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The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

Did Hyracotherium and Equus Live at the Same Time?

by Jon Barber
Copyright © 2001-2002
[Last Modified: January 3, 2002]

In their attacks on evolution, creationists sometimes claim that the evolutionary family tree of the horse is flawed. And while this statement is hardly surprising given the source, some creationists also claim that the remains of Hyracotherium, the animal at the base of the horse sequence and more popularly known as eohippus, have been found along side the remains of modern horses. This is hardly a problem for any modern theory of evolution, which allow ancestor and descendant species to exist side by side, but I have never heard the assertion from other than creationist or new age sources.

The Search for the Original Claim

Several websites make this claim, the majority of them referring to the book The Neck of the Giraffe (Hitching 1982). On page 30 (page 17 in the New American Library version) of the book is this statement:

...Eohippus fossils have been found in surface strata, along side two modern horses, Equus nevadensis and Equus occidentalis.

Hitching gives no source for this. But at least one of the websites that make this allegation refer to "The Creation-Evolution Controversy" (Wysong 1976). Hitching cites this book elsewhere in "The Neck of the Giraffe", but not in reference to this particular assertion. But this must have been Hitching's source, because near the bottom of page 301 we find this:

Two modern type horses, Equus nevadensis and Equus occidentalis, have been found in the same geological strata as Eohippus. Thus we have modern day type horses grazing side by side with their precursors.

But where did Wysong get this idea? After looking up several of the references that he uses in that particular section, I discovered that it's from "The Theory of Evolution and the Facts of Science" (Rimmer 1935).

Even though this book was first published in 1935, it had a long publishing life, since the copy I read was from the 14th printing in 1966. And while on the title page of his book Rimmer claims to have a Doctorate in Science (as well as a Doctorate in Divinity), I wasn't exactly optimistic about his level of scientific knowledge when he revealed on page 80 that "Coral is the body of a small insect..." a statement that's simply not true.

But I was more interested in Rimmer's views on horse evolution. He outlines what he believes is the evolutionists' point of view, but his attempt reveals several misunderstandings. He complains that evolutionists only have twelve species in the horse family tree, and feels that "billions" would be required to adequately demonstrate an evolutionary relationship, yet never explains why. He points out that Europeans imported horses into North America, and criticizes evolutionists for relying on fossils from the Americas to demonstrate the descent of a European animal. But he never seems to realize that there was a land bridge between Alaska and Asia several times in the past, which allowed elephants and camels as well as horses to travel between the Old and New Worlds. Rimmer also states that when there is a gap in the American fossil record, European fossils are slipped in, citing Hyracotherium as an example. Unfortunately, he seems blissfully unaware that Hyracotherium and Eohippus are the same creature. And on page 103 we find this:

The horse today is a variegated genus. From the diminutive Shetland pony to the giant Clydesdale is indeed a tremendous gap; but it is bridged by intermediate forms. Above the Shetland pony is the small grey burro of the western deserts, after him the African zebra, the ass, the western bronc, the smaller saddle stock, the Arabian racer, the Percheron, and a variety of others in size and shape. They are all alive now, and are thus recognized as contemporaries. But if they were all dead, and all we had was their fossil remains, what a case we could make for evolution. We would start our "demonstration" with the skeleton of the pony or the jackass (or even the jack rabbit) and allowing a few million years for each increase in size, show hose the gigantic draft stallion evolved from the tiny beginning. But we can't do that now, these specimens are all alive, and ready to give us the horse laugh if we attempt any such chicanery with their bones. The fossil forms, which were probably equally contemporaneous, cannot rise up in protest, however; they have been dead too long. We can examine the case made with their bones, we are alive. And this "demonstration" was evidently not planned for those who were very much alive, mentally at least!

Here we see that Rimmer feels that the fossils used by evolutionists to construct the horse family tree all lived at the same time. And starting on page 111 we find the claim itself:

We feel that the case against the horse demonstration would not be complete without a mention of the paleontological fact, that all the evolutionary writers and text books seem so eager to suppress, and that is that there are true fossil horses known to science today! Do we ever hear about them? Indeed, we do not, and for the simple reason that they spoil the "demonstration." How can you show the evolution of a four-toed, rodent-like animal, the size of a cat, into the horse, that weighs a ton, if there was a true horse eating grass side by side with the Eohippus that was just starting in to evolve into a horse thirty million years later? That simply can't be done: so they just suppress any mention of the true horse of fossil ages in North America.

