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Digging deeper into the history of horses in the American West

An international team of researchers from 15 countries and multiple Indigenous groups has recently challenged previous historical accounts of early horses in North America. By closely examining about two dozen sets of animal remains found at sites ranging from New Mexico to Kansas and Idaho, and using tools such as archaeozoology, radiocarbon dating, and DNA sequencing, the experts have investigated how and when horses first arrived in various regions of the United States. 

The analyses revealed that 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 European records had suggested. These findings line up with a variety of Indigenous oral histories and suggest that Indigenous communities may have formed deep bonds with horses mere decades after the animals first arrived in the Americas on Spanish boats. 

According to study co-author Carlton 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, the love of horses may extend across societies and borders. “People are fascinated by horses. They’ve grown up with horses. We can talk to one another through our shared love of an animal.”

For many Native American communities, this connection goes a long way back. For instance, the Pawnee tell the story of “Mud Pony,” a boy who started 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. That’s how you get horses,” Shield Chief Gover said.

Yet, European historical records from the colonial period usually provide a more recent origin story for horses in the West, suggesting that Native American communities did not begin caring for horses until after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, in which the Pueblo people temporarily overthrew Spanish rule, releasing European livestock during the process.

According to study lead author William Taylor, a curator of archaeology at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Museum of Natural History, the Pueblo Revolt does not fit as an origin story for the relationships between humans and horses in the American West, since some of the horse remains that the researchers investigated dated back decades before the start of the Pueblo Revolt.

These findings could help academic scientists better understand how important these animals were to the history of Indigenous peoples. For instance, the Pawnee, who lived in Nebraska, rode horses on biannual buffalo hunts, traveling farther and faster into the Great Plains. The Comanche also used horses to hunt buffalo, and owning many horses was considered a sign of wealth in their community.

“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 study is published in the journal Science.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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