Exhaustive Study Probes Hidden History of Horses in American West

University of Colorado Boulder

A team of international researchers has dug into archaeological records, DNA evidence and Indigenous oral traditions to paint what might be the most exhaustive history of early horses in North America to date. The group’s findings show that these beasts of burden may have spread throughout the American West much faster and earlier than many European accounts have suggested.

The researchers, including several scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder, published their findings today in the journal Science.

To tell the stories of horses in the West, the team closely examined about two dozen sets of animal remains found at sites ranging from New Mexico to Kansas and Idaho. The researchers come from 15 countries and multiple Native American groups, including the Lakota, Comanche and Pawnee nations.

“What unites everyone is the shared vision of telling a different kind of story about horses,” said William Taylor, a corresponding author of the study and curator of archaeology at the CU Museum of Natural History. “Focusing only on the historical record has underestimated the antiquity and the complexity of Indigenous relationships with horses across a huge swath of the American West.”

Credit: Nico Goda

For many of the scientists involved, the research holds deep personal significance, added Taylor, who grew up in Montana where his grandfather was a rancher.

“We’re looking at parts of the country that are extraordinarily important to the people on this project,” he said.

The researchers drew on archaeozoology, radiocarbon dating, DNA sequencing and other tools to unearth how and when horses first arrived in various regions of today’s United States. Based on the team’s calculations, Indigenous communities were likely riding and raising horses as far north as Idaho and Wyoming by at least the first half of the 17th Century-as much as a century before records from Europeans had suggested.

Groups like the Comanche, in other words, may have begun to form deep bonds with horses mere decades after the animals arrived in the Americas on Spanish boats.

The results line up with a wide range of Indigenous oral histories.

“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,” said Jimmy Arterberry, co-author of the new study and tribal historian of the Comanche Nation in Oklahoma.

Study co-author Carlton Shield Chief Gover agreed, noting that the love of horses may be one thing that extends across societies and borders.

“People are fascinated by horses. They’ve grown up with horses,” said Shield Chief Gover, a citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and curator for public anthropology at the Indiana University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. “We can talk to one another through our shared love of an animal.”

Mud Pony

For many Native American communities that shared love goes a long way back.

The Pawnee, for example, tell the story of “Mud Pony,” a boy who began seeing visions of strange creatures in his sleep.

“He makes these little mud figurines of these animals he sees in his dreams, and, overnight, they become alive,” Shield Chief Gover said. “That’s how you get horses.”

European historical records from the colonial period, however, have tended to favor a more recent origin story for horses in the West. Many scholars have suggested that Native American communities didn’t begin caring for horses until after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. During this event, Pueblo people in what is today New Mexico temporarily overthrew Spanish rule, releasing European livestock in the process.

Taylor, also an assistant professor of anthropology at CU Boulder, and his colleagues didn’t think it fit as an origin story for the relationships between humans and horses in the West: “We thought: There’s something fishy about this story.”

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