Horses first emerged on the continent of North America. Millions of years of evolutionary changes transformed the horse before it became the natural companion of many Indigenous peoples and the flagship symbol of the southwest. An international team uniting 87 scientists across 66 institutions around the world, including Associate Professor of Anthropology Emily Lena Jones at The University of New Mexico, now begins to refine the history of the American horse. This work, which embeds cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural research between western and traditional Indigenous science, was published recently in the journal Science.

Emily Lena Jones
Emily Lena Jones

Jones is one of a collaborative team looking at the spread of horses globally. Horse domestication is widely recognized as a key transformative event in human prehistory. The initial domestication of horses has been linked to major changes in human mobility and social organization. Some of the team’s research focusing on the horses of eastern Eurasia was published in Nature: Scientific Reports in 2020.

This new paper tests a narrative that features in almost every single textbook on the history of the Americas: whether European historic records accurately captured the story of Indigenous people and horses across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. This narrative reflects the most popular chronicles of the Europeans who first established contact with Indigenous groups and contend a recent adoption of horses following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

To tackle this question, Jones, along with partners from the University of Colorado, University of Oklahoma, and Lakota, Comanche, Pawnee, and Pueblo collaborators have been tracking down archaeological horse bones from across the American West. Using both new and established practices from the archaeological sciences, the team identified evidence that horses were raised, fed, cared for, and ridden by Indigenous peoples.

Partners from the University of Toulouse contributed genomic evidence to the paper, demonstrating that the horses surveyed in this study were primarily of Iberian ancestry, but not directly related with those horses that inhabited the Americas in the Late Pleistocene more than 12,000 years ago.

Direct radiocarbon dating of discoveries ranging from southern Idaho to southwestern Wyoming and 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. This earlier dispersal validates many traditional perspectives on the origin of the horse from project partners, including the Comanche and Pawnee, who recognize the link between archaeological findings and oral traditions. 

Data from New Mexico is an important part of this project: an early date from a horse specimen from Paa’ko Pueblo in New Mexico provides evidence of Indigenous control of horses at the turn of the 17th century, and possibly earlier. 

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

The ancestry of horses does get complicated, Jones observed. “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.”

“Equids were re-introduced to the Americas by the Spanish, but they spread to Indigenous communities very quickly and our research shows often well in advance of any Spanish contact with those Indigenous people,” Jones continued. “This may have been through Indigenous trading networks, for example, Indigenous people who did have contact with the Spanish traded horses with other Indigenous people, or some horses may have escaped or gone feral, which we can’t tell from the data. But we can tell that horses spread north in advance of the Spanish.”

The team plans further work involving collections from across New Mexico, as well as 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.

“The archaeological science presented in our research further illustrates the necessity for meaningful and genuine collaborative partnerships with Indigenous communities,” said Pawnee archaeologist and study coauthor Carlton Shield Chief Gover.

This work was supported by the National Science Foundation Collaborative Research Award (#1949305, #1949304, #1949305, and #1949283), Marie Sklodowska Curie Actions (programmes HOPE and MethylRIDE), the CNRS and Université Paul Sabatier (International Research Program AnimalFarm), the French Government “Investissement d’Avenir” France Génomique (ANR-10-INBS-09), and the European Research Council (PEGASUS). All protocols for the transmission of sacred and traditional knowledge were followed, and research activities and results were endorsed by an Internal Review Board involving 10 Lakota Elder Knowledge Keepers, who now serve as the Board of Directors of Taku Škaŋ Škaŋ Wasakliyapi: Global Institute for Traditional Sciences (GIFTS).

Photo by André Ulysses De Salis

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