for National Geographic News
Scientists have found the first definitive proof that early humans in North America hunted horses for their meat.
Prehistoric horses, which were much smaller than today's horses, standing about 4.5 feet (1.5 meters) high at the shoulder, became extinct about 10,000 years ago. Scientists considered it likely that hunting by humans was a factor in their extinction, but until now there was no hard proof.
The first conclusive evidence comes from spearheads tainted with the residue of horse protein. They were found along with other animal remains on the river plain of St. Mary's Reservoir in southern Alberta, Canada.
"In the past, we could really only attribute the demise of these ancient horses to climate and environmental changes," said Brian Kooyman, an archaeologist at the University of Calgary and the lead scientist at the dig.
"There has been suggestive evidence at other sitesLubbock Lake in Texas, for instancethat early peoples were utilizing horses," he said. "But this discovery raises the very real possibility that overhunting by the Clovis people played a significant role in the extinction."
European explorers reintroduced horses to the New World several thousand years after the ancient ones died out.
Prehistoric Detective Work
The floor of the reservoir is covered with animal tracks of mammals, including wooly mammoths, camels, giant bison and helmeted musk oxen. "Clovis points," the spearheads associated with some of the first humans to reach the continent, found in the river plain have been dated to between 11,000 to 11,300 years old.
"The area where the remains were found is large3 to 4 square kilometers [1 to 1.5 square miles]," Kooyman said. "We uncovered the remains of a prehistoric horse with several smashed vertebrae and bones that bore evidence of butchering, and then two of our students found several Clovis points around 550 yards (500 meters) away."
Laboratory analysis showed that the spearheads had the residue of horse protein on them; they apparently had been thrust into the horse.
"It was a near miss," Kooyman said of the discovery. "We weren't going to bother testing them [for horse protein residue]. We'd had similar findings before and the points all came back from the lab clean. But the two graduate students kept insisting we send them in, and we're glad they did."
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