Holocene survival of the wild horse in Europe: a matter of open landscape?



The wild horse Equus ferus was one of the most frequent species of the Late Pleistocene large ungulate fauna in Eurasia and played an important role in the subsistence of human groups, especially at the end the Late Glacial. It is frequently assumed that E. ferus became extinct in Europe at the beginning of the Holocene because of the development of woodlands and loss of open habitats. Because of its preference for open habitats and in spite of its adaptability, the appearance or disappearance of the wild horse could therefore be a suitable palaeoecological indicator for the opening of the Holocene primeval woodlands. We revised the dating and reliability of the subfossil record and dated several bones by atomic mass spectrometry 14C dating. From the beginning of the Holocene (9600 cal a BC) to the end of the Atlantic Period (3750 cal a BC) there are 207 archaeological sites with wild horse records available in Europe. E. ferus survived the Pleistocene Holocene transition in Europe, but the spatiotemporal dynamics of populations fluctuated remarkably in the early and middle Holocene. Small and sparse populations increasingly became extinct during the early Holocene, until between 7100 and 5500 cal a BC the wild horse was almost absent in central parts of the European Lowlands. Particular conditions in natural open patches in the canopy forests, chalklands and floodplains may have maintained the local survival of the horse in some regions of the Lowlands, however. In the Late Atlantic, between 5500 and 3750 cal a BC the range of the wild horse was again extended. It re-immigrated into central and western Europe, probably as a consequence of increasing landscape opening by Neolithic peoples. The data presented here may be a valuable part of the debate on the degree of openness of the early and middle Holocene landscape. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.