Spanish horses entered the Great Plains before Europeans

“We are known as ‘Lords of the Plains’ and we are part of the Shoshone tribe. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, we moved away from our Shoshone kin to the northern plains and then south in search of a new home,” says the Shoshone website. comanche nationone of the best-known native peoples who inhabit and have inhabited the territory of what is now the United States.

The Comanches, on their own, migrated “across the plains, through Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma”, eventually settling in southwestern Oklahoma. “The horse was a key element in Comanche culture. The people mastered their skills on horseback and gained a huge advantage in times of war,” in his words.

This characteristic of the Comanche culture is again relevant now, when an international group of researchers presents a study, magazine cover Sciencewith surprising facts about when Spanish-descended domestic horses entered the lives of Native American peoples.

Perhaps our most important finding is that the archaeological discoveries, in this case, validate the oral traditions of many of our contributors, such as the Comanches.

William Taylor, lead author

According to the team, led by anthropologist William Taylor of the University of Colorado at Boulder (USA) and which includes researchers from the Lakota, Comanche and Pawnee nations, these indigenous cultures of the North American Great Plains and Northern Rocky Mountains would have integrated the dispersed equines of the territory of present-day Mexico very before the arrival of European settlers in the region. Native peoples adopted the animals during the first half of the 17th century at the latest.

The authors chose to directly analyze historical samples of early horse specimens, rather than relying on colonial records, which until now were assumed to have spread across the American West at the turn of the 17th century.

Satellite image showing the approximate distribution of the Great Plains of North America. /CC/William L. Farr.

Analyzes of archaeological remains of these animals, from the Great Plains and northern Rockies, included osteological, genomic, isotopic, radiocarbon, and paleopathological evidence. The results revealed that the first North American domestic horses show a strong genetic affinity with the Spaniards, indicating a European origin.

The pack animal company

The article suggests that equine populations may have expanded northward from Spanish settlements in the American Southwest long before Europeans arrived in the region in the 18th century, during a time of “disturbing social changes” among the natives.

To learn about their living conditions at that time, SINC consulted William Taylor about the link and role that pack animals played among local ethnic groups.

“Our project demonstrates that horses were integrated into native societies at least in the early 17th century across much of the western United States and that they were primarily of Spanish origin,” he emphasizes. Furthermore, he notes that “prior to this time, other pack animals played an important role in the Americas, especially camelids such as the llama and alpaca in South America, and domestic dogs in much of the Great Plains.”

More than three centuries later, different views of these phenomena come together to try to explain them with less bias. On how the different perspectives enriched this interdisciplinary study, Taylor argues that, “through the application of a wide range of techniques from the archaeological sciences”, they managed to certify not only that the first integration of horses was “much earlier than researchers thought the Westerners”. , but also to value “aspects of horse management by the natives”, such as “veterinary care and riding, through osteology, diet and movement, based on isotopes”.

For his part, the tribal historian of the Comanche Nation, Jimmy W. Arterberry, highlights “the respect and debate between the interdisciplinary research team” because, in his opinion, “allowed for a rich and meaningful cooperation, as the results demonstrate” .

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Horse and rider petroglyph at the Tolar site (Sweetwater, Wyoming). Probable representation of Comanche authorship. /Pat Doack.

Another relevant fact is that, thanks to studies of ancient DNA, the work shows how the “change in the social landscape of the Americas” influenced horses, which acquired “stronger traits of British descent” over time, explains the main author. .

Although the researcher highlights: “Perhaps our most important finding is that the archaeological discoveries, in this case, validate the oral traditions of many of our collaborators, such as the Comanches, whose traditions suggest that they already raised horses before their long migration to the plains of the South in the eighteenth century.

The Comanche spokesperson agrees with Taylor: “Oral tradition is the most effective means of communicating lifestyles and cultural trends within Comanche history itself.”

However, continues Arterberry, “it is very important, in this era, to produce written, photographic and audiovisual documentation, with interpretations from within the culture, to share and communicate with each other and with the world in general”. For the spokesperson, having a place in the dissemination of what his people are, as well as the sharing of their historical narratives, “are also imperative for the continuation of their own culture, for the sake of memory”, and values ​​”the incorporation of modern science initiatives.

In this case, “the analysis carried out together with the oral history reports confirmed and improved our understanding of the arrival of the horse in Native American culture”, adds the representative of the Comanche community present in the team.

The contributions of each approach

Regarding the folk traditions of native peoples, Taylor explains that “for most horse enthusiasts around the world, horses are not only part of the past, but also part of the present and the future, as they play an unrestricted role in transporting , in economics or ecology. , but they are also present in ceremonies, beliefs and culture”.

Scientific analysis performed in conjunction with oral history accounts confirmed and enhanced our understanding of the arrival of the horse in Native American culture.

Jimmy Arterberry, Comanche Nation tribal historian

For this reason, “archaeology can help us appreciate the antiquity and value of equestrian traditions as sources of stability, healing and community to be protected and nurtured”.

Three-dimensional model of a horse skull equipped with a replica rein, similar to those used by knights on the Plains. / William T. Taylor.

How can this age-old knowledge of native and indigenous peoples be incorporated more regularly into scientific knowledge?, is the question posed to the main researcher of the study. “This type of collaboration needs to start at the beginning: allowing indigenous communities to help decide which research questions to ask and why,” he replies.

Taylor insists on this concept, because he wants to make clear how vital it is “to let archaeologists, researchers, scholars and custodians of indigenous knowledge decide what knowledge to contribute”. In this way, he defends, “it will be easier to find the points of mutual connection between science, archeology and tradition, and to build scientific projects that begin to do something different” from what was being done.

Arterberry concludes: “The main reasons for keeping the tradition alive include perpetuating the knowledge of who we are and where we came from, respecting life in all its forms, praising our ancestors for sustaining life and thanking the creator for giving it to us. . us”.


Taylor, WTT et al. “Early Dispersal of Domestic Horses in the Great Plains and North of the Rocky Mountains”. Science (2023).

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