characteristics. These were taken from their peasant owners and sent to forest reserves. This was a pointless exercise as the ponies they chose were a product of millennia of selective breeding and they were no more purebred tarpan than a German Shepherd dog is a purebred wolf. The same German scientists who thought it would be possible to resurrect the aurochs turned their attention to recreating the tarpan by selective breeding. This notion sorely lacked merit because no one knew or knows to this day what constitutes the tarpan on a genetic level. These attempts at selective resurrection did produce two types of horse, the Konik of Poland and the Heck of Germany, which are thought to resemble the tarpan superfi cially. The story of the tarpan is an interesting one because it’s not a simple case of a species being extinguished. Th rough our desire to produce an animal that was of use to us, we took the tarpan and molded it to our own needs, in the process producing something quite distinct. The tarpan our ancestors knew is no longer with us in a form they would recognize, but its genes are there in the cell of almost every horse.
• For a long time, scientists have been piecing together the story of horse evolution, and now they have several important parts of the puzzle. The first clear ancestor of the horse, Hyracotherium, evolved around 10 million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs in North America. About the size of a fox, this animal had four of its fi ve digits in contact with the ground, and adaptations for running were already apparent, for example, long, thin legs. Over millennia, these primitive horses gradually assumed the appearance of the modern horse, with the key feature of having only one digit in contact with the ground, making them fleet-footed animals of the plains.
• Today, the only surviving truly wild horse is Przewalski’s horse, a sturdy, pony-sized animal that roams the wilderness of Mongolia. Extinction almost claimed this horse, too, but captive specimens allowed a breeding and reintroduction program, which has returned small numbers of these animals to the wild.
Further Reading: Jansen, T., P. Forster, M. A. Levine, H. Oelke, M. Hurles, C. Renfrew, J. Weber, and
O. Olek. “Mitochondrial DNA and the Origins of the Domestic Horse.” Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences USA 99 (2002): 10,905–10.