1 March 2013

Quite Interesting

I always thought that there were originally no horses in the US, that they'd been introduced there some time during the past 500 years, but apparently not so. Here are also a few other horse-related quite interesting facts.

American Immigrants
The horse, like the dog and the camel, first carved out its evolutionary niche in the North America of 50 million years ago.  In those days, it scampered around the rainforest eating fruit, much as its relative the tapir does today.  But as the planet cooled, and forests were replaced by vast grass-filled plains, the American proto-horses diversified and adapted themselves to the new environment, eventually crossing the Bering land bridge into Asia.  
All our breeds of domestic horse Equus caballus, are descended from these American immigrants: only one wild horse, Przewalski's horse (Equus ferus przawalskii) from Mongolia, has survived.

The first animal we know Europeans to have consumed was the horse.  The oldest European hominoid fossil was unearthed in West Sussex in 1994: the 500,000-year-old remins of 'Boxgrove Man' were found next to a butchered horse.  Back home in North America, the native horse was hunted to extinction by the end of the Ice Age.  It wasn't until Cortez and his Spanish troops arrived in 1492 that 'modern' American Indians met their first horse.  They called them 'big dogs', as they had relied on dogs for transport until then.

Papal Ban
Back in Europe horse continued to be eaten, particularly in Scandinavia, where horse was consumed ritually in ceremonies sacred to Odin.  
By the eighth century, this practice was considered sufficiently pagan for Pope Gregory III to explicitly ban the eating of horse in 732.  In part because of this, horsemeat-crazy Iceland resisted Christianity until 1,000AD.

English horse consumption is more complex.  The Iron Age Celts worshipped the goddess Epona, protector of horses and riders (this is one explanation for the white horse chalk sculpture at Uffington) and among the Angles of southern England, veneration of the horse has been compared to the Hindu veneration of cattle 0- they were too sacred to eat.
In more Nordic-influenced areas (notably Yorkshire), horse was eaten in some areas until the Thirties.  
The last butcher selling horse in the county was Arnold Drury in Doncaster, who died in 1951.  He would openly advertise 'Viande Cheval' or 'Super Quality Horseflesh'.  Other butchers in the area sold it euphemistically termed 'kicker' and in the 19th century rural Yorkshire folk who moved to the towns were known as 'kicker-eaters'.

The papal ban on horse flesh lasted in France until the Napoleonic era when Napoleon's military surgon-in-chief noticed that French soldiers who had scavenged horse flesh during the British siege of Alexandria in 1801 had recovered from scurvy (horsemeat is higher in vitamin C then beef).  Impressed, he cooked it up in large cauldrons at the Battle of Eylau in 1807, calling it (naturally) Beef a la mode.  The French have never looked back, although their consumption is dwarfed by the four major horse-eating nations: China, Mexico, Russia and Kazakhstan.  Horse offal is particularly prized by the Kazakhs; this includes karta, which is dried and smoked horse rectum.

Historians can't agree when we first started riding horses as well as eating them.  They were probably domesticated and independently many times and in many places,but the earliest known evidence points to Ukraine around 6,000 years ago, which is several hundred years before the oldest known wheel.  It was one of the great turning points in human history (and an evolutionary meal tickets for the horse).  Suddenly, we could travel huge distances quickly, trace across whole continents - and wage wars of unprecedented scale and savagery.

Because they aren't ruminants, horses depend on lots of small meals to maintain energy levels.  They absorb nutrients through their intestines rather than their stomachs, so a change of died can cause serious problems: over-rich pasture, mouldy hay and unfamiliar or toxic plants can cause colic, or even death.   Horses are prey animals: the best defence on the steoppe is to steal a march on your predator.  They have the largest eyes of any land mammal, arranged to give them almost 360 degree vision.  Anything unfamiliar (like a plastic bag) triggers the flight response.

(from Molly Oldfield and Hohn Mitchinson)

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