The Vikings may have been fearsome, bearded and sturdy, but it seems that when it came to horses, they liked to travel in comfort.
Research has revealed that the genetic mutation for smooth riding first appeared in horses in medieval England and was later spread around the world by Viking traders.
Described, for cyclists, as akin to sitting in a comfortable chair, ambling gaits are particularly suited to long journeys on rough roads. But while all horses can walk, trot and gallop, the ability to pace exists only in certain breeds of horses, including the Icelandic pony.
The trait, as scientists had previously discovered, is due to a mutation in a single gene, a genetic variant dubbed the “gait gatekeeper”, which also allows horses to adopt another gait – pace.
Now the team has discovered where and when the mutation first appeared.
“As far as we know today, ambulant horses originated in early medieval England and spread across Eurasia within a few centuries,” said Arne Ludwig, lead author of the research. ‘Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin.
Write in the journal Current biology, the international team of researchers describes how they examined the ancient DNA of 90 horses that lived between 6000 BC and 1000 AD in countries across Europe and Asia. Researchers have found that there is no record of the gait guardian mutation in horses that lived before the 9th century AD, with its first appearance in two English horses that lived in York around 850-900 AD. JC.
The genetic variant was absent in all continental European horses, although it was found in 10 of 13 Icelandic horses dating from the 9th to 11th centuries AD. But, says Ludwig, it’s unlikely he originated in Iceland, as Iceland had no native horses, and the mutation is common in Icelandic horses soon after the island was settled in the end of the ninth century. Whether the mutation arose independently in more than one horse population is unlikely, the authors note.
Instead, they suggest the trait first appeared in English horses which were later taken to Iceland and then distributed around the world, with these horses being selectively bred because of their comfortable gait – a godsend. in the days of rough tracks and long horseback rides.
The spread of the trait was most likely due to the Vikings, who not only had a strong presence in York and other parts of northern England in the late 9th and early 10th centuries, but also settled in Iceland and had established trade routes. to many other countries. “Thus, traveling horses may have been introduced to Asia by the Vikings on their journeys to the Caspian Sea and the Middle East,” the authors write.
David McHugh, professor of genomics at University College Dublin, says the new research is a good example of how scientists can use DNA to look back in time and uncover the ways in which a genetic oddity has been exploited by humans. “For an old DNA study, that’s a lot of samples,” he added.
But, he says, with only two coming from Britain, it’s “a bit of a stretch” to conclude that the ambling gait mutation originated there. “It’s not inconceivable that it could have come from Asia and then the Vikings brought it to Britain and then to Iceland,” he said. But the simplicity of the authors’ conclusion makes it appealing. “Occam’s Razor would suggest that what they are proposing is probably correct.”
While Ludwig admits the trait could have appeared in horses elsewhere and then been brought to Britain and Iceland, he thinks it’s unlikely. “Horses were very mobile – there was a lot of trade in horses,” he said. “Yes [the mutation had] born in China or Asia somewhere, we should find him somewhere in mainland Europe – not just in England and Iceland, two isolated islands.
Ernie Bailey, of the Gluck Equine Research Center at the University of Kentucky, agrees that the data supports a British origin for ambling horses. “It’s a very significant observation about the domestication of horses, as well as the role of selection by breeders in finding and breeding the most suitable animals for their needs,” he said.