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Indigenous Cultures Adopted Spanish Horses Before European Arrival in American West

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

Indigenous cultures of the American Great Plains and northern Rockies had integrated domestic horses of Spanish ancestry into their lifeways long before the arrival of European colonizers to the region, according to a new study.

Although the horse is central to many Indigenous cultures across the American West, when and how these important animal companions first became incorporated into these societies isn't fully understood and has long been a matter of historical debate.

Nevertheless, the spread of domestic horses and their integration into Indigenous societies led to profound social, cultural and ecological transformations across western North America.

Now, in a comprehensive, interdisciplinary analysis of archeological remains of early historical horses recovered from sites across the western U.S., researchers show that horses of European descent were widely dispersed throughout the region and had become deeply ingrained in Indigenous lifeways by at least the early 1600s — decades earlier than many historical accounts suggest.

The study, which involved more than 80 authors from around the world and included researchers from the Lakota, Comanche and Pawnee Nations, as well as other Indigenous scholars from across North America, was published in the March 31 issue of Science.

"In this study, we brought together techniques from archaeology, osteology and the biomolecular sciences with Indigenous knowledge to explore the human-horse story in the Great Plains and the American West," said William Taylor, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder and study author.

"We show that decades, or even centuries, before the first Europeans set foot in many areas of the West, that Native folks were raising, riding and caring for their horses and had integrated them into social, economic and ceremonial aspects of life."

The American Horse

Genetic evidence suggests that the ancient ancestors of the modern horse first evolved in what is now North America several million years ago and subsequently spread into Europe and Asia, where they were domesticated roughly 6,000 years ago. However, Western scholars largely agree that most of these early equids had nearly disappeared from the continent near the end of the last ice age, with some isolated populations living in northern latitudes surviving as late as 5,000 years before present.

While it's possible that these early populations were important parts of life for the human populations across North America during the early Holocene — relationships that may have become encoded in some Indigenous oral traditions, according to Taylor — many Western scientists believe that domestic horses were reintroduced into North America by Europeans following the Spanish colonization of Mexico. Historical records suggest that horses then became broadly dispersed throughout the Indigenous societies following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

However, much of this understanding is based on observations recorded in European colonizer records from the 18th and 19th centuries, which are often rife with inaccuracies and strong anti-Indigenous bias. Moreover, many Indigenous groups' oral traditions tell of close relationships with the horse before ever meeting Europeans.

By integrating osteological, genomic, isotopic, radiocarbon and paleopathological evidence from archeological samples, the researchers discovered that early domestic North American horses show a strong genetic affinity to Spanish horse populations, indicating a European origin.

However, the findings demonstrate that these European horses had spread throughout the American Great Plains and northern Rockies earlier than previously believed. The animals had already spread northward from Spanish settlements in the American Southwest and into Indigenous lifeways during the first half of the 1600s, likely through Indigenous trading networks, and well before the 18th century arrival of Europeans to the region.

This new understanding is significant because it confirms the oral histories of multiple Indigenous groups and opens the door for further research that both Western and Indigenous knowledge structures can inform.

"I think what sets this study apart is the sheer diversity of our authorship team, and our integration of Indigenous perspectives, traditional knowledge and even language, directly into our research design, texts and interpretations," said Taylor.

Integrating Indigenous and Western Knowledge

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

"From a Lakota perspective, this study was inspired by our traditional leadership and from knowledge keepers who have the vision and commitment to understand that correcting the narrative regarding the history of the horse in the Americas has the power to put an end to colonial ideas that have no place in academia or science," said study author Yvette Running Horse Collin, a geneticist at the Center for Anthropology and Genomics of Toulouse in France and member of the Oglala Lakota Nation.

According to Running Horse Collin, a divide has long existed between Western science and Indigenous sciences, which has ultimately impeded many academic disciplines — from archaeology to ecology to genetics — from moving forward.

This study, however, seeks to remedy this rift to facilitate a successful — and respectful — co-production of knowledge.

"Before this study, there was literally not place for Indigenous Peoples in the Americas, or our horses, in this conversation. Our presence and perspectives were not accounted for," said Running Horse Collin.

"The most important take away is that there is power in combining Indigenous and Western science to provide a more accurate presentation of history for the public we serve as scientists," said Running Horse Collin. "As the challenges of climate change are upon us, this type of collaboration in the sciences is the future."

[Credit for associated image: Horse and rider petroglyph in Wyoming, likely carved by ancestral Comanche or Shoshone people. | Pat Doak]


Walter Beckwith

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