There are at least two of them, the Equus nevadensis, and the Equus occidentalis. Did the reader ever hear of them? Not if his reading has been confined to evolutionary authors. We desire to stress the Equus occidentalis especially, as we are personally familiar with that variety. This horse (and it was a true horse) roamed the western slope of what is now known as the United States, especially the Pacific Southwest. It was the contemporary of the elephant, the camel and the so-called Saber-tooth Tiger, with all of whose bones the remains of this fossil horse are found in profusion. Long before man appeared on this continent the great creatures that were the companions of the horse disappeared, and the horse likewise vanished with them. But today in profusion we are recovering his fossil remains, and his bones rise up to confront the dogma of science whose basis is prejudice, and to refute the supposed demonstration of his evolution from a creature with whom he was on grazing terms! It is apparent to the most unlearned that the case collapses: If the creature that evolved out of a tiny ancestor millions of years after that ancestor died out, really lived with that ancestor side by side, the supposed demonstration becomes a joke. [emphasis in original]

Could this be the essence of Rimmer's claim? Not that fossils of Hyracotherium had been found in the same geological layers as Equus, but simply that there were fossils of Equus? It seemed hard to believe, but recall that Rimmer believed that all fossils were probably the remains of creatures that lived at the same time. But such an idea flies in the face of geology.

The only source that Rimmer mentions is on pages 98 and 110, where herefers to something he calls "Guide Book Leaflet No. 36, June, 1927", published by The American Museum of Natural History. I managed totrack this down (Matthew & Chubb, 1927), but even though it seems to be the basis for Rimmer's outline of horse evolution, it makes no reference to either Equus nevadensis and Equus occidentalis.

Could it be that Rimmer used another source that he failed to mention? It seemed unlikely, but I felt that I should investigate this possibility.

The Search for Equus nevadensis

The claim that Equus nevadensis and Equus occidentalis have been found in the same geological strata as Hyracotherium is fairly general, as no specific location is ever mentioned. As well, Hyracotherium is the 'generic' name for several species, just as Equus is the generic name for horses, zebras, and asses. All of this made it difficult to know where to start.

The enormity of the task convinced me to put it off for a few months, but finally I began, searching through "Fossil Horses" (MacFadden, 1992). MacFadden mentions several species of Hyracotherium, which convinced me to concentrate on Equus nevadensis and Equus occidentalis. I felt that if I could find references to one of these relatively obscure species, I could narrow my search to the fossil sites where it had been found. Unfortunately, MacFadden doesn't mention Equus nevadensis at all, but does refer to Equus occidentalis on page 75, explaining that the name has been superceded by Equus laurentius, and supplies a reference.

That reference (Winans, 1989) mentions on page 262 that

From 1842 to the present, 59 species and 5 subspecies of Equus have been named from North American fossil material. Of this number, 13 have subsequently been demonstrated to belong to genera other than Equus, and 3 are invalid because they were preoccupied names.

And a reference is given. This would be the source to track down Equus nevadensis, seemingly the less common of the two.

And I was right. This new reference (Winans, 1985) lead the way to the initial description of Equus nevadensis (Hay, 1927). This species was based on just five teeth (the upper premolars and first and second molars) and a single metatarsal found in Manhattan Gulch, which is about a mile east of Manhattan, in Nye County, Nevada. Along with the lower jaw of a bison, they were found beneath 100 feet of gravel, and sent to the U.S. National Museum in 1921 by H. G. Clinton.

Hay also refers to two earlier geological surveys of the gulch and the surrounding area. In the first (Ferguson, 1917), fragments of bone were found and submitted to J. W. Gidley of the National Museum (who figured prominently in early research into horse evolution) for identification. Gidley reported that the fragments belonged to animals of the genera Equus, Elephas (Elephant) and Rangifer (Reindeer).

In the second survey (Ferguson, 1924), Gidley is again called upon to identify fragments found in the area, this time reporting that they belong to members of Equus, Elephas (Elephant), Rangifer (Reindeer), and Bison (Buffalo). In addition, a fragment of tusk was found that Gidley said belonged to either a mastodon or a mammoth. He also mentions the specimens submitted by Clinton and later used by Hay as the basis for Equus nevadensis, but writes that they "indicate a species closely related to or perhaps identical with E. occidentalis..." Could this be at least part of the source of Rimmer's claim? If this is the case, he confused two different descriptions of the same fossils for descriptions of two different animals.

