Equine Exhibit Rides into History

By Loeffler, William | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, February 22, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Equine Exhibit Rides into History


Loeffler, William, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Man may have invented the wheel, but the horse pulled it.

The amazing equine gets its due in "The Horse," an exhibition that examines its place in history and heraldry, myth and legend as well as its remarkable synergy with man. It runs through May 24 at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Oakland.

"More than any other animal, including the dog ... the horse did more to change the quality of life, trade and transportation," says Sandra Olsen, curator of anthropology at the Carnegie. "It had a very heavy religious significance. Of course, later in time, it was important in ... the chariot and cavalry. It changed the geopolitics of the world tremendously."

And, of course, without the faithful steed, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood would have had to resort to knocking coconuts together, like the knights in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."

Olsen is co-curator of the exhibit, along with Ross MacPhee of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The first part of the exhibit transports visitors back tens of millions of years ago, when multiple species of horse, known collectively as equidae, roamed the plains in what is now Nebraska. A diorama depicts the Dinohippus, a large horse, grazing near its smaller, forest dwelling cousin, the Nannippus.

Other parts of the exhibit examine the role of the horse in ritual, warfare, sports, travel and trade.

"The horse really has a real link to the progression of civilization," says Kristin Hermann, a director of the Western Pennsylvania Dressage Association, which promotes a method of training horses to move with rhythm and balance.

That link is Olsen's specialty. A zoo archaeologist, she studies the relationship between prehistoric peoples and wild or domesticated animals.

She spent five years studying the fossil evidence at a Paleolithic site in east central France where horses were killed for food 35,000 years ago. The site includes thousands of horse bones as well as spear points and butchering tools used by generations of Ice Age hunters.

"It's the only example of a mass horse-kill site we have," she says. "It's very similar to many of the bison-kill sites in North America."

The Carnegie exhibit includes fossils and artifacts from the site, as well as large photographs of cave paintings of horses from southwestern France.

Horses first may have been domesticated about 5,500 years ago in the steppes of Central Asia.

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