By Julian Smith
One of the most enduring icons of the American West is a Native American rider on horseback, galloping into battle or chasing down a herd of buffalo. For all of its cultural significance, though, the domestic horse was a relatively recent addition to Indigenous people in North America. The introduction of the domestic horse in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries spurred one of the most dramatic socio-environmental changes in the history of the Americas. From the Great Plains to Patagonia, it gave rise to some of the world’s greatest horse cultures.
But gaps in the historic record have left questions about when and how the Native societies of North America adopted the animals that would come to play such a pivotal role in their lives. Incorrect assumptions based on biased historical accounts and cultural prejudices have lingered for decades. Now a wide-ranging research project called Horses and Human Societies in the American West, funded by the National Science Foundation, is reexamining the story. Researchers from several universities and representatives of Native groups are taking a multidisciplinary approach to uncover a more detailed and accurate narrative behind that enduring image of the mounted warrior.
The earliest ancestors of the horse appeared in North America during the Eocene epoch around thirty million years ago. They evolved into large single-toed grazers that went extinct sometime during the last 10,000 years, possibly due to climate change and human hunting. Modern horses reappeared in North America when the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the early sixteenth century. In a short amount of time they had spread among Indigenous groups throughout the West, and the Indigenous people formed deep bonds with an animal that provided transportation, companionship, and prestige.
“The introduction of horses to the Pawnee culture in the late sixteenth century fundamentally changed our society,” said Carlton Shield Chief Gover, a graduate student at the University of Colorado and a member of the Pawnee Nation who is a project partner. “They weren’t just a form of locomotion. They really changed the community, how they thought of themselves.”
This is an article excerpt from the Spring 2022 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription.