Permafrost for the win!

Permafrost is pretty damn cool: literally and figuratively. I have a particular fondness for it. This is, of course, ironic as I am without a doubt a warm-weather fieldwork sort of girl. I like my fieldwork projects to be in places that are hot, sunny, and close to the Mediterranean. Unless I am on a horse, then I will go just about anywhere, but if I am working on the 'ol trench yoga my preference is definitely for heat over cold. Regardless, I am both fascinated and indebted to permafrost and what comes out of it. Why? Well, because of things like this http://westerndigs.org/700000-year-old-horse-found-in-yukon-permafrost-yields-oldest-dna-ever-decoded/. Permafrost has the wonderful ability to preserve organic matter, and it does it very well. This is a huge boon for those of us who study things made up entirely of organic matter- like horses. Usually the closest we can get to seeing a historical horse 'in the flesh' is through taxidermy, but these equines come from the relatively recent past and are taxidermied to varying degrees of realism: you can find Comanche hanging out at the University of Kansas https://biodiversity.ku.edu/visit/exhibits/comanche and Phar Lap at the National Museum of Victoria http://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/specimens/139139. When it comes to the rather more ancient predecessors to these horses, however, we are typically out of luck. When trying to figure out what the horses of the ancient world looked like, we have to rely almost entirely on contemporary artistic representations and literary descriptions used in tandem with skeletal remains. For the most part, at least. You see, every so often, the magic of the permafrost gives up some of its secrets and archaeologists make astounding discoveries. Such was the case with the 4th-3rd century BCE Pazyryk burials of the Siberian Altai. The permafrost accidentally preserved the tombs and all of their contents: the human and equine inhabitants, as well the burial goods- which include leather bridles, felted pads, clothing (wool and leather),silk, elaborate ornamental equine headdresses, a wooden cart, and the oldest known knotted carpet. The horses are so well preserved that we can make out ear notches used as identifying marks, distinct coat colours, and clear physiognomic types. In other words, the Pazyryk tombs, thanks to the permafrost, provide a very tangible window into the horse cultures of the 4th-3rd century Altai region by giving us an assemblage of horses and equipment in a well-preserved state. Of course, these are funerary goods and likely more elaborate than every day tack and accessories, but it is nonetheless a rare and remarkable repository of information.
Moving beyond the historical past to the prehistoric, permafrost and its equine contents become even more valuable. The 10,000 + year old equine remains turning up in the permafrost of the Yukon and Alaska are pre-domesticated horses, the wild ancestors of Equus Caballus and one of the final branches of the equine evolutionary tree. All members of the equine family went extinct in the North/South America by about 10,000 BCE, and so the frozen horses of the north represent some of the last equids on the continent prior to their return in the 16th century CE. Thus, these remains provide an important piece in the puzzle of equine history, perhaps providing clues as to why the species disappeared from North America, but also giving us valuable DNA evidence that can potentially be used to study the dispersal and development of different prehistoric horse populations across Eurasia. Yay science!