Wanna know what “history” means? It means contingent events with consequences. Putting a whole bar-night of philosophical context behind us, it means that things coulda gone another way but they went thisaway instead. (Philosophy, having been bum-rushed out the door, returns through the window to say, “Why did the Bodhidharma come from the west?” and it has a point.) (Or as Ambrose Bierce brilliantly put it, an accident is an inevitable occurrence due to the action of immutable natural laws.)
A case in point is the sequence of events which reached – if life were an opera – a fortissimo of consequence in the 1500s. It shouldn’t be too hard to look into what perfect specimens of asshole the Spanish conquistadores presented, or the havoc they wreaked upon an entire continent’s human population. Historians among us are invited to speculate upon the fate of the post-Crusades Catholic Church in the absence of New World silver and gold, relative to the Orthodox Catholic Communion and to Islam.
Plenty of biology resides in that encounter, not least the role of microbes, immunity, and epidemics, but there’s another to see as well – let’s consider all the mammals depicted in the image. The Spaniards had horses. None of the people of the New World had horses.
As mammals go, horses, their ilk, and rhinos, and their ilk, are a pretty closely related group called Perissodactyla and offer no special controversies in terms of who, where, and what changed. Both subsets were present in the New World and the specific horse group Equidae evolved there in the New World during the Miocene Epoch. It was extremely speciose, and you can choose which one you’d really like to tag as “the first horse” – I like to go with the 19 species of Merychippus from about 20 to about 10 million years ago.
What happens then? Moving on to the beginning of the Pleistocene Epoch, maybe 2 million years ago, take a look at the land bridge between what is now the Chukchi Peninsula, the Seward Peninsula, where now there is the Bering Strait. It was not a little bitty bridge with rope handrails. It was twice the size of Texas.
Simply put, lots of mammals lived there and a lot of them in the course of many millions of years spilled onto the other side from the one they’d evolved in. The horse, and now we’re talking about a for-real horse, although not exactly the same species we know today, but the ancestor of it and cool critters like zebras, onagers, and quaggas, was one that evolved in the New World and many of whose members wound up in the Old.
Second, and much later, by oh about 50,000 years ago, humans of various extremely-closely related species were scattered around the Old World, with one of them, Homo sapiens, coming to lie especially widely and thickly upon the land as far as population numbers of the day were concerned. Zipping much more recently to the end of the notably chilly, icy, Pleistocene Epoch, around 15,000-13,000 years ago, some of those humans made their species global by crossing over the Bering land bridge and setting up their high-reproductive shop in the New World. (“around” meaning scholars will now throw things, and I’ll duck, and we continue)
See? Criss-cross. Humans traversed across the Bering Strait into what is now Alaska whereas the horses had trotted across in exactly the opposite direction. It wasn’t simultaneous which is a little disappointing because I like to imagine each looking back once over its collective shoulder and saying, “What the hell were those funny-looking things” … Anyway, to finalize the portrait, a lot of humans had stayed behind in the Old World, eventually to domesticate the new arrival; whereas the Pleistocene did its customary destruction of large mammals in the New World and by about 11,000 years ago, no horses, or for that matter monster rhinos, remained there.
About 500 years ago: the long-separated (various minor contacts excepted) geographical halves of humanity reunited. It was a not a nice party. Among other relevant variables, one had horses, and the other didn’t, and this isn’t merely a matter of military encounters, but also quite a bit to do with agricultural and labor capabilities that had factored directly into the respective histories.
Long-term consequences included transforming the flea-bitten, feudal (which means “run by bandits”), and generally irrelevant northwestern margins of Europe into the first and only serious rival of the central economic hub of the Old World, a development I suggest you consider without romance. It’s the defining moment of the past half-millenium, born in those separate moments of the clippety-clop, clippety-clop, and the pitter-patter of biped ape feet, on that swath of land which is long under the sea.
Next: Adapt and die