When Nazi Scientists Resurrected An Extinct Horse Breed

By Debra Kelly on Tuesday, July 1, 2014
Kherson_tarpan
“Resurrection, like politics, makes strange bedfellows.” —Philip Jose Farmer, in The Fabulous Riverboat (1971)

In A Nutshell

The tarpan was a Neolithic-age horse that roamed Europe; its unique ability to live in wet, marshy areas meant that it played a very specific and much-needed role in the balance of marsh ecosystems. They became extinct in Britain sometime during the Neolithic period, but survived in Western Europe until the turn of the 19th century. Fast-forward to World War II, when Polish scientists noticed that some of their horses were bearing offspring that had the distinctive markings of the tarpan. Nazi scientists began using the horses to experiment with re-creating the dead breed, and their successes can still be found running wild in Europe.

Note: The above photo may be the only one of an alleged live tarpan, and was taken in the Moscow Zoo in the 1880s.

The Whole Bushel

In Neolithic Britain, the tarpan roamed wild through the marshy bogs. This wild horse with distinctive long ears, wide skull, large head, and dun coloring played an important role in the ecosystem of the area. Its careful grazing meant that grasses were kept small while other plants were left to flourish. Where other horses would have had a difficult time in the mucky, wet conditions, the tarpan had wide hooves that gave it more stability in the bogs, as well as the ability to shed its hooves every season to prevent rot.

Unfortunately, they were hunted to extinction in Britain during the Neolithic period, but the breed persisted in Eastern Europe where they were well documented. Their fate was to be much the same in these eastern forests, hunted to extinction by locals who prized their meat as a delicacy. The last wild tarpan died in 1879, and the last tarpan in captivity died in Moscow in 1887.

The tarpan might have been forgotten if it wasn’t for Nazi scientists. At the height of World War II, the Nazi regime had quite the to-do list, and on it was the resurrection of a species that had already been declared extinct.

Polish scientists had already looked to the wild horses that now roamed the forests in place of the tarpan, and they noticed that some of them had a distinctly tarpan-like appearance: wide heads and hooves, the stripe down their back, the dun coloring. Because tarpans were well known to have interbred with domestic horses, the genetic strain was still out there, albeit tainted by other breeds of horses.

So they began a series of selective breeding experiments, in which they took the horses with the most tarpan-like characteristics and set about re-creating the breed.

Noticing the success the Polish were having, Nazi scientists stepped in at the height of World War II. When Germany invaded Poland, they made sure to take a few herds of this newly-bred tarpan look-alike. Once in Germany, the horses became the subject of an even stricter breeding program in which the Nazi regime attempted to recreate what was defined as the “pure Aryan wild horse.”

By all accounts, they did it. Tragically, many of the horses that had been bred for the traits of the tarpan were kept in German cities; with the invasion of Russian troops, many of them were slaughtered and eaten.

The zoologist in charge of the program, Lutz Heck, had shipped a number of the animals back out to the forests of Poland where they had first been discovered. The area had long been used as hunting grounds for the rich and powerful of Eastern Europe, and Heck imagined that he was paving the way for members of the Third Reich to hunt and fish in an area populated by their own Aryan wild horses. The war ended, the horses remained, and the care of the horses continued.

The stigma is still attached to the horses, which are often called near-tarpans as a reminder of who put them there. In Eastern Europe they’re regarded with a scoff, reminders of a tragic past and an attempt at engineering life.

In Britain, though, the horses have returned to the countryside they roamed thousands of years ago. Called “Koniks” instead of tarpans, they have the same characteristics that allowed the tarpan to be such an important part of the marshland ecosystem, and it’s hoped that they’ll reprise their role in caring for the land they were hunted to extinction in ages ago.

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: Galloping Ghosts
Biology Digest: A horse tale
Reuters: Wild horses munch desolate marshland back to life