From kaikan to konik

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Cis van Vuure

From kaikan to konik

Facts and perceptions surrounding the European wild horse and the Polish „konik”


ISBN 978-83-7507-185-6
format B5, s. 446, ilustracje




The subject of this book concerns the history and perceptions of the Holocene European wild horse and the horse breed the (Polish) konik, created in Poland in the 20th century. It relates particularly to the fields of archaeology, cultural history, nature management and animal morphology and ecology.




During the last glacial, wild horses were typical inhabitants of the grassy steppes, then existing in Europe. When these steppes significantly decreased in size, as a result of climate warming, a forest vegetation developed in nearly all of Europe. The living conditions for wild horses are much less favourable in forest areas than in steppe areas. The area of grass is much smaller, whilst horses need a lot of grass due to their digestion. Nevertheless, wild horses managed to survive in relatively small numbers in forested Europe.




Cis van Vuure studied forestry at Wageningen University, the Netherlands. In his study he also focused on zoology and nature conservation. A part of his study he spent at the Mammal Research Institute at Białowieża, Poland. There, not only he got interested in historical zoology and the Holocene historical landscape of West and Central Europe, but also in Polish language and history. After his study he was active in e.g. nature conservation, grazing experiments and historical zoology. Developments and perceptions in these fields stimulated him to make a study of several aspects of the extinct aurochs (Bos primigenius), which was published in 2005. During and after this study, the mentioned developments also got him to study another large extinct European mammal, the wild horse, as well as an alleged descendant thereof, the Polish konik. The research into these horses resulted in a PhD thesis.


In the late 18th century, scientific interest in the European wild horse began to emerge. During the 19th century, various scientists published about the physical appearance of this animal, its range and habitat. After the discovery of Przewalski’s horses in Central Asia in 1878, this research was stimulated and broadened. Realizing that both the aurochs and the wild horse had become extinct in Europe, the German Heck brothers started to try and breed back these species during the 1920s, to show the people how they looked like. During the 1930s, the Pole Tadeusz Vetulani started to breed back the European wild horse, too. For this, he used certain farm horses. The Polish konik, being the breeding result of Vetulani’s experiment, became well‐known by the paraphrase ‘the most recent descendant of the European wild horse and the one that most resembles it.’ Personal doubts about these allegations, on the part of the author of this book, were the actual reason to start a research into the backgrounds to both the European wild horse and Vetulani’s breeding experiment, and the perceptions surrounding them. To learn about the wild horse, as much original source material as possible was gathered; in this way, several interesting, still unknown and unused sources were found. To learn about Vetulani’s breeding experiment, as much data on this as possible were gathered, to be able to analyse it minutely. The picture of the European wild horse, that now comes up from this research, is more complete than ever before. It turned out to be possible to give a broad outline of the physical appearance of this animal and its habitat. The research into Vetulani’s experiment yielded an analysis that is not only more elaborate than previous ones, but also deviant from the common version told until now. The doubts mentioned above showed up to be well‐founded.




1. Introduction


1.1. Subject of the research
1.2. Background to the research
     1.2.1. Germany and the Polish‐Lithuanian Union
     1.2.2. The Netherlands
1.3. Perceptions of the horse
1.4. Reason for the research
1.5. Research objective
1.6. Research questions
1.7. Research method and sources
1.8. The structure of this book


