(The Hill) — Native American communities rode, cared for and lived alongside horses nearly a century earlier than European records suggest, a new study has found.
The study, published in the journal Science, shatters the conventional narrative of how — and when — horses came into the Indigenous communities of the American West.
The study draws on a new fusion of tribal oral histories with academic archeology and suggests that rather than being passed on by European colonists, knowledge of the horse has its own deep roots among native peoples themselves.
It also suggests that horses were distributed across Indigenous communities from Wyoming to Kansas generations — at least — before European accounts suggested that horses had reached them.
“This wasn’t people taming wild horses,” William Taylor, co-author and anthropologist at the University of Colorado, told The Hill.
“We identified horses in mid-Kansas, clearly corn fed to get through a tough winter,” he said — something revealed by the radioactive isotopes left in the horses’ bones.
The research team did genetic and radiocarbon testing on dozens of previously untested horse skeleton in museums and held by tribal nations.
They found dozens of examples of horses in these communities that had been ridden, fed by humans and even received veterinary care long before European accounts allow for them having horses at all.
That fills in a “contradiction” in the conventional narrative, Taylor said: the Indigenous horse culture is an internationally recognized symbol of the American West.
But conventional academic histories of that culture’s nature and origins overwhelmingly rely on accounts by Europeans, and largely those written long after those cultures had been colonized.
That narrative has long ignored claims by Plains peoples that the Native American relationship with the horse goes back long before contact with Europeans.
That claim now has more support, Oglala Lakota researcher and co-author Yvette Running Horse Collin told The Hill.
“To attribute the horse as Spanish because everyone knows all the horses went extinct in Americas — that isn’t going to work anymore,” Running Horse Collin said.
Taylor and Running Horse Collin’s paper calls into question a foundational story of the high school history class. The classic explanation of how horses came to peoples like the Comanche and Lakota is that they were the descendants of feral escapees introduced by Spanish conquistadors in the 1600s.
For generations, American schoolchildren have been taught that the defining event of that process was a 1680 revolt by the missions of New Mexico, where Pueblo communities — riven by European diseases, overworked by the friars and raided by the Apache — threw out the Spanish colonists and released their horses.
In the conventional narrative, “this moment is the jumping-off point,” Taylor said. “For a decade or more, Spanish colonists were no longer there to exclude native folks from access to horses.”
But that story’s omnipresence conceals just how little evidence lies behind it. Few Europeans traveled deep into the thriving Indigenous communities of the American interior in the 1500s and 1600s. Of those that did, few were writers — and those who wrote tended to be missionaries and royal officials, confronting deeply foreign cultures.
To fill in those gaps, Taylor and Running Horse Collin — and their collaborators at France’s Marie Curie Institute — drew on a broader global renaissance in research into the origins of the relationship between horses and humans.
In the past 20 years, interdisciplinary work between European, Chinese and Indigenous anthropologists and archaeologists has shed new light on the lost history of what is sometimes called the horse steppe.
That broad grassland between Europe and China was the one-time home of the horse-riding, nomadic Indo-European peoples whose languages were inherited by cultures from Delhi to Dublin.
Like the peoples of inner America, these steppe nomads wrote no records. That means that written records of them, and their horses, came from others — including Russian, Persian and Chinese writers who “sought to strip credit and antiquity” from the horse nomads on their frontiers, Taylor said.
But revolutions in fields from genomics to linguistics — and a new willingness of European academics to draw on Indigenous oral histories — have helped build a new history of the horse steppes, and with it of the American West.
In 2021, for example, a study in Nature identified the nucleus of horse domestication in Eurasia — and the Indo-European culture — to the triangle between the Volga and Don Rivers, in what is now western Russia.
The paper published in Science on Tuesday marks the debut of this toolkit in North America, where it has shed new light on a black spot in the academic map. It also is a sign of a newly collaborative approach between university academics, tribal historic preservation officers and traditional elders.
That style of work is increasingly in vogue in federal research and land management circles. In December, the Biden administration published an unprecedented memo directing federal agencies to consider Indigenous traditional knowledge when making decisions about federal land and water.
That kind of recognition would have been unthinkable in previous generations, Running Horse Collin said — and Lakota elders are responding to it by urging researchers like her to form research relationships with academics in Europe and America.
“Up until this point, there has been a clear divide in science and academia, with Indigenous people on one side and Western-trained academics on the other,” she said.
But now, she said, elders involved in the project had told her that “this is a time when the world is likely to have better ears. This is the time, go forward now.”
For Running Horse Collin, the potential stakes are much higher than simply moving back the date of Indigenous American adoption of horses by a few decades. In her 2017 thesis, she argued that there was no actual evidence “scientific or otherwise” to disprove Native American oral histories of horse cultures that predated the Spanish arrival.
In that paper, she argued that “the Indigenous horse of the Americas survived the ice age, and the original peoples of these continents had a relationship with them from Pleistocene times to the time of “First-Contact.”
That is a far broader claim than Thursday’s Science paper makes — though one that many Native American peoples espouse. But Running Horse Collin sees it as a first step.
“In our culture, we don’t usually talk about something before it’s done. But we’re trying to be respectful of the Western system. If they want to go in increments; we’ll go in increments.”
By pushing back the date of first contact, the discovery opens a crack in a larger narrative about the origin of the horse in America — and the roots of Indigenous cultures themselves.
“The Lakota always followed the horse,” Running Horse Collin said, “and we’re allowing it to lead this discussion now. And I’m confident that it will do what has always done. The horse is a unifier — it won’t let us down.”