In our popular culture perceptions, Native Americans of the American West are closely associated with horses. But the story of horses in the Americas is a complicated one. The fossil record suggests that horses originated on the American continent and migrated to Asia over the former Bering land bridge that connected what is now Alaska to the Asian continent. The horse was then domesticated by humans in Asia and Europe, even as horses became extinct in the Americas, thousands of years ago. Horses were reintroduced to the Americas by Europeans, and when those horses began to interact with the indigenous peoples of the American West, they revolutionized the lives of tribal members in countless ways.
But when, exactly, were the indigenous peoples in the American West first introduced to horses? For years, scholars believed that the key point was the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, when some of the Native Americans in what is now New Mexico staged an uprising against the Spanish. The theory postulated that the revolt caused horses to be released into the countryside, where they quickly spread into the Mountain West and the Great Plains, to be adopted and used by the tribes that lived in those areas.
New research that combines genetic analysis, radiocarbon dating, and the oral traditions of the indigenous peoples challenges that theory, and indicates that horses had been integrated into the lives of the tribes well before the Pueblo Revolt. Researchers found horse remains across the American West and used genetic testing techniques to confirm that the horses were of Iberian ancestry, as well as radiocarbon dating to show that horses were part of the indigenous communities across the region by the early 1600s–decades before the Pueblo Revolt occurred.
The research indicates that while the Spanish reintroduced the horse when they landed in the New World, the horse quickly spread north into the American West and the Great Plains in advance of any contact by Spanish adventurers with the indigenous peoples of those areas. Some of the Spanish horses may have escaped and headed north well before the Pueblo Revolt, but as one of the researchers in the study notes, the results also suggest a dynamic in which Native Americans quickly recognized the value of horses and traded for them with the Spanish, and then traded horses with other tribes. This allowed the horse to quickly spread north and become assimilated into the cultures of indigenous peoples, consistent with their oral traditions.
One of the more interesting aspects of this study is how it demonstrates that oral traditions and modern scientific techniques can work well together–and can help to develop the fascinating story of horses and humans.