Wild Horses

Everyone knows that horses evolved in North America, then spread out to Asia, and thence (thence?) to Europe and Africa.

And everybody knows that horses then became extinct in the New World, and that there were no horses here until the Spaniards brought them back, with Columbus, and succeeding expeditions.


Well, yeah, kinda.

See, the part where I was wrong, and you may be too, is that I thought horses had gone extinct here millions, or at least hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Oops.  Wrong.  Not true.

Because there were horses here, in North America, up until about twelve thousand years ago.  They weren’t extinct millennia ago – they were here even as the first people were coming into the Continent.

Cool, right?

But now they are extinct.  Gone.  The mustangs out west, and the ponies of Chincoteague are not truly wild, but instead are feral – horse who live in the wild, are not domesticated, but are, nonetheless, descended from domestic horses.

No, we are talking about truly wild horses.

The wild horse is Equus ferus.  All domesticated horses descend from them.  Domesticated horses are known, taxonomically, as Equus ferus caballus.   Horses have been domesticated for thousands of years, and all kinds of different breeds have been developed.  But as far as is known, no-one on North America twelve, fifteen thousand years ago had domesticated any of the horses living here at the time.  There were no different breeds.

So what were the horses here, then, like?

There are two species of wild horse – wild, not feral – which may bear on this point.

The first is Przewalski’s Horse.


Przewalski’s Horse was, until recently, extinct in the wild; it’s line preserved only in captive populations, in zoos.  In 1992, however, a small population was reintroduced to its former habitat in Mongolia, and it is successfully reproducing there.  But Prezwaleski’s Horse, though an intriguing candidate for a modern analogue to the extinct North American horse, is probably not what we want.  Although it can mate, and produce viable offspring with modern horses, it has extra chromosomes.  So, for that reason we rule it out as the basis for our model.

The second truly wild horse was the Tarpan, regrettably, now extinct.  But it died out in historic times, and quite recently at that – the last known specimen died in 1090.

And it is the tarpan, we believe, which is the progenitor of the modern domesticated horses.

The tarpan lived in Europe, and on the plains of Russia, and Mongolia.  But it is reasonable to surmise that the horse found in North America looked like the tarpan.

The tarpan stood about 56 inches high at the shoulders, and probably had a falling mane, rather than a mane that stood upright.  It was commonly dun colored, but other colors were seen.  It legs may have been darker than its body.


This illustration is by Alkiviadis Geskos, and may bee seen at  the Large Herbivore Network, http://www.lhnet.org/steppe-tarpan/

There have been several attempts to breed domestic horses “back,” so that they look and behave like the wild tarpan.  Superficially, they may appear similar, but they are domesticated horses, not truly tarpans.

The tarpan and Przewalski’s Horse were painted in the caves at Lascaux, Pech Merle, and other places.  What those artists saw, is, I think, what you would have seen had you been able to gaze out on the plains of North America twelve thousand years ago.

And there’s an interesting article about the accuracy of the cave paintings in depicting the horses of that time, at


titled:  “Cave Paintings Showed True Colors of Stone Age Horses,”  from which this illustration is taken


But really, wouldn’t it have been interesting to see bands of wild horses running across the prairies of North America twelve thousand years ago?

I’ve decided to serialize my novel – The Clovis Mission.  So here is the first installment.  I”d appreciate your thoughts, comments and criticisms.


The screaming shocked me.  A huge, high, squalling, screaming blast. It came from up ahead, but our vision was obscured by a grove of trees.  As the three of us rode past the trees though, I saw what had caused the noise.  Two mastodon bulls were facing off, both equally large, heavy, strong, and ready, apparently, for a fight.  Not with us – with each other.  Mating season.  The rut. They were only about ten feet apart.  The one with his back to us was lashing his tail.  The trunk of the other was waving in the air.  Both were shaking their heads from side to side.  Beyond them, in the near distance, several cows stood placidly.

