A Sul Ross State University professor and her team of researchers are featured on the cover of the March issue of Science Magazine.
Dr. Laura Patterson Rosa, an assistant professor in the Department of Agriculture and Industry, submitted the manuscript titled “Early dispersal of domestic horses into the Great Plains and Northern Rockies.”
In her summary, she wrote, “The horse is central to many indigenous cultures across the American Southwest and the Great Plains. However, when and how they were first integrated into indigenous lifeways remain contentious, with extant models derived largely from colonial records. Here, we conduct an interdisciplinary study of an assemblage of historic archaeological horse remains, integrating genomic, isotopic, radiocarbon dating and paleopathological evidence. Archaeological and modern North American horses show strong Iberian genetic affinities, with later influx from British sources, but no Viking proximity. Horses rapidly spread from the south into the northern Rockies and central Plains by the first half of the 17th century [Common Era], likely through indigenous exchange networks. They were deeply integrated into indigenous societies, as reflected in herd management, ceremonial practices and culture, prior to the arrival of European observers from the 18th century.”
According to the research, the continent of North America is where horses first emerged. Millions of years of evolutionary changes transformed the horse before it became the natural companion of many indigenous peoples and the flagship symbol of the Southwest. An international team uniting 87 scientists across 66 institutions around the world is refining the history of the American horse. This work, which embeds cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural research between Western and traditional indigenous science, resulted in the Science publication.
“Horses have been part of us since long before other cultures came to our lands, and we are a part of them,” said Chief Joe American Horse, a leader of the Oglala Lakota Oyate, co-author of the study.
For the Lakota, investigating the history of the Horse Nation in the Americas was a perfect starting point, as it would highlight the places of connection and disconnection between Western and indigenous approaches.
Part of the program was to test a narrative that features in almost every single textbook on the history of the Americas: whether European historic records accurately captured the story of indigenous people and horses across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. This narrative reflects the most popular chronicles of the Europeans who first established contact with Indigenous groups and contend a recent adoption of horses following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.
The genome evidence demonstrated that the horses surveyed in this study for many Plains Nations were primarily of Iberian ancestry, but not directly related with those horses that inhabited the Americas in the Late Pleistocene more than 12,000 years ago. Likewise, they were not the descendants of Viking horses, despite Viking establishing settlements on the American continent by 1021.
Archaeological data show that these domestic horses were no longer in exclusive Spanish control by at least the early 1600s, and were integrated into indigenous lifeways. Importantly, this earlier dispersal validates many traditional perspectives on the origin of the horse from project partners like the Comanche and Pawnee, who recognize the link between archaeological findings and oral traditions.
Further work involving new archaeological excavations at sites dating to or even predating the 16th century, and additional sequencing, will help shed new light on other chapters of the human-horse story in the Americas.
The genome analyses did not just address the development of horsemanship within First Nations during the first stages of the American colonization. These analyses demonstrated that the once dominant ancestry found in the horse genome became increasingly diluted through time, gaining ancestry native from British bloodlines. Therefore, the changing landscape of colonial America was recorded in the horse genome: first mainly from Spanish sources, then primarily from British settlers.
In the future, the team is committed to continue working on the history of the Horse Nation in the Americas to include the scientific methodologies inherent in indigenous scientific systems, as well as a greater contribution regarding migratory patterns and the effects on the genome due to climate change. This study was critical in helping to bring Western and indigenous scientists together so that authentic dialogue and exchange may begin.
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