Indigenous cultures of the American Great Plains and northern Rockies had integrated domestic horses of Spanish ancestry into their lifeways long before the arrival of European colonizers to the region, according to a new study. The analysis leverages archaeological remains of early historic horse specimens instead of relying on European colonizer records, as many past studies have. The horse is central to many Indigenous cultures across the American Southwest and Great Plains. However, when and how these important animal companions first became integrated into these societies remains poorly understood. It is widely believed by western scientists that domestic horses were introduced to the region by Europeans following the Spanish colonization of Mexico, becoming more broadly dispersed across the American west during the end of the 1600s. Much of what is thought here is derived from European colonizer records, often rife with inaccuracies and strong anti-Indigenous bias, from the 18th and 19th centuries. William Taylor and colleagues – a group that included researchers from the Lakota, Comanche, and Pawnee Nations, as well as other Indigenous scholars from across North America – performed a comprehensive interdisciplinary analysis of historical archaeological horse remains from across the American Great Plains and northern Rockies. By integrating osteological, genomic, isotopic, radiocarbon and paleopathological evidence, Taylor et al. discovered that early domestic North American horses show a strong genetic affinity to Spanish horse populations, indicating a European origin. However, these horses had spread throughout the region far earlier than previously believed, their findings suggest; the animals had already spread northward from Spanish settlements in the American Southwest and become deeply integrated into the Indigenous cultures of the Rockies and Great Plains during the first half of the 1600s at the latest, and long before the 18th century arrival of Europeans to the region, they say. “Our findings have deep ramifications for our understanding of social dynamics in the Great Plains during a period of disruptive social changes for Indigenous peoples,” write Taylor and colleagues.
Early dispersal of domestic horses into the Great Plains and northern Rockies
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