Horses evolved then went extinct in the Americas 4 million years ago, but not before they crossed the Bering Land Bridge to Eurasia, were they were domesticated. Then in 1519 the Spanish brought them to Mexico—and from there, a new study suggests horses arrived in North America earlier than previously believed. Science News reports that new research indicates Indigenous peoples corralled the Spanish horses' offspring and moved them north via trade routes. According to the study published this week in Science, Native Americans across the Great Plains and the Rockies had integrated horses into their lifestyles by the early 1600s, well before European encounters.
This account challenges previous assertions that horses proliferated in North America only after Pueblo people expelled Spanish settlers from New Mexico in 1680—a claim with little supporting evidence. In the Conversation, study authors archaeozoologist Stacey Welling and Lakota scientist Shawn Kelley describe teaming up to assemble scientists and scholars from around the world to investigate the horse in the American West. Through studying ancient animal remains, radiocarbon dating, and ancient horse genomics, and examining Indigenous oral traditions about horses, the team found evidence that horses across western North America were alive in the early 17th century and possibly earlier.
The team also found indications Native Americans were utilizing horses up to 100 years before the arrival of the first Europeans. For example, Welling and Kelley's team analyzed the remains of a baby horse from ancient Comanche territory dating to 1650 and found that it lived out its life in the area, contradicting a European account from 1724 stating that Comanches got their horses by bartering with colonizers. The study's findings suggest that the relationship between Native Americans and horses is more complex and nuanced than previously thought. (Read more horses stories.)