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Humans, Mammoths and Horses: The Case of the Fossil Record

May 30, 2006

Were prehistoric horses extinct before humans arrived in Alaska, or were they hunted to extinction by humans?  In a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from WHOI and the United Kingdom applied a statistical method to the existing fossil record data to shed light on the late Pleistocene extinctions in North America and elsewhere. Although recent work has suggested that ancient horses had passed from the scene before the arrival of humans, and thus could not have been hunted to extinction, the incompleteness of the fossil record and errors in dating fossil remains call this conclusion into question. The results of the study show that the uncertainties in the fossil record make it impossible to rule out that horses survived human arrival, thereby reopening the question of hunting as a contributing factor in their extinction.