There is a moment in the popular HBO series Game of Thrones when protagonist Jon Snow finds himself alone, in the midst of battle, in a mud-filled field. Snow strips his belt, wields his sword, and awaits an entire enemy cavalry that fast approaches him. The hundreds of horses charging towards Snow appear big, fast, and fearsome. The size of the horses, of course, befit the times of war.
Yet, Hollywood writers may have to evaluate how they depict warhorses, according to work published recently in the Guardian.
“It turns out that things are not quite as they have usually been portrayed,” says Alan Outram, a professor at the University of Exeter. Outram and other researchers cast a wide net in their study of bones from around 2,000 horses. The bones ranged in date from the fourth to the 17th century, found at “castles, a medieval horse cemetery and other archeological sites in England.”
Just think: it’s medieval England, and gallant knights are riding into battle on the backs of . . . ponies. That’s right. The “vast majority” of bones in the study came from horses 14.2 hands high, the equivalent to the height of a modern pony.
The findings reflect that in medieval war, bigger probably wasn’t always better. “Harrying a retreating army, carrying out long-range raids and transporting equipment” may have been the order of the day—all tasks better suited to a smart, mobile animal.
Questions remain about the study. What about horses in other parts of the world: the Middle East, Africa, Asia? The report also adds that horses that died on the battlefield were unlikely to have been afforded a proper burial, thus complicating the ability for a scientist, hundreds of years later, to stumble upon its bones. But for now, we will stick with the image of knights atop ponies.
While on the topic of petite power, it turns out the horses may not have been the first equids to be used by humans in warfare. That honor belongs to a donkey hybrid.
Some 4,500 years ago, ancient Mesopotamians bred animals to lug their war carts: about 500 years before horses were used for that same purpose.
Archeologists in northern Syria unearthed 44 small equids. But they became perplexed when they measured the bones: they did not match the donkey, nor the wild ass native to the area. The bones were from a different creature.
Further DNA analysis revealed that the bones were actually from the “kunga,” the name given to an animal whose mother was a donkey, and whose father was a Syrian wild ass.
Kungas, here seen on the bottom row, are widely depicted in ancient art and were considered status symbols.
Credit: New York Times
The fact that kungas existed is no small feat. Ancient peoples must have trapped the wild ass in order for it to breed with the donkey. The Syrian wild ass went extinct in the 1920s, and the few records that exist describe it as an aggressive, fast, and furious creature. Kungas, like mules today, were sterile, which may explain their short stint on Earth.
The DNA analysis confirmed kungas as the first known successful hybrids on the planet, which “developed into a kind of ancient biotech industry,” according to a doctor involved in the study. Cowabunga kungas!