A landmark study on history of horses in the American West, published in Science, relies on Native knowledge

A team of international researchers has dug into archaeological records, DNA evidence and Indigenous oral traditions to paint what might be the most exhaustive history of early horses in North America to date. The group’s findings show that these beasts of burden may have spread throughout the American West much faster and earlier than many European accounts have suggested.

The researchers, including several scientists from CU Boulder, published their findings today in the journal Science.

To tell the stories of horses in the West, the team closely examined about two dozen sets of animal remains found at sites ranging from New Mexico to Kansas and Idaho. The researchers come from 15 countries and multiple Native American groups, including the Lakota, Comanche and Pawnee nations.

“What unites everyone is the shared vision of telling a different kind of story about horses,” said William Taylor, a corresponding author of the study and curator of archaeology at the CU Museum of Natural History. “Focusing only on the historical record has underestimated the antiquity and the complexity of Indigenous relationships with horses across a huge swath of the American West.”

For many of the scientists involved, the research holds deep personal significance, added Taylor, who grew up in Montana where his grandfather was a rancher.

“We’re looking at parts of the country that are extraordinarily important to the people on this project,” he said.

The researchers drew on archaeozoology, radiocarbon dating, DNA sequencing and other tools to unearth how and when horses first arrived in various regions of today’s United States. Based on the team’s calculations, 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 records from Europeans had suggested.

Groups like the Comanche, in other words, may have begun to form deep bonds with horses mere decades after the animals arrived in the Americas on Spanish boats.

The results line up with a wide range of Indigenous oral histories.

“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,” said Jimmy Arterberry, co-author of the new study and tribal historian of the Comanche Nation in Oklahoma.

Study co-author Carlton Shield Chief Gover agreed, noting that the love of horses may be one thing that extends across societies and borders.

“People are fascinated by horses. They’ve grown up with horses,” said 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. “We can talk to one another through our shared love of an animal.”

Mud Pony

For many Native American communities that shared love goes a long way back.

The Pawnee, for example, tell the story of “Mud Pony,” a boy who began 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,” Shield Chief Gover said. “That’s how you get horses.”

European historical records from the colonial period, however, have tended to favor a more recent origin story for horses in the West. Many scholars have suggested that Native American communities didn’t begin caring for horses until after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. During this event, Pueblo people in what is today New Mexico temporarily overthrew Spanish rule, releasing European livestock in the process.

Taylor, also an assistant professor of anthropology at CU Boulder, and his colleagues didn’t think it fit as an origin story for the relationships between humans and horses in the West:

“We thought: There’s something fishy about this story.”

Clues in bone

With funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), they formed an equine dream team that includes archaeologists from the University of Oklahoma and University of New Mexico. Geneticist Ludovic Orlando and Lakota scholar Yvette Running Horse Collin took part from the University of Toulouse in France.

“This research demonstrates how multiple different types of data can be integrated to address the fascinating historical question of how and when horses spread across the West,” said NSF Archaeology program director John Yellen.

The researchers began collecting as much data as they could on horses remains from the West. DNA evidence, for example, suggests that most Indigenous horses had descended from Spanish and Iberian horses, with British horses becoming more common in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Taylor specializes in teasing out the clues hidden in animal bones. Metal bits, for example, leave wear and tear on a horse’s teeth and skull. The archaeologist was especially interested in the remains of a 5- or 6-month-old foal that had been dug up from the Blacks Fork of the Green River in Wyoming in the 1990s.  Taylor and his colleagues discovered that the animal had a partially healed skull fracture, potentially from being kicked by another horse. When the animal died of unknown causes, people buried it in a ceremonial fashion alongside three coyotes.

“Our analyses show it was born and raised locally,” Taylor said. “It was cared for, and when that animal passed, there was extraordinary significance to that event.”

The remains of this horse, along with several others from the study, also seemed to date back to around the turn of the 17th Century, decades before the start of the Pueblo Revolt.

How animals like it arrived in Wyoming isn’t clear, but it’s likely that Europeans weren’t involved in their initial transport.

Shield Chief Gover explained that few Indigenous people will be surprised by the results of the study. But the team’s findings may help to illustrate for academic scientists just how important these animals were to the history of Indigenous peoples. The Pawnee, who lived in Nebraska, for example, rode horses on twice-a-year buffalo hunts, traveling farther and faster into the “sea of grass” of the Great Plains. Comanche also galloped on horseback to hunt buffalo, while owning a lot of horses was a sign of wealth.

