Horses have been part of Indigenous cultures longer than Western historians thought

Curly mare (Rina) and her leopard spotted foal.

Archaeological evidence suggests horses spread across the West earlier than previously thought.

May 8, 2023

An international study found that horses were introduced into Indigenous cultures in the American Great Plains and Rocky Mountains decades before European-American records indicate.

An international study, funded in part by the U.S. National Science Foundation, found that horses have been present on the Great Plains of North America since as early as the 16th century. The study included researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder, the Lakota Nation, Comanche Nation and Pawnee Nation, as well as researchers from schools across 15 countries, spanning over five continents.

Horses became a large part of many Indigenous cultures, but the understanding of their integration and spread has largely been reliant on observations from 18th and 19th century Europeans and American settlers.

Horses and their relatives originally evolved in North America, before travelling across the Bering Strait into Asia and further west. While North American horses were still present as late as 5000-6000 years ago, they had likely died out before Vikings arrived on American shores around the end of 10th century. It is unclear whether the Vikings ever brought horses to America; however, the animals were brought on boats by the Spanish in the 15th and 16th centuries, followed by the British and French and others. Most of the horse remains that were genetically tested by contemporary researchers showed to be primarily of Spanish or Iberian heritage, which coincides with the types of horses the Spanish brought to the Americas. Later, British horses began contributing to the genes of horses on the Great Plains.

It has been assumed, from European sources, that horses first began to spread into the American Southwest after the Pueblo Revolt in 1680. However, the interdisciplinary analysis of the archaeological remains of horses from this study suggests that Indigenous peoples had already begun integrating horses into their cultures decades prior...

Read the full story and watch a video in NSF's Science Matters.

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