Historical bones and horsehairs reveal new information about native horse populations in Finland

Tracing the origins of native horse breeds: the missing link between prehistoric finds and contemporary populations

Finnhorse is the only native horse breed in Finland, the systematic pure breeding of which started in 1907.

The idea of special Finnish breeds, e.g. Finnhorse, Finnsheep, Finncattle etc. was closely bound to nationalistic ideology, which aimed to build the concept of Finnishness. At the same, this was the beginning of modern breed improvement in Finland, the early stages of which we know only by historical sources. Nowadays, the number of Finnhorses has collapsed to 20 000 while in the 1940s there were about 400 000 animals. Because of pure breeding and the size of the current population, Finnhorse population may have lost a large portion of its genetic diversity.

Our project Interdisciplinary research strategies of biological cultural heritage — surveying, archiving, analyzing and sharing historical DNA from Finnhorses aims to study the influences of modern horse breeding on the genetic diversity by analyzing historical DNA samples from the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. We have analyzed horse teeth, main and tail hairs, hooves and skins, which have been donated to us by private horse owners and museums. The material has been complemented by excavating historical Finnhorse burials. The aim is to study this stage by analyzing historical DNA samples in order to understand the influences of modern breed improvement on local horse populations and on their genetic diversity.

Historical bone and hair samples as a whole are biological cultural heritage, which carries DNA-information from the early stages of our native breeds and especially on the effects of modern breeding on the populations. Therefore, it is urgent to collect and catalogue these samples as they are threatened and in danger to disappear.