Early Dispersal of Horses into the Great Plains

March 31, 2023

(Note: This post is the first in what is hoped to be many article summaries, as an exercise in science communication and public outreach. Any errors are my own.)

Okay, so full disclosure: I was a horse girl. I still am, if I’m being completely honest. 
Photo of me horse riding in Utah, 2022
So, that’s one of the many reasons why this new publication “Early dispersal of domestic horses into the Great Plains and northern Rockies” is so exciting to see.

It is known that horses were present in Pleistocene North America, but that they went extinct on the continent sometime around 5,000 years ago. Most Western Scholars believe that horses were then reintroduced by European colonizers from the late 15th century onward, although the exact timing of the spread of horses across North America was unclear.
In their study, William Timothy Treal Taylor and colleagues utilized a multi-method approach (genomics, isotopes, radiocarbon, and paleopathology) on archaeological horse remains to investigate Indigenous human-horse relationships. Some of their key findings included:
  • That horses were present across the Great Plains before documented European presence in the area (by 1650, to be more specific), 
  • That, genetically, these historic horses descended from primarily Spanish stock,
  • That these horses were born, raised, and died locally (based on strontium, carbon, and oxygen isotope analyses of horse mobility and diet),
  • That horses were deeply engrained and integrated into Indigenous societies before the arrival of European settlers, and were used to assist with hunting and herd management, and in ceremonial practices,
  • That these horses were well-cared for, and evidence for early veterinary care is also present (in the form of a healed kick fracture in a foal)
Broadly, this research represents a potential shift in how we think about the historic American West. Rather than as a result or reaction to colonization,  the adoption of the horse in Indigenous cultures should be thought of as an independent action, initiated by these Indigenous societies. What is also really awesome to see is the number of Indigenous authors included on this paper. It’s a fantastic collaborative effort, demonstrating how the inclusion of different perspectives and voices strengthens science.

For further information, I recommend these two summary articles by Kristina Killgrove and Andrew Curry, which both do a great job of exploring the new research in an informative and engaging way. 


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