But now Delsol, a French-born archaeologist, has proof that the story could be more than just a myth. Delsol discovered a genetic link between the wild breed and the horses of 16th century Spain.
Along the way, the University of Florida doctoral candidate became familiar with the children’s book that made the Virginia horse a household name for generations of school children.
“Misty of Chincoteague”, written by Marguerite Henry and published in 1947, opens with the story of a Spanish galleon that runs aground, leaving the horses on the ship to swim to Assateague Island. centuries later, two island children – based on a real family – save up to buy a pony and her colt, Misty.
“It’s a great story,” Delsol said. “I learned quite a few things during my research, including how the book had such a strong cultural significance to children’s literature in the United States.”
By accident, Delsol discovered DNA evidence linking Chincoteague ponies to horses that were once ridden on the Iberian Peninsula in Europe. While examining the results of genetic tests carried out on the remains of colonial cattle found in Puerto Real – a Spanish colony established in 1507 in what is now Haiti, on the island of Hispaniola – he realized that the one of the samples was not from a cow. A single tooth found at the site was from a horse, which had most likely been shipped to the island from Spain.
When Delsol checked the DNA of wild and domestic equine populations in North America, he found a very close connection between the Puerto Real horse – likely used to herd cattle five centuries ago – and the Assateague ponies. .
“I compared it with modern footage and found that the closest relatives of this horse were the Chincoteague ponies,” he said. “At first, I didn’t know this breed, so I didn’t think much about it. But then it was like, ‘Wait! What is their story ? ”
So Delsol dove deep and learned that locals believed the ponies came from a sunken Spanish galleon. He read the section of “Misty of Chincoteague” about running the horses ashore after the sinking.
“It was fun to find it mentioned in a novel,” he said. “It’s quite surprising when you relate it to the high-tech research that we do.”
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Delsol and his team of researchers published the results of their study in the scientific journal Plos One on July 27.
Although technically a horse, the Chincoteague breed is called a pony due to its small stature, which scientists believe is a result of its diet of nutrient-poor marsh grass. The horse is usually multicolored, similar to the American paint horse, also known as the pinto.
Since 1835, the people of nearby Chincoteague Island have “herded” ponies – removing some of Assateague’s horses for use on the mainland. This practice continues today under federal supervision to prevent populations from becoming too large. Today on Assateague there are about 150 horses on the Virginia side and 80 on the Maryland side of the federally owned barrier island.
Delsol said his research doesn’t prove Chincoteague ponies are descended from shipwrecked horses, but it certainly lends credence to the theory. Either way, DNA evidence strongly suggests the horses came from Spain.
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“The Puerto Real horse and the Chincoteague ponies probably came from southern Europe, probably from the Iberian Peninsula, where Spain is,” he said. “There are previous studies that suggest an Iberian origin for these Chincoteague horses, but our study supports it more strongly.”
He added: “However, we still don’t know how the horses got to the island – whether they were shipwrecked or whether the Spaniards landed on this island at some point and left them there, perhaps foreseeing be to come back for them later.”