The Survival of Horses in Pre-Columbian America

by TerryMcNamee

Many people believe that the horse completely disappeared from North America, where it evolved, prior to the arrival of Europeans. But what if it did not?

By Terry McNamee © 2013

The idea that horses could have survived into more recent times in areas south of Alaska and the Yukon was suggested 40 years ago by archaeologist Paul S. Martin. He said that there was no reason why horses could not have survived in isolated areas of North America as late as 2000 B.C. (Paul S. Martin, "The Discovery of America," Science 179, 1973). But more recent discoveries are revealing that horses may have been present in North America much longer, even right up to the time when Europeans “reintroduced” horses to the Americas.

Map showing the Beringia land bridge (outline) compared to today.
Beringia
Beringia

The History of the Horse

The first true horse (Equus) appeared in North America between four and five million years ago. Two million years ago, during the glacial periods of the Pleistocene, low ocean levels created the Bering land bridge linking America and northern Asia. Today, this land bridge is completely covered by ocean water. But when ocean levels were low, that section of dry land, called Beringia, was sometimes as big as the state of Texas, enabling the free movement of animals back and forth between what are now Alaska and Siberia.

 

Horses crossed the bridge and gradually spread all the way into southern Asia, Europe and Africa. Those that reached Africa evolved into modern zebras, while the ones in the middle east evolved into onagers and asses. Those in Europe and Asia became true horses called Equus caballus, while in the Americas, the same species was given a different name, Equus lambeii. In fact, there were two types, or breeds, of horses in North America: the larger northern Yukon Horse (Equus lambeii), which is supposed to have disappeared first, and the American Periglacial Horse or Mexican Horse (E. caballus mexicanus). According to the Cloud Foundation, genetic analysis of the DNA of the Yukon horse from the permafrost showed the variation was within that of modern horses — in other words, both of the Ice Age horses of the Americas were the same species as the modern horse of the Spanish brought to the American in the 1500s.

 

By one million years ago, both North and South America had huge herds of horses. Initially, scientists believed that all of these horses became extinct in the Americas about 500 years before the first people arrived in the Americas between 15,000 and 17,000 years ago. In 2006, statistical analysis published by Andrew Solow of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, showed that horses co-existed with humans in the Americas for several thousand years, until 11,700 years ago.

 

Since it is now known that horses survived the last ice age, why would scientists assume horses would then disappear after the climate and vegetation improved? The answer to that is, they were wrong. Even disease is unlikely to have wiped out all the horses, just as the bubonic plague epidemics of the Middle Ages failed to annihilated the entire human population of Europe.

Ute Petroglyph in Arches National Park, Utah, carved between A.D. 1650 and 1850
Petroglyph of Wolf Ranch in Arches National Park, Utah

Discoveries Reveal That Horses Survived in America

 As time passed, new scientific discoveries kept pushing the supposed date of extinction of America's horses closer to the present day. Now it seems clear that there probably was no such extinction at all.

Recent DNA analysis of a frozen Yukon Horse carcass found in the Alaskan permafrost in 2009 showed that horses were still living in North America as recently as 7,600 years ago (5600 BC), according to researcher Ross MacPhee, the American Museum of Natural History's Curator of Mammology.

 

Other discoveries have been cited by Dr. Steven E. Jones, a retired professor from Brigham Young University. In an article in Ancient American, Dr. Jones said that horse bones recovered from Pratt Cave near El Paso, Texas, by Professor Ernest Lundelius of Texas A&M University were dated to 6020-5890 BC. A horse skeleton from Wolf Spider Cave, Colorado, dated to AD 1260-1400. Another discovery in Wyoming put the date at AD 1426-1481. And there are more discoveries that show there already were horses in North America when the Spanish arrived.

 

How could enough of the the presumably small number of escaped or stolen domestic Spanish horses, unused to living in the wild, survive predation from wolves, grizzly bears and cougars, attacks by alligators, bites from poisonous snakes, severe winters and summer droughts and avoid breaking legs in gopher holes, and other hazards to life and limb to reproduce in such abundance?

 

The logical answer is, they didn't. There had to be another source of horses in order for these herds to grow so large in as little as 150 years. It seem that, instead of Spanish horses repopulating the Americas, they simply added new blood to what was already here. The Spanish horses were the finest animals that could be procured for expeditions to the New World. Joining up with small groups of indigenous horses would have improved the survival of these quality Spanish horses, and the offspring of these two types would have had increased hybrid vigour, increasing their survival rates and therefore resulting in more animals reproducing each year.

