Monday, October 1, 2018

Where Are the Land of Promise Horses? – Part I

As everyone who has ever confronted a critic of the Book of Mormon knows, the absence of certain animals when the Spanish conquistadors from Europe first arrived has been a bone of contention since the scriptural record was first published in 1830. When it comes to the horse, which was specifically mentioned as having existed among the Nephites 2500 years ago, there has been much made by these critics of its lack of existence in the Americas when these first Europeans reached the Americas.
The so-called Equus Scotti (Scott’s Horse) is claimed to have been native to North America during the Pleistocene  and became extinct during the last Ice Age

Now, every paleozoologist will tell you that the horse was prevalent in the Americas prior to the last Ice Age, which occurred around 13,000 years ago and ended about 11,000 years ago. At that time, the end of the Pleistocene, they agree that the woolly mammoth, American camels, dire wolves, short-faced bears, saber-toothed cats, stag-moose, woolly rhinos and giant ground sloths all became extinct. It is interesting that these scientists claim the survival of the horse was due to the so-called Land Bridge between Alaska and Siberia, that is claimed to have been the size of Texas, in which the horse traveled east to west across it; yet, at the same time, they also claim humans crossed from west to east into North America. It is claimed this land bridge enabled near-global distribution for some species—mammals from as far away as Africa were able to spread north and east through Eurasia and into the Americas. Camels and horses instead went westward from the Americas, where their respective species had developed.
    This resulted in the horse making its way clear to Africa where these scientists claim the horse evolved into the zebra. It is interesting that the horse survived and evolved throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe, but in North America, where it is claimed the horse first originated, it could not evolve and survive, but became extinct 7,600 years ago—it is claimed that happened because the American horse faced a changing climate, altering vegetation, and the arrival of man.
    Paleozoologists also tell us that the horse originally developed, growing through five stages, from the small, dog-sized two-foot-tall Eohippus (50 million years ago), to Mesohippus (35 MYA), to Merychiuppus (10 million years ago), to Pliohippus (5 million years ago) to the present Equus, the horse we see today. They also tell us that the The horse belongs to the order Perissodactyla (odd-toed ungulates), the members of which all share hoofed feet and an odd number of toes on each foot, as well as mobile upper lips and a similar tooth structure. This means that horses share a common ancestry with tapirs and rhinoceroses.
Horses, elephants and tapirs are part of a biological group known as perissodactyls or odd-toed ungulates and it is claimed they all have a common ancestor tens of millions of years ago

However, what they do not often tell us is how that classification and evolution came about, which is an interesting and informative theory developed in the late 1800s. First of all, in 1841, the earliest so-called “horse” fossil was discovered in clay around London, by a scientist named Richard Owen. He found a complete skull that looked like a fox’s head with multiple back-teeth as in hoofed animals, and called it Hyracotherium, a small forest animal with four toes on the front feet and three on the back. He saw no connection between it and the modern-day horse.
    In 1874, another scientist, the Russian paleontologist Vladimir Onufrievich Kovalevsky, attempted to establish a link between this small fox-like creature, which he thought was 70 million years old, and the modern horse. He was one of the first adopters of Charles Darwin in Russia, and translated Darwin’s The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, as well as The Descent of Man, and was most notable for his early work on the evolution of the Hippomorpha family (today’s horses and their extinct members, the “Equoidea’), having written On the Osteology of the Hyopotamidae.
    In 1879, an American fossil expert, Othniel Charles Marsh, and famous evolutionist Thomas Huxley, collaborated for a public lecture which Huxley gave in New York.
(Image C – The so-called evolution of the horse (from Eohippus to Equus)

Marsh produced a schematic diagram which attempted to show the so-called development of the front and back feet, the legs, and the teeth of the various stages of the horse. He published his evolutionary diagram in the American Journal of Science in 1879, and it found its way into many other publications and textbooks.
    His diagram and scheme has not changed over the past more than 125 years. It shows a an arguable gradational sequence in “the evolution” of the horse, unbroken by any abrupt changes, which is what we see in school textbooks.
    As an interesting side note on this and how scientists sometimes arrive at their conclusions, is found in the discovery made by anthropology professor Douglas Bamforth of the University of Colorado regarding a cache comprising 83 stone implements found within the city limits of Bounder City, Colorado in 2008. Upon finding animal residue on the ancient implements, they were sent to anthropology professor Robert Yohe of the Laboratory of Archaeological Science at California State, Bakersfield, for the protein residue tests. Upon finding the residue was from ancient camels and horses, he promptly claimed the stone implements were of Clovis Culture design. Why? Because, as he said, “We haven’t had camels or horses around here since the late Pleistocene.” This lead Bamsford to surmise that the type of people who buried the cache “lived in small groups and forged relationships over large areas.” He also added about these unknown people, “I’m skeptical that they wandered widely, and they may have been bound together by a larger human network.”
    According to Andrew Solow, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, “It was impossible to rule out human hunting as a cause or major contributing factor to North American horse extinction.” In fact, in 2009, DNA analysis evidence suggests that the horse may have survived in North America until 7,600 years ago—some 5000 years longer than previously thought. Meaning the horse in North America did not become extinct around the close of the last Ice Age, since the new timeline suggests an overlap with human habitation approaching 6000 years.
Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC

