Horse remains reveal new insights into how Native peoples raised horses

February 04, 2021

A new analysis of a horse previously believed to be from the Ice Age shows that the animal actually died just a few hundred years ago--and was raised, ridden and cared for by Native peoples. The study sheds light on the early relationships between horses and their guardians in the Americas.

The findings, published today in the journal American Antiquity, are the latest in the saga of the "Lehi horse."

In 2018, a Utah couple was doing landscaping in their backyard near the city of Provo when they unearthed something surprising: an almost complete skeleton of a horse about the size of a Shetland pony. Scientists and the media took note. Preliminary data suggested that the horse might be more than 10,000 years old.

"It was found in the ground in these geologic deposits from the Pleistocene--the last Ice Age," said William Taylor, lead author of the new research and a curator of archaeology at the CU Museum of Natural History at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Based on a detailed study of the horse's bones and DNA, however, Taylor and his colleagues concluded that it wasn't an Ice Age mammal at all. Instead, the animal was a domesticated horse that had likely belonged to Ute or Shoshone communities before Europeans had a permanent presence in the region.

But Taylor is far from disappointed. He said the animal reveals valuable information about how Indigenous groups in the West looked after their horses.

"This study demonstrates a very sophisticated relationship between Indigenous peoples and horses," said Taylor, also an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. "It also tells us that there might be a lot more important clues to the human-horse story contained in the horse bones that are out there in libraries and museum collections."

Written in bone

Taylor leads an effort funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, called "Horses and Human Societies in the American West." And he's something akin to a forensic scientist--except he studies the remains of ancient animals, from horses to reindeer. He said that researchers can learn a lot by collecting the clues hidden in bones.

"The skeleton that you or I have is a chronicle of what we've done in our lives," Taylor said. "If I were to keel over right now, and you looked at my skeleton, you'd see that I was right-handed or that I spend most of my hours at a computer."

When Taylor first laid eyes on the Lehi horse in 2018, he was immediately skeptical that it was an Ice Age fossil. Ancient horses first evolved in North America and were common during the Pleistocene, he said, going extinct at about the same time as many other large mammals like mammoths. This horse, however, showed characteristic fractures in the vertebrae along its back.

"That was an eyebrow raiser," Taylor said.

He explained that such fractures often occur when a human body bangs repeatedly into a horse's spine during riding--they rarely show up in wild animals, and are often most pronounced in horses ridden without a frame saddle. So he and his colleagues decided to dig deeper.

DNA analyses by coauthors at the University of Toulouse in France revealed that the Lehi horse was a roughly 12-year-old female belonging to the species Equus caballus (today's domestic horse). Radiocarbon dating showed that it had died sometime after the late 17th century. The horse also seemed to be suffering from arthritis in several of its limbs.

"The life of a domestic horse can be a hard one, and it leaves a lot of impacts on the skeleton," Taylor said.

He added that scientists originally believed that the horse was so ancient in part because of its location deep in the sands along the edge of Utah Lake: Its caretakers appear to have dug a hole and intentionally buried the animal after it died, making it look initially as if it had come from Ice Age sediments.

And despite the animal's injuries, which would have probably made the Lehi horse lame, people had continued to care for the mare--possibly because they were breeding her with stallions in their herd.

Hidden history

For Carlton Shield Chief Gover, a coauthor of the new study, the research is another example of the buried history of Indigenous groups and horses.

He explained that most researchers have tended to view this relationship through a European lens: Spaniards brought the animals to the Americas on boats, and white settlers shaped how Native peoples interacted with them.

But that view glosses over just how uniquely Indigenous the horse became in the Americas after those first introductions.

"There was a lot going on that Europeans didn't see," said Shield Chief Gover, a graduate student at CU Boulder and a tribal citizen of the Pawnee Nation. "There was a 200-year period where populations in the Great Plains and the West were adapting their cultures to the horse."

For many Plains groups, horses quickly changed nearly every aspect of life.

"There was more raiding and fewer battles," Shield Chief Gover said. "Horses became deeply integrated into Plains cultures, and changed the way people moved, traded hunted and more."

He and Taylor hope that their research will, alongside Indigenous oral traditions, help to shed light on those stories. Taylor, for his part, suspects that the Lehi horse may not be the only set of remains mistakenly shelved with Ice Age animals in museum collections around the country.

"I think there are a lot more out there like this," he said.

University of Colorado at Boulder

Related Ice Age Articles from Brightsurf:

Ice discharge in the North Pacific set off series of climate events during last ice age
Repeated catastrophic ice discharges from western North America into the North Pacific contributed to, and perhaps triggered, hemispheric-scale changes in the Earth's climate during the last ice age.

Ice Age manatees may have called Texas home
Manatees don't live year-round in Texas, but these gentle sea cows are known to occasionally visit, swimming in for a 'summer vacation' and returning to warmer waters for the winter.

Sea ice triggered the Little Ice Age, finds a new study
A new study finds a trigger for the Little Ice Age that cooled Europe from the 1300s through mid-1800s, and supports surprising model results suggesting that under the right conditions sudden climate changes can occur spontaneously, without external forcing.

How cold was the ice age? Researchers now know
A University of Arizona-led team has nailed down the temperature of the last ice age -- the Last Glacial Maximum of 20,000 years ago - to about 46 degrees Fahrenheit.

What causes an ice age to end?
Research by an international team helps to resolve some of the mystery of why ice ages end by establishing when they end.

New study results consistent with dog domestication during ice age
Analysis of Paleolithic-era teeth from a 28,500-year-old fossil site in the Czech Republic provides supporting evidence for two groups of canids -- one dog-like and the other wolf-like - with differing diets, which is consistent with the early domestication of dogs.

Did an extraterrestrial impact trigger the extinction of ice-age animals?
Based on research at White Pond near Elgin, South Carolina, University of South Carolina archaeologist Christopher Moore and 16 colleagues present new evidence of a controversial theory that suggests an extraterrestrial body crashing to Earth almost 13,000 years ago caused the extinction of many large animals and a probable population decline in early humans.

Dust in ice cores leads to new knowledge on the advancement of the ice before the ice age
Working with the ice core ReCap, drilled close to the coast in East Greenland, postdoc Marius Simonsen wondered why the dust particles from the interglacial period -- the warmer period of time between the ice ages -- were several times bigger than the dust particles from the ice age.

Ice-sheet variability during the last ice age from the perspective of marine sediment
By using marine sediment cores from Northwestern Australia, a Japanese team led by National Institute of Polar Research (NIPR) and the University of Tokyo revealed that the global ice sheet during the last ice age had changed in shorter time scale than previously thought.

What triggered the 100,000-year Ice Age cycle?
A slowing of ocean circulation in the waters surrounding Antarctica drastically altered the strength and more than doubled the length of global ice ages following the mid-Pleistocene transition, a new study finds.

Read More: Ice Age News and Ice Age Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to