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The Untold History of the Horse in the American Plains

Understanding how domestic horses transformed human life following their reintroduction into North America

by University of Oklahoma
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NORMAN, OK — University of Oklahoma researchers co-led a study recently published in the journal Science that provides a clearer picture of the historical role of horses in the North American west.

The paper, “Early dispersal of domestic horses into the Great Plains and Northern Rockies,” uses archeological materials, historical sources, and Indigenous knowledge to understand when, why, and how domestic horses transformed human life following their reintroduction into North America, said study co-author Brandi Bethke, PhD, lab director, and research faculty of the Oklahoma Archeological Survey at the University of Oklahoma.

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Collaborators to the U.S. National Science Foundation-funded (NSF) study include archeologists from the University of Oklahoma, University of Colorado-Boulder, and University of New Mexico and geneticists from the University of Toulouse in France, as well as an extensive research team that is comprised of 87 scientists across 66 institutions.

To tell the stories of horses in the West, the team closely examined 23 sets of animal remains found at sites from across the Plains and Rocky Mountains. Using both new and established practices from the archaeological sciences, such as radiocarbon dating and DNA sequencing, in combination with Indigenous histories, the team identified evidence that horses were raised, fed, cared for, and ridden by Native Nations across the American plains and Rocky Mountains as much as a century before records from Europeans had suggested.

NSF Archeology program director John Yellen said, “This research demonstrates how multiple different types of data can be integrated to address the fascinating historical question of how and when horses spread across the West.”

Direct radiocarbon dating of horse remains from museum collections ranging from southern Idaho to southwestern Wyoming and northern Kansas showed that horses were present across much of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains by the early 17th century, and conclusively before the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. This archeological data proves that domestic horses were no longer in exclusive Spanish control and were integrated into Indigenous lifeways by at least the early 1600s. Importantly, this earlier dispersal validates many traditional perspectives on the origin of the horse from project partners like the Lakota, Comanche, Pawnee, and Wichita who recognize the link between archeological findings and oral traditions.

In Oklahoma, Bethke and study co-author Sarah Trabert, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology in the Dodge Family College of Arts and Sciences, worked with representatives of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes as a part of this project to better understand the dynamics of human-horse relationships among the communities’ ancestors. They studied artifact collections held at the Sam Noble Museum and Oklahoma Archeological Survey to determine the prevalence of horses among these sites.

“All three major post-contact Wichita Village sites that have been excavated in Oklahoma—Bryson-Paddock, Deer Creek, Longest—have yielded horse remains,” Bethke said. “More recently, a horse bone has also been discovered at the ancestral Wichita site, Little Deer, that may be the earliest example of horse bone in the state.”

Bethke said, “For decades the mainstream story of the horse in North America has relied on Euroamerican accounts that often discount the antiquity and complexity of Indigenous responses to and relationships with their horses. This study is a first step in correcting these established narratives among both the academic community and the American public.”

- This press release was originally published on the University of Oklahoma website