 

While the genetic allele for Spanish blood is actually quite rare except in relatively closed populations such as the Spanish Mustangs of the Pryor Mountain range in Montana and Wyoming, equine geneticist Dr. E. Gus Cothran noted that it only takes one individual horse to introduce the Spanish gene into a population.

Equine Bones Discovered in Canada

According to Canadian Geographic, in western Canada (from Manitoba westward), “there is clear evidence of horses until 12,000 years ago, with isolated finds indicating there may have been horses closer to 3000-1000 years ago.” That means there could have been horses in western Canada as late as AD 1000, about 500 years before the arrival of Europeans and well after the presumed extinction. And those horses numbered in the millions.

 

The compete extirpation of ancestral horse stock in Canada has yet to be completely confirmed, and a bone found near Sutherland, Saskatchewan, at the Riddell archaeological site suggests some horses might have survived much later,” stated Robert M. Alison of Orillia, Ontario, in 2000 in a research paper called Canada's Last Wild Horses. “The bone (Canadian Museum of Nature I-8581), has been tentatively dated at about 2900 years ago. Another Equus sp. Bone, found at Hemlock Park Farm, Frontenac County, Ontario, dates to about 900 years ago. Exhaustive confirmation of both bones has yet to be completed, but if they prove to be authentic, they comprise evidence that horses survived in Canada into comparatively modern times.”

 

 There are many precedents in which large species remained either unknown to science or found still in existence long after they were believed to be extinct. Among them are Burchell's zebra (believed extinct, rediscovered in 2004), the koupray (a very large wild grey ox, found in 1937) and the giant muntjac (1994). So why not the horse?

Indian on horseback. Watercolor by Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied, painted during his travels in America, 1833 or 1834.
Indian on horseback. Watercolor by Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied 1833 or 1834.
Indian on horseback. Watercolor by Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied 1833 or 1834.
Wikimedia Commons

Pre-Colonial Aboriginal Horses: Distinct and Separate Breeds

In 1991, Claire Henderson, a member of the History Department at Laval University in Quebec City, wrote a paper entitled The Aboriginal North American Horse supporting the beliefs of the North American Native people that horses were present long before the arrival of Europeans and did not go extinct.

 

Dakota/Lakota Elders as well as many other Indian nations … contend that according to their oral history, the North American horse survived the Ice Age, and that they had developed a horse culture long before the arrival of Europeans, and, furthermore, that these same distinct ponies continued to thrive on the prairies until the latter part of the 19th century, when the U.S. government ordered them rounded up and destroyed to prevent Indians from leaving the newly-created reservations,” Henderson stated. “Some biologists have pointed out that Elders could indeed be correct, for while the mammoth and other Pleistocene mammals died out during the last Ice Age in both continents, if the horse survived in Eurasia, there is no reason for it to have become extinct in North America, especially given similar environment and climate on the steppes and prairies.”

 

Henderson conducted her own investigation, following information left by the French explorer LaVerendrye, who in 1642 went on a quest to find the People of the Horse, whom he hoped would take him to the Western (China) Sea. LaVerendrye's trail led to Wyoming, where Henderson interviewed Lakota tribal elders, and uncovered some interesting information.

 

According to Elders, the aboriginal pony had the following characteristics: it was small, about 13 hands, it had a 'strait' back necessitating a different saddle from that used on European horses, wider nostrils, larger lungs so that its endurance was proverbial,” said Henderson. “One breed had a long mane, and shaggy (curly) hair, while another had a 'singed mane'."

 

Henderson did further research and discovered other French accounts of Lakota people being skilled horsemen in the mid-1600s and using horses to hunt buffalo.

 

 “Several years prior to 1657, these Prairie Indians were already expert horsemen, having developed remarkable riding and hunting skills,” said Henderson. “That such expertise was developed by 1650 is remarkable in many ways. It implies that the original (Spanish horses) had so multiplied that within a few short years after the horses appeared, these Prairies Dakotas had devised methods for catching them, had learned to tame them, had become expert riders, had devised the most efficient buffalo hunting techniques on horseback, and had also devised techniques for training their horses in these skills. These accomplishments, in so short a time, seem all the more extraordinary when examining the development of similar skills in other areas of the world.”

 

In fact, she said, just seeing the Spanish riding horses would not have been enough for any of the Native cultures to become so proficient with horses so quickly. She said that in the Middle East, where a similar situation occurred with the Scythians bringing horses to the Assyrians (who had no prior experience with horses), it took about a century from the arrival of this new animal until its people rode awkwardly, and that it took several generations for them to become horsemen, even when experts were there to teach them.

