Horses interacted with American Indigenous cultures far earlier than history teaches

By Nicholas Gerbis
Published: Friday, March 31, 2023 - 4:57pm
Updated: Friday, March 31, 2023 - 4:58pm

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Sacred Way Sanctuary.
Eastern Band Cherokee elder with one of her traditional horses.

The horse transformed the American Southwest and Great Plains, including the ways of life of many Indigenous cultures.

But the western history of when these animals spread through those societies is sorely in need of a rewrite.

“The Spanish chroniclers writing about this in the 18th and 19th centuries were blind to what was actually going on with horse migration and transmission into the Great Plains and in the Rockies,” said co-author Greg Hodgins, who leads the UA Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory, which performed carbon dating for the project.

The often erroneous and anti-Indigenous writings of European colonists centuries after the fact suggest Spanish-sourced horses, which arrived in the New World around 1519, did not spread among Indigenous peoples until after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, an uprising of the Pueblo people against Spanish colonizers that took place in an around what is now New Mexico.

But new fossil, DNA and isotope evidence pushes the spread back to a time more in keeping with the oral traditions of the Lakota, who joined in the research along with the Pawnee and Comanche nations.

“I actually think one of the most interesting and exciting dimensions of the research is the involvement of Indigenous researchers, and the questions that they asked in relation to their own history with, and relationship to, horses,” said Hodgins.

Pat Doak.
Horse and rider petroglyph at the Tolar site, located in Sweetwater County, Wyoming. This depiction was likely carved by ancestral Comanche or Shoshone people.

He added that finding some samples posed a challenge for researchers, while other evidence already lay in scattered collections waiting for someone to ask the right questions.

“Specimens existed in small collections across the Americas. But, because the received notion was that horses were dispersed after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, nobody thought to ask whether or not it would be worth radiocarbon dating them.”

The paper in the journal Science shows horses were introduced to Plains cultures by the early 1600s, then spread via existing raiding and exchange networks.

Samantha Eads.
Lakota archaeologist Chance Ward investigates horse reference collections in the Archaeozoology Laboratory at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

“These modes of contact, whether they were migration or trade, preexisted when horses were dispersed from Spanish control,” said Hodgins. “There were already these mechanisms that would direct and accelerate where they would tend to flow and migrate.”

In short, the horses had already spread throughout these areas before the Europeans settled there.

“They weren't born in Spanish captivity and then migrated to these farther regions; their entire lives are lived beyond regions of Spanish control,” said Hodgins.

Horses originated in the Americas and spread to Eurasia during the Pleistocene era ice age, which lasted from 2.6 million years ago to around 11,700 years ago. Experts believe horses, like many large mammals, had disappeared from the Americas by the time more stable and warm conditions took over during the subsequent Holocene epoch.

Genetic research reveals the horses studied did not descend from some previously unknown Pleistocene population that survived into the Holocene. Nor did Vikings introduce them while colonizing Newfoundland during the 11th century. These were horses of Iberian extraction, gradually sifting to British bloodlines as colonization spread.

In the paper, Chief Joe American Horse says, “Horses have been part of us since long before other cultures came to our lands, and we are a part of them. The Horse Nation is our relative. We always protect our relatives and the next seven generations. We stand with the horse and we will always do so however it has evolved through its journey. That is what being Lakota is.”

Sacred Way Sanctuary.
Man, “He Stalks One,” and horse connect.
Sacred Way Sanctuary.
Curly mare (Rina) and her leopard spotted foal.
Sacred Way Sanctuary.
Huasteca Mountain (Stallion from the Kiamichi Mountain herd) and his son, Comanche.
William T. Taylor.
Three-dimensional model of horse skull outfitted with a replica rawhide rope bridle, similar to those used by many Plains horse riders. Fossil evidence in the study showed the use of a curb bit, indicating mounted riding.
Science Native American Affairs