Again the screaming blast. And they closed with one another fast and hard.  They slammed into one another, piston legs driving, slashing and stabbing with their tusks, pushing with their heads.    A cloud of dust arose around them from the impact.  The fight was swift and savage.  Neither backed down for several seconds.  Then they separated, and again smashed into each other. They twisted sideways, each seeking some purchase, some advantage.  And again they separated, and again smashed together.  This time, though one slipped the guard of the other, and his tusk drove into the shoulder of the other.  The injured bull screamed and backed off.  But again they charged.  And again.  And again.  Only the injured shoulder started to tell on the one bull.  He slipped sideways a little.  The other bull was relentless.  He kept pushing forward, slamming his trunk against the other’s, twisting his tusks furiously, trying to find another opening.  And again, he slipped the guard of the other.  This time, though, his tusk drove deep into the chest of the injured bull.  With that, the injured bull had had enough. He backed away, and started to turn, to flee.  But the victor would not stop.  He slammed forward again, into the side of the other bull.  Both tusks drove into the bull’s side, and he staggered, but did not fall.  When the victor backed out, the injured bull moved off at the fastest walk he could.  The victor lumbered after him for twenty yards or so, and then finally relented.  He stood for a moment, breathing heavily, then raised his trunk and bugled another loud cry.  The injured bull walked past the females and disappeared in the woods beyond them.

Fossil evidence shows that mastodons fought, but seeing this battle  – so shockingly raw, and sudden, and real- was a far cry from fossil ribs showing healed fractures.

That’s me, on the horse there.  This is what I saw, twelve thousand years ago, in my ride across country, from where St. Louis now stands, to Arizona.


 It’s funny, the things you remember.  I remember I was wearing my new teal shirt.  Teal.

I was working in my office late one afternoon, preparing notes for next week’s classes when I got the call.  It was Dean Mendelsohn, who asked if I could meet with him and two gentlemen from the Government.  “Sure,” I said, “when?”

“They’re here, now,” he said.  I’ve known Nate since I came to the University, and he sounded the same as ever.  Cool, imperturbable, patrician.  “I’m on my way.”  I said.

His office was two floors below mine.  I wasn’t particularly hurried.  I had worked with officials from the National Forest Service in the past, examining archeological sites, so, although I thought it was unusual that they’d just shown up, instead of calling, I didn’t think it was likely to be anything out of the ordinary.  So I walked down the stairs, and into Nate’s office, and got surprised.

Nate introduced me to Dr. Kramer, and Dr. White.  They took it from there.  Kramer was short, stocky.  Short blond crew-cut, black-rimmed glasses, short-sleeved white shirt, black tie.  Looked like a stereotypical scientist from the nineteen fifties.  White was tall, thin, beaky nose, longish brown and gray hair, swept back over his ears.  Tweed sport coat.  The politician of the bunch, if I had to guess.

White told me that they were from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, not the Park Service. 

“Professor Summers, you know of Dr. Leonard Carver, of course.”  White spoke. “His interests and research are quite similar to yours, I think.”

I agreed.  As a paleo-ecologist, I was, of course, familiar with Dr. Carver’s work, and so I knew of his investigation into the megafauna extinctions possibly associated with the Clovis culture.  We were not friends, although I had met him a couple of times at various symposia.  I thought his work was meticulous, and that he certainly deserved his reputation as one of the foremost archeologists working in the peopling of the Americas.  I knew he was one of the very few scientists awarded the grant and opportunity to travel back in time to conduct research, and had gone back in time from the station at Arizona State University.  I was eagerly awaiting his report.

Then Dr. Kramer took it up. “You’re aware that he’s been selected to go back in time, to study the extinctions associated with the Clovis culture, some 12,000 years ago? We’d like to talk to you about that, if you can give us some time.”

“Sure,” I said. “What’s going on?”

We all sat down.  Nate started chewing on that goddamned pipe of his.  Unlit, of course – no smoking on campus. 

“Basically,” White explained, “Carver has disappeared.  He hasn’t sent any of the time beacons back to us, for the last three days, our time.  And then, yesterday afternoon, the ASU station stopped.”

“Wait a minute.  I didn’t think he’d gone back yet – isn’t that set for later this summer?”

