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Archeology and genomics, along with Indigenous knowledge, revisit the human-horse narrative in the American West


There are few places in the world more closely associated with horses in the popular imagination than the Great Plains of North America. Romanticized tales of cowboys and the Wild West feature prominently in popular culture, and domesticated horses are embedded in everything from place names, such as Wild Horse Mesa, to sporting mascots, such as the Denver Broncos.

Horses first evolved in America about 4 million years ago. Then horses largely disappeared from the fossil record about 10,000 years ago. However, archaeological finds from the Yukon to the Gulf Coast make it clear that horses were an important part of the ancient life of the early peoples of North America.

Millennia later, horses were reintroduced by European settlers, eventually becoming home to the Great Plains powerful native horse culturesof which many made use of their expertise on horseback to maintain sovereignty even amid the rising waves of colonial exploitation, genocide and disease.

But how did horses become part of life on the Great Plains? And are there bits of that story that might be missing from today’s popular stories?

One of us is an archaeozoologist who studies ancient animal remains. The other is a Lakota scientist who specializes in ancient equine genomics and is an expert in indigenous oral traditions about horses. Together we assembled a large team of scientists and scholars from around the world, including those from the Pueblo, Pawnee, Comanche, and Lakota nations, and set out to see what archaeology, Indigenous knowledge systems, and genomics could together tell us about the horse in the American West.

Horses have long been part of indigenous cultures in the American West.
Ettor Mazza

Complicating the colonial version of the story

In recent decades, the story of man and horse has largely been told through the lens of colonial history. One of the reasons for this is logistical: European settlers often wrote down their observations and created documentaries that partially explore the early relationships between settlers, indigenous cultures and horses in the colonial west. Another reason, however, is prejudice: Indigenous peoples in the Americas are barred from telling their side of the story.

While historical accounts are a valuable tool for understanding the past, they also carry with them the biases and cultural context of the people who wrote them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many such documents minimize or dismiss interactions between Indigenous people and horses. More importantly, the scope of the written record is limited to those places visited by European settlers—which until the 18th and 19th centuries excluded much of the plains and Rocky Mountains.

Filtering indigenous horse cultures through a European framework caused stories to become unrecognizable to many indigenous peoples.

Many models for the origin of the plains’ native horse use focus on one particular date: the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680. During this momentous revolt, Pueblo people living under harsh Spanish subjugation staged a revolt that expelled Spanish settlers from New Mexico for more than a decade. Many historians link the revolt to the first spread of horses outside the Southwest, because with the disappearance of the Spaniards, their control over their cattle in colonial settlements had also disappeared.

Rock art silhouette of horse and rider
Ancestral Comanche or Shoshone horse and equestrian statue at Tolar in southern Wyoming.
Beat Doak

However, other scholars who prioritize and understand indigenous knowledge and scientific frameworks do questioned these assumptionspointing out historical inconsistencies and emphasizing oral traditions that support a deeper antiquity of the human-horse relationship among many indigenous nations.

In recent years, archeology has emerged as a powerful tool for exploring aspects of the human-horse story that may not have been written down in books. In Mongolia, for example, our analysis of ancient horse bones has shown that steppe cultures herded, rode, and cared for horses centuries before they were first mentioned in historical records.

Us first studies in the western US suggested that there may be a rich archaeological record of horse remains in the West associated with indigenous cultures, even though this record has often been overlooked or misclassified in museum collections.

Horse remains provide their own clues

For our new study published in the journal Science, we searched for horse remains in museum collections across the western US, from Idaho to Kansas. These horses ranged from single, isolated bones to nearly complete horses, with incredible preservation.

Among the dozens of ancient horses we’ve identified, precision carbon dating revealed that several lived in the early 1600s or earlier—decades before the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, and in some areas at least a century or more before the arrival of the first Europeans.

model of a horse skull with a woven bridle tied around the lower jaw
3D model of a horse skull and a replica rawhide bridle at the University of Colorado Archaeozoology Laboratory.
William Taylor

We analyzed the bones of the ancient horses and found evidence that these early horses were not only present on the Great Plains, but were already an important part of Indigenous societies. Some horses have skeletal features that show they were ridden or given veterinary care. Other information, such as the method of burial or incorporation alongside other animals such as coyotes, shows that horses were part of ceremonial practices.

We used isotope analysis to learn more about the ancient diet and movements of these animals by measuring heavier or lighter variants of molecules in their bones and teeth. We found that some of the earliest horses in southwestern Wyoming and northern Kansas were not escaped Spanish expeditions, but were instead raised locally by native communities.

One baby horse we analyzed that lived in Blacks Fork, Wyoming, in Comanche ancestral lands around 1650, was born and died on the spot.had not yet been able to raise foals.” In another case, a horse that also lived along the Missouri River in the mid-1600s was probably fed during the winter on corn, a native domestic crop.

DNA sequencing of archaeological horses, while revealing Iberian ancestry, shows important links between ancient horses and which are managed by the current communities such as the Lakota, for whom horses are still an important part of ceremony, tradition and daily life. While future work will be needed to pinpoint exactly when and how horses reached northern plains areas, our results point to indigenous networks of trade and exchange — perhaps bringing horses across the Plains and Rockies from Mexico or the American Southwest.

New evidence supports old stories

Our findings also validate oral traditions for many of the Indigenous communities affected by the study.

sitting man holds horse skull in his hands
Graduate student and Lakota archaeologist Chance Ward analyzes horse remains at the University of Colorado-Boulder Archaeozoology Laboratory.
Samantha Eds

Our study is the result of a conscious collaborative approach. Our Lakota partners, led by Chief Joe American Horse and one of us (Collin), have published an accompanying document introduction to the Lakota relationship with horses that served as the basis for our collaborative work.

Working together with archaeological science and Indigenous perspectives, a very different story was eventually told about horses in the American West. For example, Comanche tribal historian and Elder Jimmy Arterberry noted that the archaeological discoveries from ancestrally connected areas of Wyoming “support and agree with the Comanche oral tradition” that Comanche ancestors raised and groomed horses before migrating to the southern plains.

We hope that future work will continue to emphasize the ancient connections between humans and horses, and encourage a reconsideration of assumptions built into society’s understanding of the past.

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