New Research Rewrites the History of American Horses

Native Americans spread the animals across the West before Europeans arrived in the region, archaeological evidence and Indigenous knowledge show

Horses running through prairie grass
New research suggests Native Americans used horses of European descent long before colonizers arrived in the American West. Joe Sohm / Visions of America / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The narrative about horses in North America told in several written histories is due for an update, according to a study published last week in the journal Science. After examining archaeological remains of horses, researchers suggest Indigenous peoples had spread the animals through the American West by the first half of the 1600s—before they encountered Europeans.

The findings align with oral histories from Indigenous groups, which tell of interactions with horses prior to colonizers arriving in their homelands. Meanwhile, written European texts from the 1700s and 1800s claimed that horses only spread through the area after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, a Native American uprising that temporarily expelled Spanish colonizers from much of modern New Mexico.

More than 80 scientists and scholars co-authored the paper, including experts from Pueblo, Pawnee, Comanche and Lakota nations, according to an article in the Conversation by two of the authors.

“We have always known and said that we came across horses before we came across the Spanish,” Jimmy Arterberry, a paper co-author and Comanche historian, tells Christina Larson of the Associated Press (AP).

Horses evolved in the Americas around four million years ago, but by about 10,000 years ago, they had mostly disappeared from the fossil record, per the Conversation. Spanish settlers likely first brought horses back to the Americas in 1519, when Hernán Cortés arrived on the continent in Mexico. Per the new paper, Indigenous peoples then transported horses north along trade networks.

To trace when the animals spread, researchers radiocarbon dated and analyzed the DNA of the remains of more than two dozen horses found across the Western U.S. The remains had been stored in archaeological collections countrywide, per Live Science’s Kristina Killgrove.

Three of the horses, with remains from Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico, date to before the Pueblo Revolt. And rather than simply roaming the countryside on their own, the horses appear to have been part of Native American culture. Dental damage on one horse and bony growths on the skull of another suggest people had put bridles on the animals, per Science News’ Bruce Bower. Certain chemical elements in the creatures’ teeth signaled they ate maize, an Indigenous crop. And another horse had a healed facial fracture, meaning it might have been given veterinary attention, per Live Science.

The researchers compared the ancient horses’ DNA with that of modern horses and found that the centuries-old equines had largely Spanish ancestry. Together, the findings suggest horses spread “from Spanish settlements in the American Southwest to the northern Rockies and central Great Plains by the first half of the 17th century,” per the paper.

The research “provides exciting new evidence” that “clearly shows horses spread along Native social networks in North America,” Nicole Mathwich, an archaeologist at San Diego State University who did not contribute to the research, tells Live Science.

The findings also highlight the importance of Indigenous oral traditions in understanding history, says co-author Yvette Running Horse Collin, an evolutionary geneticist at the Center for Anthropobiology and Genomics of Toulouse in France and a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, to the AP.

“Our cultures have been so misrepresented for so long,” she says to the publication. “Too often history has been told around us, without us.”

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