“Yes, that’s correct.  Only he inserted a couple days ago, just for a brief scouting expedition.”

“So what do you mean he’s disappeared?”

“He’s been out of touch – no time beacons for three days now.  That shouldn’t happen.  He’s supposed to light off a beacon every day, so we can track his place in time and space, but he hasn’t.  He’s gone.  Missing.”

Kramer chimed in.  “And now the station itself, the one in Arizona has gone down.  It isn’t working.  We can’t send anyone back to see where he is, or what’s going on.”

Well, shit.  This didn’t sound good, at all.

“So, wait.  How big was Carver’s group?”

“There was no group.  It was just him.”

“Are you kidding me?  That’s crazy.  I mean, I have the highest respect for him, but that’s nuts.”

“Look, it was just supposed to be a quick look around.  Only four days, in preparation for his work this summer.  He wanted to walk the ground, do some preliminary reconnaissance of where to begin his studies.”

“You’re serious?  He went back alone?  Who let that happen?”

I was pissed.  I mean, I was no mountain man, not even a park ranger, but I knew how stupid that was.  Carver was probably sixty, sixty-one, twenty-five years older than me.  No way should he have been wandering around out there by himself.

“Well,” White began, and then trailed off.

“Look, Professor,” Kramer said, “We have never had a problem with any of the technology, with any prior trips sending or retrieving.  And we had no reason to think that there’d be any problem this time.”

“Who runs this?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” White said.

“I mean, who makes the decisions to go and who gets to go, and when and for how long.  Who’s in charge of this?”

“Why, we are,” White said.  “I mean, DARPA has been given authority over administration of the time travel program.  We have a budget, and there is a grants program that we administer, and from the list of applicants, we select who gets to go, and work out the details of the trips.  We answer to the Secretary of the Interior.  Is that what you meant?”

Well, no, not really.  What I guess I meant was how was anyone stupid enough to let someone go back twelve thousand years alone.  But whatever had happened was already done.  No point in stirring it up.

“Yeah, I guess so,” I said.  “I thought it might have been under the supervision of the Army or the CIA or something.”

“Oh, no,” Kramer said.  “That’s all been worked out.  If they, or anyone else wants to use one of our facilities, they have to come through us, just like everyone else.”

“So what you’re telling me is that Carver is gone, or lost – out of touch anyway, twelve thousand years in the past, and you don’t have any way to get back there and rescue him.”

“Well, not exactly,” White said.

“No,” Kramer said.  “Not exactly.  That’s why we’re here.  We want to talk to you about going back there to find him.”



“But you just said that the station was down or dead or something.”

“Yeah, it is.  But only the station at ASU.  The one in St. Louis is still running.”


“Yes.  So the team would insert at St. Louis, and then go the Arizona and find him.”

“Oh, okay.  But why me?  Why not just send a chopper, fly out, pick him up and bring him back?”

“Too big,” Kramer said, just as White said, “too far.”

“No infrastructure,” Kramer added.


“We can’t,” White said.  “A chopper big enough to fly out there and return – that’s about three thousand miles all told – is to big and heavy to fit inside the tesseract.  We can’t send it back.”

“And even it we could, it doesn’t have the range.  Can’t fly that far without refueling, even with extra tanks.  And there’s no infrastructure back then – no place for it to land, to refuel, no GPS to let it navigate.”

“Same problem with a truck,” Kramer added.

Well.  Not good.

“So, how would I – ?” I began.  “I mean, how can I help?”

“That’s where you come in,” Kramer said. “We are planning to send a team – a small team – back to find Dr. Carver, and see if we can figure out what happened.  We’d like you to join that team.”

I kept thinking about what they were offering me.  A chance to go back for myself and see the world I’d spent my whole life studying?  Fantastic.  Amazing.  Look, I’m in.  If its safe, if I can go back in time, and then come back home safely, I’m in.

Only – how in heck do we get there?

“Horseback,” White said.

“You and the team travel on horseback to Arizona, to find Dr. Carver,” he continued, like it was the most obvious, sanest thing in the world.


