The Przewalski horse: a meat and trophy horse until the 20th century (Part 4)

The drastic climatic transformations brought by the end of the Ice Age did not durably affect wild horses. Their large 9 million km2 mid-Holocene (6,000 years ago) range suggests they had recovered by then and enjoyed thriving, though unevenly distributed populations[1]. According to archeological data from the first half of the Holocene (Mesolithic and early Neolithic periods), horse bones accounted for fewer than 10% of all kitchen garbage animal bones in Western and Central Europe against 40% on the Eurasian Steppe[2], showing that the equids were much more numerous eastwards, where they represented a primary source of meat for men as a result.

Horse husbandry took off during these times of plenitude. In the present state of research, horse domestication is generally ascribed to the Botai people who inhabited the grasslands of Northern Kazakhstan, near Astana, approximately 3,500 BC[3]. At least 77 distinct, non-Przewalski maternal lineages which already existed 10,000 years ago are represented in the current gene pool of modern domestic horses[4] suggesting wild mares were sporadically brought into domesticated herds in various geographical locations[5].

Tamed Przewalski horse stallion

The stallion Vaska, the first Przewalski Horse captured from the wild by Europeans to reach the West in 1899. The photo was taken in Askania Nova in 1904. / Source: G. I. Riberger – this image is in the public domain.

A few Przewalski individuals may have been tamed in Asia or occasionally used to improve domestic breeds[6], but such events remained isolated and unsubstantial as reflected by the species’ DNA. Untamed, Takhis remained hunted in every corner of their broad range. Written sources indeed attest of their strong cultural importance as meat animals, hunting trophies and spiritual symbols in various regions of present-day China and Mongolia. Texts therefore give a fair picture of the horses’ historical distribution in East Asia over the past 4,000 years.

Takhis are represented on oracle bones from the Shang civilization (China) in c. 1766-1122 BC[7]. Named t’ao-yü in Chinese, meaning wild horse, they are a central topic of texts dating from the Chinese Han period (206 BC to 220 AD)[8]. Under the reign of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), Przewalski horses were brought by locals as dead or living tributes to the Chinese sovereigns in regions nowadays corresponding to Mongolia and the Chinese provinces of Shaanxi (northwest edge), Ordos and Gansu[9]. Writings by the Tibetan monk Bodava (or Bodowa) attest of their presence in Mongolia during the 11th century[10] and The Secret History of the Mongols[11], a narrative of the Mongolian campaigns of Genghis Khan, the founder of the vast Mongolian Empire of the 12-13th centuries, refers to the wild horses in this manner: “[265] After spending the winter [there], Chinggis Qahan said: ‘Let us ride out against the Tangqut people.’ He counted [his men] afresh, and, in the autumn of the Year of the Dog, rode out against the Tangqut people. From among his ladies, he chose Yisüi-qatun to accompany him. On the way, [in the course of] the winter, while riding his Josotu-boro, he hunted numerous wild horses in Arbuqa [west of the current city of Beijing, in the Ordos region]. [Once], as the wild horses charged by, Josotu-boro shied and Chinggis Qahan fell. His flesh hurt, so tents were pitched at Cho’orqat, where they spent the night”.[12] 

Genghis Khan proclaimed Khagan of all Mongols

Genghis Khan proclaimed Emperor or Khagan of all Mongols / Source: Jami’ al-tawarikh manuscript (15th c.) – this image is in the public domain.

In circa 1630, an important Mongol ruler, possibly Setsen Khan of the Khalkha (1577-1655), presented a Przewalski horse to the Manchu leader of the time[13] probably as a sign of allegiance. At this time, the Manchus―the future Qing Dynasty (1644-1912)―were indeed seeking alliance with the Mongols, especially the Inner Mongolian tribes, to take down the Chinese Ming Empire. The Mongols fought along the Manchus to whom they were later forced to give up their independence, in 1691[14].

In light of this historical context, the spirit horse evidently bore a strong symbolic importance for the Mongols, the Manchus and the Chinese.

John Bell, a Scottish doctor in the service of Russian Tsar Peter the Great, was the first European to relate his fascinating encounter with the Asian Wild Horse while on a Chinese expedition, in 1719-1722. The sightings occurred in Southern Siberia, between Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk, a few hundred kilometers north of the current border junction between Kazhagstan, China and Mongolia: “There is, besides, a number of wild horses of a chestnut color which cannot be tamed, though they are caught when foals. These horses differ nothing from the common kind in shape but are the most watchful creatures alive. One of them waits always on the heights to give warning to the rest and upon the least approach of danger runs to the herd, making all the noise it can, upon which all of them fly away, like so many deer. The stallion drives up the rear, neighing, biting and kicking those who do not run fast enough. Notwithstanding this wonderful fugacity, these animals are often surprised by the Kalmucks who ride in among them, well mounted on swift horses, and kill them with broad lances. Their flesh they esteem excellent food and use their skins to sleep upon instead of couches. These are the animals peculiar to this part of the country and besides these, there are many more common to this place with the rest of Siberia.”[15]

The Qianlong Emperor riding in armor

The Qianlong Emperor riding in armor as portrayed by Italian Giuseppe Castiglione (1688–1766 AD), a Jesuit missionary who became a painter at the Manchurian Court / Exhibited at the Palace Museum, Beijing, China – this image is in the public domain.

