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They Ate Horses, Didn't They?

By Jocelyn SelimOctober 1, 2001 5:00 AM


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Horse remains from 11,300 years ago (above) testify to ancient hunting at a site in Alberta, Canada (below).Photographs: Courtesy of University of Calgary (2).


Ten thousand years ago, the horses of North America abruptly vanished, along with other giant mammals such as camels, lions, ground sloths, and mammoths. Some scientists blamed human hunters, but others pointed to climate shifts. "There's been no real evidence that horses were being hunted. Because horses went extinct at the same time as the other mammals, researchers thought humans couldn't be responsible," says Paul McNeil, a geology grad student at the University of Calgary in Canada.

Now McNeil has found the smoking gun, or rather the bloody spearhead, in a bone bed in southern Alberta. After comparing protein residue from a spearhead with nearby horse remains, he and his collaborators proved horsemeat was likely on the prehistoric American menu. Even a few horse d'oeuvres could have been disastrous to animal populations already stressed from advancing and retreating glaciers. "Removing a few animals, probably less than 5 percent a year, would have been enough to be the straw that broke the horse's back," McNeil says.

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