“We don’t know how long it takes to pinch out a species,” stated Ross MacPhee, curator of mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History, adding that “Extinctions often seem dramatic and sudden in fossil records, but our study provides an idea of what an extinction event might look like in real time, with imperiled species surviving in smaller and smaller numbers until eventually disappearing completely.”
    Of course none of the scientists involved consider the fact that the horse might have survived in such remote areas period! And that extinction never occurred at all. As a matter of fact, core samples collected by McPhee and his colleagues, provided a clear picture of the local Alaskan fauna at the end of the last ice age. The oldest sediments, dated to about 11,000 years ago (9000 BC), contained remnant DNA of Arctic hare, bison, and moose; all three animals were also found in higher, more recent layers, as would be expected. In addition, one core, deposited between 7600 and 10,500 years ago, confirmed the presence of both mammoth and horse DNA. To make certain there was no contamination, the team did extensive surface sampling around Stevens Village. No DNA evidence of mammoth, horse, or other extinct species was found in modern samples, a result that supports previous studies which have shown that DNA degrades rapidly when exposed to sunlight and various chemical reactions.
    So what else might have been degraded beyond obvious appearance? After all, North America is a large area—9.54 million square miles—and even today, so much of the land scattered in the East and a great deal of land in the West, as well as in the North, and south through Mexico, is vacant, with numerous remote and out-of-the-way areas, seldom visited by man, let alone scientists digging for artifacts and knowledge of the past.
    Of course, it is claimed that “evidence” of climate change and the resulting change of vegetation is considered the most likely cause for horse extinction, but other investigations may have pinned down the cause even more specifically. Johns Hopkins paleobiologist Steven Stanley, a Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences professor, found evidence that it was the grittier nature of grass that may have caused the demise of equine species. He claims that as the Earth’s climate became cooler and dryer, the trend toward expanding grasslands and receding forests continued in North America, and that species of horses in North America were split between those with long teeth and those with shorter teeth. And because grasses have a gritty compound called silica, which is contained in sand and is used to make glass, when animals chewed it, the silica wore down their teeth. Thus, animals with longer teeth lived longer because their teeth did not wear as fast, allowing them to feed and survive longer.
As grasslands expanded, the horses with long teeth lived longer because they were best adapted to eating grasses instead of leaves. Living longer enabled them to produce enough offspring to guarantee survival of their species and the evolution of new species. At some point, only the horses especially adapted to eating grasses—those with longer teeth—were surviving in North America. However, Stanley claims extinction occurred because “something about the grasses must have changed, making it impossible for the horse to survive.”
    Of course it might be pointed out that scientists also claim that some 70% of North American large mammals became extinct between 20,000 and 10,000 years ago. What was it that brought that about?
    According to Dale Guthrie of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, wrote in the journal Nature: “The causes of this extinction—the role of humans versus that of climate—have been the focus of much controversy. Horses have figured centrally in that debate, because equid species dominated North American late Pleistocene faunas in terms of abundance, geographical distribution, and species variety, yet none survived into the Holocene epoch.
    It is interesting how scientists hold to that unprovable claim, however Guthrie himself claims “The timing of these equid regional extinctions and accompanying evolutionary changes are poorly known.” Of course every scientist has their own opinion. Guthrie believes that it was climate change and a shift from grasslands to tundra as the likely cause, resulting in a reduction in the animals’ food supply and their eventual extinction, claiming the evidence does not support human overkill or several other extinction causes.
(See the next post, “Where Are the Land of Promise Horses? – Part II,” for more information about horses in the Americas and why the mention of horses in the Book of Mormon is not an error or misjudgment but a statement of actual fact)

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