At the time, the finding did not excite much interest. In fact, the existence of the Przewalski horse remained unacknowledged in the West for another 160 years. Meanwhile in Europe, the Tarpan was quietly on the brink of extinction without causing much distress, if any at all.

Around 1750, mass chases during which 200-300 Takhi heads were reportedly killed in a single day were organized by the Manchurian Emperor[16] Qianlong who, by then, had conquered large pans of the modern Chinese territory and other regions. If these numbers were not embellished by the author in praise of the powerful monarch, the horses must have been plentiful in the unknown East Asian region concerned with the deadly hunt.

Relying on these various written sources, the resilient equids appear to have still heavily populated parts of the East Asian steppe by the end of the 18th century. From this time, the horses continued to be hunted for their meat and hides in their shrinking territory. They were indeed progressively and irresistibly pushed away from their core habitat to the arid regions of the barren Dzungarian Gobi Desert. To aggravate the horses’ now fragile existence, the Mongolian statutory ban on wild horse hunting instaured in 1926 was never seriously enforced by the communist regime established in 1921[17] and the 1940’s were marked by the introduction of automatic rifles in Mongolia.

By the late 1940’s, Takhis were rarely sighted in Mongolia[18]. Although hunting cannot alone be blamed for the species extinction in the wild, it appears to have been a significant pressure through history, particularly in the last decades of the horses’ existence.


Continue reading about the Przewalski horse: Part 1Part 2 I Part 3 I Part 5 I Part 6 I Part 7 I Part 8 I Part 9 I Part 10 I Part 11 I Part 12


Map of the Qing Empire in circa 1750

Map of the Chinese Qing Empire in circa 1750 / Source: website of Pr Brian Hoffert

REFERENCES – [1] Species-specific responses of Late Quaternary megafauna to climate and humans, Nature, 17 November 2011, Vol 479, pp 359-365. [2] The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W. Anthony, Princeton University Press, pp 199. [3] The earliest archeological traces of the domestication of horses, Press release, CNRS, 6 March 2009. [4] mtDNA and horse domestication: the archaeologist’s cut, in Equids in Time and Space – Papers in Honor of Véra Eisenmann, Marsha Levine, Oxbow Books, 2006. [5] The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W. Anthony, Princeton University Press, pp 196. [6] Przewalski’s Horse: The History and Biology of an Endangered Species, Lee Boyd, Katherine A. Houpt, p 7. [7] Books review, Ruth I. Meserve, in Journal of Asian History 29/2 (1995), pp. 191-194. The Shang Dynasty marks the beginnings of written Chinese history. [8] Egami Namio, The t’ao-yü and the tan-his, the strange domestic animals of the Hsiung-nu, in Memoirs of the Research Department of the Toyo Bunko 13 (1951), pp. 87-123, quoted by Ruth I. Meserve. [9] Books review, Ruth I. Meserve, in Journal of Asian History 29/2 (1995), pp. 191-194. [10] mtDNA and horse domestication: the archaeologist’s cut, in Equids in Time and Space – Papers in Honor of Véra Eisenmann, Marsha Levine, Oxbow Books, 2006. [11] The Secret History of the Mongols is the oldest surviving Mongolian-language literary work. It was written by an anonymous author for the Royal family probably in the years following Genghis Kahn’s death in circa 1227. [12] The secret history of the Mongols, translated and edited by Urgunde Onon, Curzon, 2001 (ISBN 0-203-98876-0 for the e-book edition), p 257. [13] IUCN Red List. Przewalski’s Horse: The History and Biology of an Endangered Species, by Lee Boyd, Katherine A. Houpt, p 8. [14] A History of Land Use in Mongolia: The Thirteenth Century to the Present, Elizabeth Endicott, Pacgrave Macmillan, 2012, p 57-58. [15] A Journey from St Petersburg to Peking, John Bell, 1763, pp 212-213. [16] IUCN Red List. [17]Przewalski’s Horse: The History and Biology of an Endangered Species, by Lee Boyd, Katherine A. Houpt, p 16. [18]Przewalski’s Horse: The History and Biology of an Endangered Species, by Lee Boyd, Katherine A. Houpt, p 15. Problems of Przewalski horse reintroduction into the wild, V.E. Sokolov, V.N. Orlov, FAO.

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