 

These examples from other cultures make it difficult to believe that the aboriginal horse had indeed disappeared during the last Ice Age,” Henderson concluded.

Modern Curly Horse "NE Prime Time Regal" owned by Lindsay Braman
NE Prime Time Regal
NE Prime Time Regal
Photo by Lindsay Braman (Wikimedia Commons)

Mustangs and Curly Horses Share Characteristics With Primitive Equines

The Pryor Mountain horses are believed to have been here since at least the late 1600s, and most of the animals have only five lumbar vertebrae (common in primitive horses) —although some have a fifth and sixth vertebrae which are fused. Many often have a curly winter coat (Fran Lynghaug, The Official Horse Breeds Standards Guide).

 

The presence of only five lumbar vertebrae is also found in the American Curly Horse. Curly Horses were well known to the Lakota and other tribes at least as early as 1800. Curlies were made famous by the Damele family in Nevada, who first saw Curlies running with wild mustangs in Nevada around 1900. When they discovered that the Curlies were especially well adapted to surviving very cold winters that killed other horses, the family started raising the Curlies as ranch horses, and still breed them today.

 

According to Dale Wooley, author of The Dameles and the American Curly Horse, “When the Dameles first began catching Curly horses out of the Mustang herds, they were big, coarse-looking horses with non-refined heads, bodies, and legs.”

 

Curly Horses were seen running wild in southern Alberta as recently as 50 years ago, and can still be seen in wild herds of the American west. Wildlife photographer Barbara Wheeler has photographed many Curly Horses in the wild in Nevada and Wyoming.

 

Perhaps the Curlies are living proof that the genes of the ancient North American horses still exist in modern horse populations. However, Curlies in captivity have been crossbred so much with other breeds of horses that the only distinctive genetic marker that separates them from other horses today is the gene for the curly coat.

 

The singed mane referred to by Henderson has also been mentioned elsewhere. On the Bad Warrior Curly Horse web page about the Curly Horses bred by a Sioux man named Eli Bad Warrior (born 1882) in South Dakota, there is a quote from a man named Young Eagle. “These horses (Curlies) were raised by the Indians as far back as anyone can remember," said Young Eagle. "Most of them were dark in color with hair ‘singed.’ Hence their name, which is Sung-gu-gu-la, literally translating to  ’horses with burnt hair.’ “

 

Bad Warrior obtained his Curly Horses from his father, and the Sioux apparently got them from the Crow around 1800.

 

There is more evidence of early Curly Horses. Author Felix Azara wrote in his Natural History of Quadrupeds in Paraguay (1802), “I have seen many curly-haired horses, ones which are call “Pichai” in Paraguay. Their hair is kinky.” Another primitive horse breed called the Lokai lives in Russia,and some specimens have curly coats, yet there is no evidence that Russians (or the Spaniards, for that matter) ever brought curly-coated horses to the Americas.

 

Perhaps the curly hair of the Russian Lokai and other steppe horses and the curly hair of North American and Paraguayan horses both show a link to the original Equus of North America — a species that never went extinct after all.

Wild horses in Nevada, August 2012
Nevada wild horses
Nevada wild horses
National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Site Office Photo Library, number NF-6861

For Additional Reading

Here are some books dealing with the horse in America and species extinction and re-emergence that you might like.

The Ghost with Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking and the Search for Lost Species

“A thoughtful examination of the machinery of extinction . . . By turns harrowing and elegiac, thrilling and informative.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times Three or four ti...

View on Amazon

The Ghost with Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking and the Search for Lost Species [Paperb...

View on Amazon

Nevada's Mystery Horse

How the American Curly Horse was saved from extinction. Told by those responsible for finding and spending their lives developing the breed that was very near extinction in the ...

View on Amazon

The Horse and the Plains Indians: A Powerful Partnership

The image of a Native American on horseback has become ingrained in the American consciousness. But the Plains Indians and the horse were not always inseparable. Once, Native Am...

View on Amazon

Song for the Horse Nation: Horses in Native American Cultures

The tradition of horses in Native American culture, depicted through images, essays, and quotes. For many Native Americans, each animal and bird that surrounded them was part of...

View on Amazon

In Search of Ancient North America: An Archaeological Journey to Forgotten Cultures

Almost unimaginably immense, North America stretches from a few degrees short of the North Pole to a few degrees shy of the equator. Archaeologists are now racing to unravel the...

View on Amazon

Updated: on 05/16/2013, TerryMcNamee
 
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Ann on 04/24/2013

Well, great ideas! Sounds very possible!! Great article! Enjoyed it!



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