Nicolas Delsol, a postdoctoral researcher at the Florida Museum of Natural History, researched cow bones from 16th-century archaeological sites in an effort to understand the introduction of domesticated cows to the Americas during Spanish colonization. He performed DNA sequencing on a “huge collection of archaeological remains” from Puerto Real, an early Spanish city in modern-day Haiti. The city was founded by the Spaniards in 1507 but abandoned in 1578.
“One of the bones I thought was from a cow was misidentified,” Delsol explained in an interview with DailyExpertNews. “A small piece of tooth was actually (from) a horse.”
The discovery was “completely unexpected,” Delsol said. “We quickly realized that this might be the first domesticated equine genome we had from the early colonies of the Americas.”
The genetic analysis “confirms what we could expect from the historical records, saying the first horses were most likely aboard boats from the Iberian Peninsula off southern Spain,” Delsol said. Horses were a crucial part of Spanish society, he said — so important that Spanish settlers took them on the grueling and logistically challenging journey across the Atlantic.
But genetic analysis of the 16th-century tooth also helped Delsol identify the early domesticated horses’ closest living relatives: the Chincoteague ponies. The genetic similarity gives credence to the belief that the ponies are descendants of early Spanish horses, Delsol says.
“It may show some truth behind this legend, that it is rooted in a real event,” he said.
But just because the wild ponies likely descended from Spanish horses doesn’t mean they came from a shipwreck, the researcher noted.
“The Spaniards could have left them on the island like they did with some other species, such as pigs or cattle, and had them bred to have some local animals,” he explained.
The discovery also provides more evidence for how far northern Spanish colonizers reached in the Americas.
“It shows something that is not widely known but has been partially studied, that the Spaniards were present not only in the Caribbean, and in Mexico and in South America, but also their options much further north on the east coast of the United States. US explored in the mid-Atlantic,” Delsol said. “We have some evidence of Spanish presence, Spanish expeditions inland in the Carolinas.”
In the future, Delsol and his team hope to expand their research into the Puerto Real specimens — and explore how early colonizers relied on horses for ranching in America.