“I don’t want to diminish the reverence and the respect we have for horses,” Arterberry said. “We see them as gifts the Creator gave us, and, because of that, we survived and thrived and became who we are today.”

Respecting horses

Study co-author Chance Ward, a master’s student in Museum and Field Studies at CU Boulder, would like to see the archaeology community begin to treat those relationships with more respect. He was born and raised on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, which is home to four bands of the Lakota Nation. Ward grew up listening to his mother’s childhood stories about riding ponies in the Bear Creek community. His father’s parents started a ranch on the reservation where the family practices rodeo today.

He explained that many researchers don’t handle animal remains with the same care they reserve for cultural objects and human remains.

“They tend to be thrown into a box or bag where they hit against each other and break,” Ward said. “This project is a chance for us as Native people to put our voices out there and take better care of important and sacred animals in museum collections.”

Press release from the University of Colorado at Boulder, by 


The untold history of the horse in the American Plains, a new future for the world

The continent of North America is where horses first emerged. 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 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, is published today in the journal Science.
American West history of horses Native knowledge
Man, “He Stalks One”, and horse connect. © Sacred Way Sanctuary

Horses have been part of us since long before other cultures came to our lands, and we are a part of them,

states Chief Joe American Horse, a leader of the Oglala Lakota Oyate, traditional knowledge keeper, and co-author of the study. In 2018, at the instruction of her elder knowledge keepers and traditional leaders, Dr. Yvette Running Horse Collin contacted contacted Prof Ludovic Orlando, French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) scientist. She had completed her PhD, which focused on deconstructing the history of horses in the Americas. Up until that point, the field had been dominated by western academics, and Indigenous voices had been largely dismissed. She sought an opportunity to develop a research programme in which traditional Indigenous sciences could be brought forward and considered on equal footing with western science. For the Lakota, scientifically investigating the history of the Horse Nation in the Americas was a perfect starting point, as it would highlight the places of connection and disconnection between Western and Indigenous approaches. The elders were clear: working on the horse would provide a roadmap for learning how to combine the power of all scientific systems, traditional and western alike. And by doing so, eventually provide new solutions to the many challenges affecting people, communities and biodiversity around the globe. For now, as her ancestors before her, Dr. Running Horse Collin would follow the lead of the Horse Nation.

Part of the programme was to test 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.

Archaeological science has emerged as a powerful tool to understand the past, and, if done collaboratively, a strong technique for countering biases built into historical narratives. Over the last decade, Prof. Orlando and his team of geneticists have extracted the ancient DNA molecules still preserved in archeological remains to rewrite the history of the domestic horse. They have sequenced the genomes of several hundred horses that lived on the planet thousands of years ago, up to even 700,000 years ago. This technology could, thus, be reasonably expected to reveal the genetic makeup of horses that lived in the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains post-European contact.

Prof. Ludovic Orlando and Dr. Yvette Running Horse discuss image of the Blacks Fork horse’s healed fracture. © Northern Vision Productions

To tackle this question, Prof. William Taylor, Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado and a large team of partners including archaeologists from the University of New Mexico and University of Oklahoma set out to track down archaeological horse bones from across the American West together with his Lakota, Comanche, Pawnee and Pueblo collaborators. 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. 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. 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. Clearly, the most common narrative for the origin of the American horse needed correction.

The genome evidence demonstrated that the horses surveyed in this study for many Plains Nations 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. Likewise, they were not the descendants of Viking horses, despite Viking establishing settlements on the American continent by 1021. Archaeological data show that these domestic horses were no longer in exclusive Spanish control by at least the early 1600s, and were integrated into Indigenous lifeways. Importantly, this earlier dispersal validates many traditional perspectives on the origin of the horse from project partners like the Comanche and Pawnee, who recognize the link between archaeological findings and oral traditions. Comanche Tribal Historian and study coauthor Jimmy Arterberry states:

These findings support and concur with Comanche oral tradition. Archaeological traces of our horse culture are invaluable assets that reveal a chronology in North American history, and are important to the survival of Indigenous cultures. They are our heritage, and merit honor through protection. They are sacred to the Comanche.

