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.
A researcher analyzes bones from the Lehi Horse, which was found in Lehi, Utah. The analysis suggested the horse, which lived during the historic period, served as a transport animal. | Credit: William Taylor
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.
A horse was carved into the sandstone cliff in this petroglyph found at Comanche National Grassland in southern Colorado. A rider painted with charcoal sits atop the horse. This area was part of the territory occupied by the Comanche during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. | Credit: William Taylor
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.”
Across the Western United States, Indigenous peoples developed new ways of riding and caring for their domestic horses. This included the innovation of rawhide rope bridles that were looped over the animal’s lower jaw, as seen in this 3-D model. | Credit: William Taylor

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.  


| The Archaeological Conservancy 2022


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