Study Upends European Narrative of Horse Domestication in the USA

    Horses and the American West – not just a recipe for the classic Western films of 20th century Hollywood, but a long and storied association. Now a study has revealed this extends further back into history than we ever thought. It was long believed that domesticated horses came with the Europeans to the America. But records suggest that the indigenous peoples began riding horses earlier, corroborating oral traditions by several different tribes. This changes the timeline of contact with horses to almost a century earlier than believed.

    A comprehensive new cross-disciplinary study published in the journal Science by a team of 87 scientists from 66 institutions across the world, has combined western and traditional indigenous science to understand and investigate the spread of horses globally. Horse domestication is widely recognized as a transformative event in human prehistory, interlinked with major changes in human mobility and social organization.

    The geneticists working on the study have even extracted the aDNA (ancient DNA) molecules that are still preserved in archaeological remains. These sequenced genomes are of several hundred horses that have lived on the planet, even up to 700,000 years ago!

    Challenging the European Narrative of the Pueblo Revolt

    “For me, one of the most exciting aspects of this project is the way it challenges our conceptions about life in what is now New Mexico in the early days of Spanish colonization,” said Associate Professor of Anthropology, Emily Lena Jones, at the University of New Mexico . “Indigenous control of horses at this early date suggests a landscape in which power was more complicated than is sometimes portrayed.”

    Associate Professor of Anthropology, Emily Lena Jones, at the University of New Mexico (The University of New Mexico)

    Associate Professor of Anthropology, Emily Lena Jones, at the University of New Mexico ( The University of New Mexico )

    The study has focused on the genetics and evolutionary history of horses in North America . The study challenges the popular narrative in textbooks on the history of the Americas, which suggests that horses were adopted by Indigenous peoples following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. It is believed that as a result of the Pueblo Revolt, indigenous people forced Spanish settlers of what is now recognized as New Mexico.

    In this narrative, the voices of indigenous people had largely been ignored and marginalized by western academia. These voices had long suggested a longer tradition of domestication with horses. The oral histories of the Comanche and Shoshone people document horse use far earlier.

    “Horses have been part of us since long before other cultures came to our lands, and we are a part of them,” states Chief Joe American Horse, a leader of the Oglala Lakota Oyate, traditional knowledge keeper, and co-author of the study. One of the chief purposes of the study was to understand if European historical records had accurately captured the story of indigenous people and horses across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, tied to the Pueblo Revolt narrative.

    ‘Shoshone Indian and his Pet Horse’ (1858-1860) by Alfred Jacob Miller. (Public Domain)

    ‘Shoshone Indian and his Pet Horse’ (1858-1860) by Alfred Jacob Miller. ( Public Domain )

    To investigate this claim, Jones and her colleagues have been tracking down archaeological horse bones from across the American West, using new and established practices from the archaeological sciences to identify evidence that horses were raised, fed, cared for, and ridden by Indigenous peoples, according to a press release by the University of New Mexico.

    Using Genomic Evidence: From Europe to the Americas

    Using genomic evidence from partners at the University of Toulouse, the team found that the horses surveyed in this study were primarily of Iberian ancestry, but not directly related to those horses that inhabited the Americas over 12,000 years ago. They analyzed the elemental variation of several horse teeth, and found that animals were raised and fed maize, an indigenous crop. There was additional evidence that the animals were cared for and provided some kind of veterinary care, reports Live Science .

    Radiocarbon dating of discoveries ranging from southern Idaho to northern Kansas showed that horses were present across much of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains by the early 17th century, and conclusively before the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

    “Our findings have deep ramifications for our understanding of social dynamics in the Great Plains during a period of disruptive social changes for Indigenous peoples,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

    The study also sheds light on the complicated ancestry of horses , which evolved in the Americas and spread around the world before going extinct in the Americas. The horses were reintroduced to the Americas by the Spanish, but the research shows that they spread to Indigenous communities very quickly, often well in advance of any Spanish contact.

    “The genus  Equus, to which horses belong, evolved in the Americas, and from which it spread around the world. Equids went extinct in the Americas at the end of the Pleistocene or in the early Holocene − it’s not super-well dated − but they flourished elsewhere and were eventually domesticated in Asia, spreading from there to Europe and Africa,” explained Jones.

    Reintroduction and Spread of the Horses

    Reintroduction of equids in the Americas happened at the behest of the Spanish, but this spread was rapid and, in most cases, well in advance before Spanish contact. This was likely a result of indigenous trading networks, or possibly horses escaping and going feral, which the current data cannot conclusively show either way. However, horses did spread north in advance of the Spanish.

    Carlton Shield Chief Gover, a Pawnee archaeologist and another co-author of the study, emphasized the importance of meaningful and genuine collaborative partnerships with Indigenous communities in conducting archaeological science.

    “All this information has come together to tell a bigger, broader, deeper story, a story that natives have always been aware of but has never been acknowledged,” concluded co-author Jimmy Arterberry, a tribal historian of the Comanche Nation in Oklahoma. 

    The team plans to continue their work, involving collections from across New Mexico and new archaeological excavations at sites predating the 17th century, which will help shed new light on other chapters of the human-horse story in the Americas.

    Top image: The new study shows how horses were domesticated by the Native Americans before the Europeans came. Source: André Ulysses De Salis

    By Sahir Pandey

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