Decades prior to the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans had already domesticated Spanish horses.

 The story of how horses arrived in the Great Plains by the 1600s has been rewritten through DNA and skeletal evidence, combining Indigenous knowledge with Western science.

Working together, Western scientists and Native Americans have discovered that Indigenous communities in the Great Plains region quickly integrated horses with Spanish ancestry into their cultures by the early 1600s. According to some Indigenous oral histories, their connection with horses may date back even further to potentially surviving equines from the Ice Age. This collaborative effort resulted in the creation of the Sacred Way Sanctuary.

 According to a new study, the Spaniards introduced horses to Mexico in 1519, which were then taken north by Indigenous peoples along trade routes. Consequently, by the early 1600s, many Native American communities across the Great Plains and the Rockies had already integrated horses into their lifestyles, long before they ever encountered Europeans.

The prevailing belief about how domesticated horses spread throughout central and western North America has been challenged by new findings. Contrary to European written accounts from the 1700s and 1800s that suggest horses arrived in large numbers after Pueblo people temporarily ousted Spanish settlers from New Mexico in 1680, evidence now shows that Indigenous groups had already incorporated Spanish horses into their cultures by the early 1600s. 

Molecular archaeologist Yvette Running Horse Collin, who is a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation and works at the Center for Anthropobiology and Genomics in Toulouse, France, found historical texts from Europeans unconvincing. Indigenous oral histories from Great Plains populations like the Lakota and Comanche suggest they had interacted with horses for centuries before Europeans arrived.

Molecular archaeologist Yvette Running Horse Collin, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, partnered with Ludovic Orlando, another molecular archaeologist who traced the origins of domesticated horses to southwestern Asia, to investigate the arrival of horses in North America. They collaborated with Western scientists and Indigenous scholars and officials, including members of the Lakota, Comanche, Pawnee, and Pueblo Nations. 

Their research, published in the March 31 issue of Science, suggests that horses spread from Mexico into North America by the early 1600s and were raised locally, which aligns with Native American perspectives. At a news conference on March 28, archaeozoologist William Taylor of the University of Colorado Boulder confirmed their findings. This contrasts with European accounts from the 1700s and 1800s that suggested horses arrived in North America after the Pueblo people temporarily drove Spanish settlers out of New Mexico in 1680.

An initiative headed by Taylor focused on finding and carbon-dating horse remains that had been excavated previously. They located 23 horses from western North America and six from Argentina. Analysis of the remains showed that three of the North American horses dated to the second half of the 1500s, which was well before the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. The remains were found at sites in Kansas, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Idaho. A previously carbon-dated horse’s remains from an Idaho site were reanalyzed using a technique that measures the amount of near-infrared radiation absorbed by bone. This produced an age estimate similar to the other early estimates.

Researchers suspect that an ancestral Comanche or Shoshone people carved a horse and rider in rock art at a Wyoming site, but the age of the art is undetermined.

Archaeologist Mark Mitchell from the Paleocultural Research Group in Broomfield, Colo., who was not part of the study, emphasizes the significance of the findings, which provide evidence that Native American groups were taking care of and riding horses and integrating them into their cultures by the early 1600s. 

According to Mitchell, the earliest North American horse remains show growths at the back of the skull consistent with the use of a halter or bridle. One horse from the 1500s had dental damage that suggests it was ridden with a bridle’s metal bit. Additionally, another early horse had been discovered among various ritual artifacts, indicating its ceremonial significance.

According to the researchers, an early North American horse had a locally grown diet, as revealed by the chemical elements in its teeth. Another horse was likely part of a managed herd that was fed maize for part of the year, as indicated by the same analysis. DNA comparisons with modern horses revealed that early North American horses were mostly of Spanish origin. 

While some Indigenous oral histories suggest a much longer history of interaction with horses, DNA analysis of remains from two Ice Age horses discovered in Alaska did not show any direct ties to later North American horses. It is believed that wild horses originally evolved in North America over tens of millions of years before going extinct around 10,000 years ago.

According to University of Oxford archaeologist Peter Mitchell, who was not involved in the new study, the scientific evidence currently only confirms the integration of horses into Great Plains societies prior to European contact. Further investigation is required to determine the exact duration of the survival of wild horses in ancient Alaska, he adds.

Despite this, Mitchell praises Taylor and his team for combining Western science with Indigenous knowledge in a manner that establishes a new benchmark for archaeological research into the early dissemination of horses and their adoption by Indigenous communities globally.


W.T.T. Taylor et al. Early dispersal of domestic horses into the Great Plains and northern Rockies. Science. Vol. 379, March 31, 2023, p. 1316. doi: 10.1126/science.adc9691.


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