In the same publication in which he describes Equus nevadensis, Hay also reports the find of a fossil horse near Osceola in White Pine County, Nevada. C. W. Gaby, who was associated with the Hogum Placer mines, donated the lower jaw and teeth of a horse to the U. S. National Museum in 1907. They were found at a depth of 100 feet, but no mention is made of any other fossils found with them. Hay identifies this animal as being a member of Equus nevadensis as well.

Hay also writes about what may he thought might be a third example of Equus nevadensis, consisting of two upper left molars, and part of an lower right second molar, but refused to commit himself, only venturing that there was a resemblance to the teeth of the horse from Manhattan. These teeth, along with three-fourths of a distal left median metacarpal and two phalanges, were found in 1924 in the east side of the canyon of Walker River, eight miles north of Schurz, Nevada. No mention is made of other fossils associated with this find.

And this would seem to be all the examples of Equus nevadensis that are available. I looked in the "Second Bibliography and Catalogue of the Fossil Vertebrata of North America" (Hay, 1930), coincidentally complied by the same gentleman who described Equus nevadensis, and found a single entry, the one I've already reviewed. Hay died a few months after the catalogue was published at the ripe old age of 83 (Science, 1930), and a later paper that briefly discusses this species makes no mention of any other finds (Savage, 1951). This same paper also suggests that because Hay only compared the teeth of the type specimen to one other species, there may be nothing about the teeth that warrants them being placed in a separate species, and recommends that Equus nevadensis be regarded as a nomem vanum. (basically, an invalid name). Winans (1985) does not dispute this, and makes no reference to anyone identifying a horse fossil as Equus nevadensis since Hay.

No where is there found a fossil of Hyracotherium found along side Equus nevadensis, and so it would seem that my first guess about Rimmer's claim was correct. Because fossil Equus had been found, he felt that they had to have lived along side Hyracotherium. But Rimmer was unaware that this shows nothing of the kind, and instead here veals a profound misunderstanding of geology. Later writers who used him as a source assumed that Hyracotherium and Equus had been found in the same strata.

Just after making this claim, and on the same page, Rimmer wrote the following:

The chain of evidence that purports to support the theory of evolution is a chain indeed, but its links are formed of sand and mist. Analyze the evidence and it melts away; turn the light of true investigation upon its demonstrations and they fade like fog before the freshening breeze. The theory stands today positively disproved, and we will venture the prophecy that in another two decades, when younger men, free from the blind prejudices of a passing generation are allowed to investigate the new evidence, examine the facts, and form their own conclusions, the theory will take its place in the limbo of disproved tidings. In that day the world of science will be forced to come back to the unshakable foundation of fact that is the basis of the true philosophy of the origin of life.

But it is now over 65 years since Rimmer wrote these words, and in that time the techniques of scientific investigation have grown in ways unimagined in Rimmer's day. Yet the facts would all seem to confirm an evolutionary explanation for life's diversity, and it is the chains of Rimmer's reasoning that have melted away.

[Back to Fossil Horses FAQs]


Ferguson, H. G., 1917. Placer Deposits of the Manhattan District Nevada. Bulletin of the United States Geological Survey 640:163-193.

Ferguson, H. G., 1924. Geology and Ore Deposits of the Manhattan District Nevada. Bulletin of the United States Geological Survey 723.

Hay, O. P., 1927. The Pleistocene of the western region of North America and its vertebrated animals. Washington: The Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Hay, O. P., 1930, Second Bibliography and Catalogue of the Fossil Vertebrata of North America, Volume 2. Washington: The Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Hitching, F., 1982. The Neck of the Giraffe. London: Pan Books Ltd.

MacFadden, B. J., 1992. Fossil Horses: Systematics, Paleobiology, and Evolution of the Family Equidae. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Matthew, W. D., & Chubb, S. H, 1927. Evolution of the Horse. 5th ed. New York: American Museum of Natural History.

Rimmer, H., 1935. The Theory of Evolution and the Facts of Science. Grand Rapids Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Savage, D. E., 1951. Late Cenozoic Vertebrates of the San Francisco Bay Region. University of California Publications. Bulletin of the Department of Geological Sciences. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Science, 1930. Recent Deaths. Science 72:495

Winans, M. C., 1985. Revision of North American fossil species of the genus Equus (Mammalia: Perissodactyla: Equidae). Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas, Austin.

Winans, M. C., 1989. A quantitative study of the North American fossil species of the genus Equus. In The Evolution of Perissodactyls, ed. D.R. Prothero & R. M. Schoch, pp. 262-297. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Wysong, R. L., 1976. The Creation-Evolution Controversy. Midland, Michigan: Inquiry Press. (This book is sometimes entitled "Creation-Evolution: The Controversy")

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