Nicolas Delsol, a postdoctoral researcher at the Florida Museum of Natural History, was researching 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 ancient Spanish city in present-day Haiti. The city was established by the Spanish in 1507 but abandoned in 1578.
“One of the bones that I thought was from a cow was misidentified,” Delsol explained in an interview with CNN. “A small tooth fragment was actually [from] horse.”
The finding was “completely unexpected,” Delsol said. “We quickly realized that this was possibly the first domestic horse genome we had from early colonies in America.”
The genetic analysis “confirms what could be expected from historical records, saying that the first horses were taken on boats to the Iberian Peninsula from southern Spain, most likely,” Delsol said. Horses were a crucial part of Spanish society, he said – so important that Spanish colonizers brought them on the grueling and logistically difficult journey across the Atlantic Ocean.
But genetic analysis of the 16th-century tooth also helped Delsol identify the closest living relative of early domestic horses: the Chincoteague ponies. The genetic similarity lends credence to the belief that ponies are descendants of early Spanish horses, Delsol says.
“It might show some truth behind this legend, that it’s rooted in a real event,” he said.
However, just because the wild ponies are 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 other species, like pigs or cattle, let them breed to have local livestock,” he explained.
The find also provides more evidence of how far the Spanish colonizers traveled across the northern Americas.
“It shows something that is not widely known but is partially studied, that the Spaniards were not only present in the Caribbean region, Mexico and South America, but were also exploring their options much further north. on the east coast of the United States in the mid-Atlantic region,” Delsol said. “We have evidence of Spanish presence, Spanish expeditions into the interior of the Carolinas.”
In the future, Delsol and his team hope to expand their research on the Puerto Real specimens and explore how early colonizers depended on horses for cattle ranching in the Americas.