“Yes,” he said. “You and the team insert at St. Louis – Washington University – and ride cross country to find him and bring him home.”

I think I just stared at him.  My mind was racing.  On the one hand it would be fantastic to go back in time to see the mammoths, and cave lions, and horses, and everything that went extinct.  A paleo-ecologist’s dream.  But on the other hand, I didn’t really know anything about the science (or witchcraft, or voodoo) of time travel, and I wondered what had gone wrong with Dr. Carver.  That was a little scary.

Sitting there, I wondered what Mom would have thought?  Dead now, for over three years.  I missed her, when I thought of her, but as time had passed, I thought of her less and less.  I guess it’s good that memories fade, because no one could maintain such intensity of grief forever.  Could they? Still, I think –  I know – she would have been proud.  And worried.  Wear a raincoat.  Look both ways before you cross the river.  Sheesh.

And what would my father have thought, whoever the hell he was?  They’d been divorced when I was two, and he had pretty much disappeared.  I think I got a birthday card once, when I turned eight, but that was it.  That’s weird, isn’t it?  Why wouldn’t a father want to know his own son?  If I ever got married and had a kid, I’d make damn sure he (or she) knew he had a dad.

Yeah, well, if.  Wasn’t going to be with Jeanine, that’s for sure.  After six months, I was better, hardly missed her at all – not more than twice an hour.  Well, I hope she’s happy with the dentist or endodontist or whatever the hell he is.  Sure I do.

 “So, who would go?”  I asked.

“We think it’s best if it’s just a small party – three of you.”

“Three?  That’s all?  Why?”

“Distance, and weight, mostly,” White replied.  “You have a lot of ground to cover, and everything you take has to fit on the horses.  We have weight limits, as we’ve discussed.” 

I thought about that for a moment.  At first, it seemed crazy, foolhardy.  That was a big, wide dangerous world back there.  But by the same token, this may have been a case where size didn’t matter.  First, this was before (or, strictly speaking, just around the time that) humans were first coming into the Americas, so essentially there wouldn’t be any people– no dangerous criminals, or marauding armies  – to worry about.  Then too, without resources, what good would a larger party be?  How could a surgeon, say, operate, without an operatory, without anesthesia?   Didn’t lessen the risk any – you got sick, you died, is what it boiled down to, but that fact alone didn’t mean you’d be any better off with a larger group.

But still, only three of us?

“We think you’d be a good fit,” White said.  You know more about the ecology and terrain of the North American Pleistocene than almost anybody, and you’re young, fit, like to camp – We think you’d be a real asset to this trip.”

Kramer jumped in, playing the bad cop.  “Don’t get us wrong, Professor,” he said.” We’re not saying that this trip will be easy.  Far from it.  Because ASU is down, we’re going to have to insert in St. Louis.  You’ll have to travel from there to New Mexico, by horseback, just like the pioneers.  The trip will take four months at a minimum – maybe much longer.  You’ll be out in all kinds of weather, and most of all, you’ll be involved in a mystery , because we can’t tell you what the hell went wrong.”  He sat back, belligerently, if that makes any sense.

“Well?” White said.  “Will you help us?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I have classes. . ..”

“Oh, I don’t think that would be a problem,” Nate said. “I’m sure we could get coverage for your classes.”  Thanks a lot, Chief, I thought.

“When do you need to know?”  I asked. “I’d like to think it over for –“

“Now,” Kramer interrupted .  “We’re sorry to be so abrupt, but we’re treating this as an emergency, and we need to know now.”

“Your help is important to us,” Dr. White said.  “To DARPA, and the program, and to Dr. Carver.”

“I think it would be a feather in the University’s cap, if you’d go,” Nate said, “but of course, I don’t want you to worry about that at all.”  Thanks again, Chief.

Great.  A trip lasting four months, at least, twelve thousand years ago, and they need an answer right this minute. 

Well, let’s see.  I’m single.  The past has always been my passion.  Nate and the University will apparently cover for me.  Why not?  Oh, yeah –that’s why not.

“I have a dog,” I said.  

That’s how Jack came to be with us on the expedition.