The Quagga Project (left); iStockphoto (right)
Rau Quagga, left, and an appaloosa horse, right.

Horses of a Different Color: The Quagga as the New Appaloosa

Steve Russell

CNN reported that a team of scientists at Cape Town University has undertaken to bring back an animal killed off a hundred years ago by European settlers overhunting to extinction, the quagga. The quagga appears to be the front end of a zebra attached to the rear end of a brown horse.

DNA testing on quagga skins showed the quagga to be a subspecies of zebra, and the Quagga Project is bringing forth recessive genes by selectively breeding zebras to recreate the subspecies. Critics of the attempt to reestablish the quagga range from the objection to “playing God” to speculation that the quagga may have exhibited behavioral differences not knowable from DNA, and so the Quagga Project is merely breeding funny-looking zebras.

The “playing God” argument gets no traction, since it was human beings who caused the quagga to disappear in the first place. Having some respect for the argument that not everything is being reassembled, the new animals are being called “Rau quaggas” after one of the originators of the project, Reinhold Rau.

Only six Rau quaggas exist at this time. When the population reaches 50, they will be relocated to a nature preserve of their own.  The hope is that the herd will be a “genetic bank” like the small herd of American bison that survived the extinction of the buffalo as a tactic in the Indian Wars.

The killing of animals as warfare against Indians wasn’t just bison. There was the mass killing of the Kiowa and Comanche horses at Palo Duro Canyon. That bit of ugliness passed into both Comanche and Kiowa tribal lore as a great calamity, but it did not threaten horses with extinction generally. After all, the soldiers who did the killing were mounted.

However, there is a breed of horse developed by the Nez Perce that had to be brought back from the brink of extinction, like the quagga, by breeding programs begun in the nick of time.

The U.S. cavalry caught the Nez Perce just before they reached the Canadian border and confiscated all of their horses, thought to represent most of the appaloosas in existence. Animals of the breed identified with the Nez Perce had been considered first-rate horses, agile and hardy, ever since they were “discovered” by the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Colonel Nelson Miles commanded the troops who caught the Nez Perce, who had been slowed by the warriors’ insistence on protecting the noncombatants. Miles ended a heroic 1,400-mile armed withdrawal by Nez Perce cavalry, who were outnumbered and outgunned.

A tiny number of Nez Perce, under White Bird, did escape the last battle and joined Sitting Bull in Canada. The majority of the refugees, under Hinmatóowyalahtq̓it (Chief Joseph to the colonists), were captured.

Miles sold a few of the highly prized appaloosas and killed the rest, and that was thought to be the end of the outstanding breed. However, the Nez Perce had left a small remnant herd of appaloosas in the Wallowa Valley before their epic run for Canada. Many others were in the hands of settlers, who had paid over $500 for appaloosas when ordinary horses went for $15.

The organized effort to bring back appaloosas was not started until 1938 and was successful, although the original breeding by the Nez Perce is a historical curiosity in our time. The horse breeders responsible for appaloosas in the first place never profited from their achievement.

Appaloosa horses almost vanished from the earth because they were the favored mounts of the Nez Perce cavalry that had been running circles around the stolid horses favored by the U.S. Army. Quagga used to exist in vast herds on the veldts of Southern Africa but were extinguished by nothing more than the joy of killing.

If bringing back the quagga or bringing back the appaloosa amounted to “playing God,” what about killing them off in the first place?

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verncox's picture
Submitted by verncox on
Ever heard of Satan? 9 Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought? 10 Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. 11 But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face. 12 And the LORD said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD. 13 ¶ And there was a day when his sons and his daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house: 14 And there came a messenger unto Job, and said, The oxen were plowing, and the asses feeding beside them: 15 And the Sabeans fell upon them, and took them away; yea, they have slain the servants with the edge of the sword; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee. 16 While he was yet speaking, there came also another, and said, The fire of God is fallen from heaven, and hath burned up the sheep, and the servants, and consumed them; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee. 17 While he was yet speaking, there came also another, and said, The Chaldeans made out three bands, and fell upon the camels, and have carried them away, yea, and slain the servants with the edge of the sword; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee. 18 While he was yet speaking, there came also another, and said, Thy sons and thy daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house: 19 And, behold, there came a great wind from the wilderness, and smote the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young men, and they are dead; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee. 20 ¶ Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped, Wanton destruction ( Indiscriminate obliteration) is one of the highest of evils. In this, the Christians agree with you.

verncox's picture
Submitted by verncox on
I have a question of Archaeological history. Is there any evidence written in aboriginal artwork, verbal folk lore that supports the horse being native to America before the Europeans came? I've heard that the horse came over with the Europeans (mainly the Spaniards) but I find that very difficult to believe. I've seen no documented evidence I was wondering what exists with folklore or the equivalent of hieroglyphs.

StarrLight's picture
Submitted by StarrLight on
Horses were here long before the Spaniards. Like the people who were here first. Hagerman fossil Bed National Monument in Idaho is the place to see fossils of Equus simplicidens, the first true horse and 200 other fossilized animals like sabertooth cats and camels. So the idea that horses didn't evolve here is just a myth.

swrussel's picture
Submitted by swrussel on
Where do you find this myth? Horses went extinct about 10,000 years ago. There is no evidence that they were ever domesticated unless you read the Book of Mormon as being history. Indians became the most skilled cavalry on this continent, but it happened after the Spanish proved unable to keep track of their livestock.