Further work involving new archaeological excavations at sites dating to or even predating the 16th century, and additional sequencing, will help shed new light on other chapters of the human-horse story in the Americas. Pawnee archaeologist and study coauthor Carlton Shield Chief Gover says:

The archaeological science presented in our research further illustrates the necessity for meaningful and genuine collaborative partnerships with Indigenous communities.

The genome analyses did not just address the development of horsemanship within First Nations during the first stages of the American colonization. These analyses demonstrated that the once dominant ancestry found in the horse genome became increasingly diluted through time, gaining ancestry native from British bloodlines. Therefore, the changing landscape of colonial America was recorded in the horse genome: first mainly from Spanish sources, then primarily from British settlers.

In the future, this team is committed to continue working on the history of the Horse Nation in the Americas to include the scientific methodologies inherent in Indigenous scientific systems, as well as a greater contribution regarding migratory patterns and the effects on the genome due to climate change. This study was critical in helping to bring Western and Indigenous scientists together so that authentic dialogue and exchange may begin.

The challenges that our modern world faces are immense. In these times of massive biodiversity crisis and global climate warming, the future of the planet is threatened. Indigenous Peoples have survived the chaos and destruction brought about by colonization, assimilation policies and genocide, and carry important knowledge and scientific approaches centered around sustainability. It is now, more than ever, time to repair history and create more inclusive conditions for co-designing strategies for a more sustainable future. Importantly, this study created a collaboration between western scientists and many Native Nations across the United States, from the Pueblo to the Pawnee, Wichita, Comanche, and Lakota. We expect to be joined by many more soon.

Our Horse Nation relatives have always brought us together and will continue to do so. Our horse societies are organized and ready. As this collaboration develops, we invite all Peoples of the Horse to join us. We call to you.” (Dr. Antonia Loretta Afraid of Bear-Cook, traditional knowledge keeper for the Oglala Lakota, a study co-author).

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).


Press release from the CNRS


The Untold History of the Horse in the American Plains

University of Oklahoma researchers co-led a study recently published in the journal Science that provides a clearer picture of the historical role of horses in the North American west.

American West history of horses Native knowledge
Composite photo created by University of Oklahoma graphic designer Daniel Deering. Left image: Horse and rider petroglyph at the Tolar site, located in Sweetwater County, Wyoming. This depiction was likely carved by ancestral Comanche or Shoshone people. Image credit: Pat Doak. Right: Curly mare (Rina) and her leopard-spotted foal. © Sacred Way Sanctuary

The paper, “Early dispersal of domestic horses into the Great Plains and Northern Rockies,” uses archaeological materials, historical sources and Indigenous knowledge to understand when, why and how domestic horses transformed human life following their reintroduction into North America, said study co-author Brandi Bethke, Ph.D., lab director and research faculty of the Oklahoma Archeological Survey at the University of Oklahoma.

Collaborators to the U.S. National Science Foundation-funded study include archaeologists from the University of Oklahoma, University of Colorado-Boulder, and University of New Mexico and geneticists from the University of Toulouse in France, as well as an extensive research team that is comprised of 87 scientists across 66 institutions.

To tell the stories of horses in the West, the team closely examined 23 sets of animal remains found at sites from across the Plains and Rocky Mountains. Using both new and established practices from the archaeological sciences, such as radiocarbon dating and DNA sequencing, in combination with Indigenous histories, the team identified evidence that horses were raised, fed, cared for and ridden by Native Nations across the American plains and Rocky Mountains as much as a century before records from Europeans had suggested.

NSF Archeology program director John Yellen said, “This research demonstrates how multiple different types of data can be integrated to address the fascinating historical question of how and when horses spread across the West.”

Direct radiocarbon dating of horse remains from museum collections 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 archaeological data proves that domestic horses were no longer in exclusive Spanish control and were integrated into Indigenous lifeways by at least the early 1600s. Importantly, this earlier dispersal validates many traditional perspectives on the origin of the horse from project partners like the Lakota, Comanche, Pawnee and Wichita who recognize the link between archaeological findings and oral traditions.