2. The history of the European wild horse, from the last Ice Age onwards


2.1. Introduction
2.2. The transition from the last Ice Age to the Holocene
2.3. The wild horse in Europe, during the period 8000‐3000 BCE
2.4. The domestication of the wild horse and the spread of the domestic horse
2.5. Horses living in the wild in Europe, during the period 500 BCE‐18th century
     2.5.1. Europe, outside East Prussia and the adjacent areas
               • Classical antiquity
               • The Middle Ages (for the non‐German territories)
               • The German territories
     2.5.2. East Prussia and the adjacent areas
               • EastPrussia
               • Lithuania
               • Poland, up to the 16th century inclusive
               • Poland, during the 17th and the 18th centuries
     2.5.3. The origin of the Great Wilderness: political context
     2.5.4. The nature of the Great Wilderness
     2.5.5. Wild and feral horses: the most important distinguishing features
               • Coat Colour
               • Mane
               • Size
               • Ability to be tamed
     2.5.6. The assessment of the records of horses living in the wild in Europe
     2.5.7. The arguments in favour of the existence of the wild horse in East Prussia and the adjacent areas
               • Physical appearance
               • Ability to be tamed
               • Protective measures
               • Collector’sitem
               • Abruptend
               • An original name: kaikan
               • Eating horse meat
     2.5.8. Reasons why the wild horse was able to survive in East Prussia and the adjacent areas
2.6. The Eurasian steppes, from the 17th to the 19th century
     2.6.1. Records of horses living in the wild on the Eurasian steppes
     2.6.2. The assessment of the records of horses living in the wild on the Eurasian steppes
2.7. Jan Zamoyski and the European wild horse
     2.7.1. The political situation in the Polish‐Lithuanian Union during the 16th century
     2.7.2. The origin and nature of Jan Zamoyski’s zoo
     2.7.3. The origin of the wild horses at Jan Zamoyski’s zoo
2.8. Perceptions
     2.8.1. From wild to tame
     2.8.2. Wildernesses and wild horses
     2.8.3. Eating horse meat
     2.8.4. The horse in art
     2.8.5. The horse as a status symbol


3. The emergence of a myth


3.1. Introduction
3.2. The political developments in the Polish‐Lithuanian Union as a background to Brincken’s work
3.3. Brincken’s description of the Forest of Białowieża and the European wild horse
3.4. Criticism of the claims by Brincken
     3.4.1. Contemporary criticism of Brincken
               • Miscellaneous items
               • Wisent counts
               • Plants149 • Animals
     3.4.2. Brincken’s reply to the contemporary criticism
     3.4.3. Recently formulated criticism of Brincken’s mentions of the wild horse
               • Political arguments for criticism
               • Textual arguments for criticism
               • Social and economic arguments for criticism
               • Breeding‐related arguments for criticism
     3.4.4. Conclusions regarding Brincken’s mentions of the wild horse
     3.4.5. On the appearance of the Forest of Białowieża
3.5. Description of the physical appearance and the habitat of the European wild horse
     3.5.1. Coat colour
               • On the occurrence of a white coat in the wild horse
     3.5.2. Other features
               • Mane,tail,beard192
               • Shoulder height
               • Hooves
     3.5.3. Comparison of the physical appearances of the European wild horse and the Polish konik
     3.5.4. Habitat
3.6. Perceptions


4. The breeding‐back experiments and the origin of the Polish konik


4.1. Introduction
4.2. The political context of the breeding‐back experiments by Vetulani and the Heck brothers
4.3. The scientific context of the breeding‐back experiments by Vetulani and the Heck brothers
4.4. The breeding‐back experiment by the Heck brothers
4.5. The breeding‐back experiment by Vetulani, up to 1952 inclusive
     4.5.1. Introduction
     4.5.2. The execution of the breeding‐back experiment
               • The period from 1923 to 1927 inclusive
               • The period from 1928 to September 1939
               • The period from September 1939 to July 1944
               • The period from July 1944 to 1952 inclusive
     4.5.3. Criticism of Vetulani’s theory and experiments
               • Criticism of the theory
               • Criticism of the skull measurements
4.6. The konik breeding‐back experiment, after 1952
     4.6.1. The transitional period 1952‐1955 268
     4.6.2. Konik breeding at Popielno
4.7. DNA research and the placing of the konik
4.8. Perceptions


5. The Polish konik and nature management


5.1. Introduction
5.2. Developments in Dutch nature management, far into the 1970s
5.3. The introduction of the konik into Dutch nature management
     5.3.1. The decision process
     5.3.2. Evaluation of the choice for the konik
5.4. Developments in Dutch nature management since the introduction of the konik, and the background to them
5.5. On the appearance of the Holocene natural landscape of Western and Central Europe
5.6. Perceptions
     5.6.1. The konik and nature management
5.6.2. Rewilding
5.6.3. Icons and nature management
5.6.4. The horse as an icon
5.6.5. Horses and animal protection
5.6.6. Nature management and animal welfare


6. Recap and perspective


6.1. Recap
6.2. Inferences for the future
     6.2.1. The konik in nature management
     6.2.2. Other possible substitutes for the European wild horse
     6.2.3. Developments in DNA research


Captions for pictures




Archives consulted
Overview of manuscripts, printed sources and secondary literature


Words of thanks




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