An Ancient Tooth Could Solve The Centuries-Old Mystery Of These Rare Island Ponies

On the island of Hispaniola — specifically in the part bordered off as the nation of Haiti — archaeologists have found something incredible. Over the course of several decades, a series of excavations at a site called Puerto Real have uncovered some special artifacts. One discovery in particular, though it might initially have seemed quite innocuous, is especially interesting. Experts found what appeared to be part of an old cow’s tooth. Big deal right? Well, it turned out to be pretty significant indeed. This tooth, it became clear, was the key to unlocking a secret that had long baffled experts.

Solving the riddle

The person responsible for solving this riddle was Dr. Nicolas Delsol, a researcher from the Florida Museum of Natural History. He got his hands on the ancient tooth after it had been discovered, intending to use it to figure out how exactly cows had come to be domesticated throughout the Americas. He planned to do that by analyzing the tooth’s DNA, which is exactly what he did. But once he got stuck into that task, he discovered something surprising. This tooth wasn’t what he had initially presumed.

A serendipitous finding

In an article for the Florida Museum website dated July 27, 2022, Dr. Delsol was quoted discussing the moment his study of this tooth was totally flipped on its head. He said, “It was a serendipitous finding. I was sequencing mitochondrial DNA from fossil cow teeth for my Ph.D. and realized something was very different with one of the specimens when I analyzed the sequences.” But what was different? Well, it became clear to Dr. Delsol that this tooth belonged not to a cow but a horse.

I was really focused on my cows”

Now, the average person is unlikely to immediately grasp why that’s of any particular interest. And, in truth, Dr. Delsol himself wasn’t totally blown away at first, either. His expertise lay with cows, so when he discovered the tooth had belonged to a horse, he basically put it aside for a while. He had been completing research involving cattle at the time, and, as he put it to website Atlas Obscura in August 2022, “I was really focused on my cows.”

A horse close to the heart

But as a person of science, Dr. Delsol couldn’t suppress his curiosity about the horse tooth forever. He was confident, after all, that this thing would contain secrets of its own, even if they differed from what he’d initially set out to find. So, he got stuck into the job and was soon joining some very unexpected dots. He linked this horse tooth with a specific breed that so many people across the United States hold very closely to their hearts.