In Oklahoma, Bethke and study co-author Sarah Trabert, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology in the Dodge Family College of Arts and Sciences, worked with representatives of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes as a part of this project to better understand the dynamics of human-horse relationships among the communities’ ancestors. They studied artifact collections held at the Sam Noble Museum and Oklahoma Archeological Survey to determine the prevalence of horses among these sites.

“All three major post-contact Wichita Village sites that have been excavated in Oklahoma – Bryson-Paddock, Deer Creek, Longest – have yielded horse remains,” Bethke said. “More recently, a horse bone has also been discovered at the ancestral Wichita site, Little Deer, that may be the earliest example of horse bone in the state.”

Bethke said, “For decades the mainstream story of the horse in North America has relied on Euroamerican accounts that often discount the antiquity and complexity of Indigenous responses to and relationships with their horses. This study is a first step in correcting these established narratives among both the academic community and the American public.”

More information about the project can be found at http://hhsnaw.org/

Bibliographic information: 

Early dispersal of domestic horses into the Great Plains and Northern Rockies. William Timothy Treal Taylor, Pablo Librado, Mila Hunska Tašunke Icu (Chief Joseph American Horse), Carlton Shield Chief Gover, Jimmy Arterberry, Anpetu Luta Wiŋ (Antonia Loretta Afraid of Bear-Cook), Akil Nujipi (Harold Left Heron), Tanka Omniya (Robert Milo Yellow Hair), Mario Gonzalez (Nantan Hinapan), Bill Means, Sam High Crane (Wapageya Mani), Mažasu (Wendell W. Yellow Bull), Barbara Dull Knife (Mah’piya Keyaké Wiŋ), Wakiŋyala Wiŋ (Anita Afraid of Bear), Cruz Tecumseh Collin (Wanka’tuya Kiya), Chance Ward, Theresa A. Pasqual, Lorelei Chauvey, Laure Tonasso-Calviere, Stéphanie Schiavinato, Andaine Seguin-Orlando, Antoine Fages, Naveed Khan, Clio Der Sarkissian, Xuexue Liu, Stefanie Wagner, Beth Ginondidoy Leonard, Bruce L. Manzano, Nancy O’Malley, Jennifer A. Leonard, Eloisa Bernadez-Sanchez, Eric Barrey, Léa Charliquart, Emilie Robbe, Thibault Denoblet, Kristian Gregersen, Alisa O. Vershinina, Jaco Weinstock, Petra Rajić Šikanjić, Marjan Mashkour, Irina Shingiray, Jean-Marc Aury, Aude Perdereau, Saleh Alquraishi, Ahmed H. Alfarhan, Khaled A. S. Al- Rasheid, Tajana Trbojević Vukičević, Marcel Buric, Eberhard Sauer, Mary Lucas, Joan Brenner-Coltrain, John R. Bozell, Cassidee A. Thornhill, Victoria Monagle, Angela Perri, Cody Newton, W. Eugene Hall, Joshua L. Conver, Petrus Le Roux, Sasha G. Buckser, Caroline Gabe, Juan Bautista Belardi, Christina I. Barrón-Ortiz, Isaac A. Hart, Christina Ryder, Matthew Sponheimer, Beth Shapiro, John Southon, Joss Hibbs, Charlotte Faulkner, Alan Outram, Laura Patterson Rosa, Katelyn Palermo, Marina Solé, Alice William, Wayne McCrory, Gabriella Lindgren, Samantha Brooks, Camille Eché, Cécile Donnadieu, Olivier Bouchez, Patrick Wincker, Gregory Hodgins, Sarah Trabert, Brandi Bethke, Patrick Roberts, Emily Lena Jones, Yvette Running Horse Collin (Tašunke Iyanke Wiŋ), and Ludovic Orlando. Science, March 31, 2023, DOI: 10.1126/science.adc9691 


Press release from the University of Oklahoma, by Chelsea Julian.

Dove i classici si incontrano. ClassiCult è una Testata Giornalistica registrata presso il Tribunale di Bari numero R.G. 5753/2018 – R.S. 17. Direttore Responsabile Domenico Saracino, Vice Direttrice Alessandra Randazzo. Gli articoli a nome di ClassiCult possono essere 1) articoli a più mani (in tal caso, i diversi autori sono indicati subito dopo il titolo); 2) comunicati stampa (in tal caso se ne indica provenienza e autore a fine articolo).

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