Why The Last 'Wild' Horses Really Aren't : The Two-Way A story from the journal Science suggests that the only "wild" horses in existence aren't actually wild at all but rather are the feral descendants of an early domestication.
NPR logo

Why The Last 'Wild' Horses Really Aren't

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/587755920/588198797" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Why The Last 'Wild' Horses Really Aren't

Why The Last 'Wild' Horses Really Aren't

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/587755920/588198797" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The idea of a wild horse - it's so romantic. Right? I mean, it's inspired art. It's inspired songs like this one...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILD HORSES (ACOUSTIC VERSION)")

ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Wild horses couldn't drag me away.

GREENE: ...And this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO'S GONNA RIDE YOUR WILD HORSES")

U2: (Singing) Who's going to ride your wild horses?

GREENE: Well, now science tells us that no one will ride your wild horses. And they also can't drag you away because they no longer exist. Here's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Sometimes people call the mustangs out in the American West wild horses. But scientists would say they're feral - descendants of tame horses that went AWOL. In terms of truly wild horses, it's long been thought that there's just one remaining subspecies, a stocky Mongolian horse called Przewalski's horse.

LUDOVIC ORLANDO: If we call them wild, this is because we were thinking - we being all the researchers - we were thinking that they never had being domesticated.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's Ludovic Orlando of the University of Toulouse in France. He and some colleagues recently analyzed DNA from 88 horses, some modern ones but also dozens of ancient ones from remains and archaeological sites that date back over 5,000 years. What they found is described in the journal Science, and it's a shocker. It looks like the famous Przewalski's horse is actually feral. The Mongolian horses seem to be the descendants of horses from the Botai culture in northern Kazakhstan, which has the earliest recorded evidence of horse domestication.

ORLANDO: So basically, we found that the earliest domestic horses on the planet have survived today but not in the domesticated form but actually in what we call the wild horses.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: What's more, the horses that you might see out at your local barn do not seem to have descended from the Botai horses as scientists had assumed. So humans must have tamed horses again at some later point somewhere else.

ROBIN BENDREY: My immediate gut reaction is that the results of this paper is just huge. It's incredibly exciting.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's Robin Bendrey, an archaeologist at The University of Edinburgh. He says learning to use horses transformed human history. It changed how people traveled, communicated, fought wars.

BENDREY: So the actual story of when and where it happened is very important for the human past, and it's entwined with so many other things.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That actual story is what scientists are trying to track down now.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A HORSE WITH NO NAME")

AMERICA: (Singing) You see, I been through the desert on a horse with no name. It felt good...

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.