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By Lyla June Johnston ~
"Yvette Running Horse Collin’s recent dissertation, historical documents and oral histories present a compelling new story of the horse in the Americas
Yvette Running Horse Collin’s recent dissertation may have rewritten every natural history book on the shelf. A Lakota/Nakota/Cheyenne scholar, Collin worked within the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Indigenous Studies program to synthesize fossil evidence, historical documents and oral history to present a compelling new story of the horse in the Americas.
The horse was here well before the settlers.
“We have calmly known we've always had the horse, way before the settlers came. The Spanish never came through our area, so there's no way they could have introduced them to us," reads one quote from a Blackfoot (Nitsitapi) study participant in Collin’s doctoral study.
Columbus didn't introduce them
The original theory accepted by the Western World was that there were no horses in the Americas prior to Columbus’ arrival in 1492. The Western World concluded that all horses of Native American peoples were, therefore, descendants of horses brought from overseas.
This theory was forced to change, however, after paleontology pioneer Joseph Leidy discovered horse skeletons embedded in American soil in the 1830s. They were dated to be the oldest of any found in the world. According to Collin’s dissertation, the American scientific community was outraged and questioned his findings. Ultimately, they were forced to accept the evidence he provided.
At this point, the narrative shifted to say that horses originated in the Americas, but were later completely extinguished due to the last Ice Age period (roughly 13,000 to 11,000 years ago). Thus, the Spanish were still believed at that time to have “reintroduced” the horse to the Americas in the late 1400s.
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Collins' work disproves Spanish introduction of the horse to Native people
But on account of Collin’s work, the theory is being beckoned to change once again to say that Native Americans always had a sustained relationship with the horse. In the dissertation, Collin compiles a list of fossil and DNA evidence which dates after this supposed “extinction” period.
“The wonderful thing is that we now have Western technology that can provide very accurate dates,” said Collin in a recent interview. “Many studies show that these horses were present after the very same Ice Age that supposedly wiped out them all out. So, the most compelling data to support the Native narrative is actually from a lot of the western scientific measurements that are coming out.”
Collin didn’t stop there, however. She also drew from recorded observations in the diaries and maps created by explorers such as Sir Francis Drake, Sebastian Cabot, and other early Spanish conquistadors. Collin points to the first recorded sighting of horses with Native Peoples in the Carolinas:
“Columbus brought the first Spanish horse to the Caribbean in 1493,” remarks Collin. “The first documented arrival of horses on the mainland, near what we now call Mexico City, was in 1519. The Spanish took meticulous records of every mare and stallion. The first recorded sighting of Native people with horses, however, was in 1521 and that was in the Carolinas. No Spanish horses were recorded as ‘missing’ during this period. There’s no way Spanish horses could have made it through the dense forest and swampland to the Carolinas and repopulated in just two years.”
Collins also drew from interviews with American Indian study participants from seven different Nations. Every indigenous community that was interviewed reported having horses prior to European arrival, and each community had a traditional creation story explaining the sacred place of the horse within their societies.
“I didn't expect that,” says Collin. “If you lay out a map, these Nations are all over the place. These communities do not speak the same language, share the same culture or the same geographical areas. Yet, their oral histories were all completely aligned. They each shared when the horse was gifted to them by the Creator, that the acquisition was spiritual in nature, and that they did not receive the horse from the Europeans.”
Horse history was purposely distorted
The dissertation posits that the discrepancy between the Spanish “reintroduction” theory and the story reflected by current evidence has to do with a cultural bias that is still present within Western academia. Collin theorizes that because horses were a symbol of status and civilization in Spain during that time, and because conquerors needed to illustrate the Native people as savage and uncivilized to justify their conquest to the Queen of Spain, the truth about the relationship between Native peoples and the horse was purposefully distorted.
“When Columbus came, the Spanish had just finished an 800-year war with Muslims,” Collin cited. “Queen Isabella gathered every horse in the vicinity and those horses became part of her army. With that horse power, she was able to conquer the Muslims. So, the horse was incredibly valuable. You'll find paintings of her on these beautiful palominos. The horse was very much connected with nobility, power, and the concept of ‘civilization’ for these people.”
For this reason, she posits in through an “intercultural translation” lens that the history of the relationship between the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas and their horses was covered up and rewritten.
In a recent interview, Collin gave greater insight into the political and cultural nature of science. In April 2017, mastodon bones with designs carved by human hands were dated in San Diego showing human presence in the area as long as 130,000 years ago. This scientific dating is drastically different than the dates previously given by Western academia regarding how long Indigenous Peoples have existed in the Americas. Such dates only went as far back as 10,000 to 15,000 years at most, explained Collin. Again, many Western scientists expressed initial disbelief and even outrage with this new evidence. Collin finds a parallel between the reaction to these new Western findings and that of the fossil evidence showing horses were always in the Americas.
“What they are trying to do is shorten the length of time that we were here to make us not as critical to this place. They say, ‘Native people came over the land bridge.’ Why? Why are they making us as having been from somewhere else? Why couldn’t we have been here? That’s number one. Number two is that Europeans are still credited for bringing the horses and introducing them to Native people. What does that mean? They are telling us over and over again that anything that they consider to be of value in our cultures is still ‘derivative’ of theirs.”
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The Sacred Way Sanctuary
Collin currently takes care of over 100 horses she claims to be descendants of the ancient horse of the Americas. Some have manes that grow down to the ground. Some have stripes on their legs. Some have spots all over. Some are much smaller than most horses. Some have curly hair.
Her hope is to find more caretakers for these horses and create a movement of Indigenous horse culture revitalization. Collin says, according to her ancestor’s ways, she refuses to sell her horses but gifts them to people who are interested in them for ceremonial or healing purposes and are willing to care for them according to her cultural traditions.
Collin seeks to inspire more research to illuminate the truth behind what the government has labeled as “feral” so that wild horses can be protected by the Indigenous Species Act. Currently, they are being run down and mass slaughtered if they are in the way of certain commercial projects.
“You have whole horse populations that are so run ragged, so stressed out by the helicopters, and the constant running from the government,” states Collin. “Then if you take a closer look, this land that the horses are on is the same land from which corporations are trying to extract resources or water. So, they’re just moving them around, taking away their homeland and their ability to have any habitat that’s at all livable. Nobody can be healthy when you run them that hard and make no place for them. They’re going to get sick, right?”
Ultimately, Collin’s dissertation is a groundbreaking piece of comprehensive research, employing a blend of both Western and Indigenous research methodologies, that will lay a firm foundation for further research.
Collin’s horse programs, ways to visit her museum on the Indigenous horse and the dissertation itself can be found at her website: www.SacredWaySanctuary.org. — Support Indian Country Today by becoming a member. Click here. —
Join us to Love Wild Horses, before it is too late:
Restore the Native Wild Horse Herds to Genetic Viability!
We have absolutely no right to decimate.. or harm.. or kill.. or eradicate.. the last of America's native wild horses. In fact, it is our responsibility to help ensure that our actions, support wild horses to be sustained to survive and thrive.
Wild Horses are more native to North America, then the humans who would like to see them removed.
"This fossil gives a whole new meaning to “sleeping with the fishes.” Protorohippus was an early species of horse that lived in Wyoming 52 million years ago. This particular individual floated out into a lake after dying, where it sank and was preserved in sediments. #DeepTime "
Thank you to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History for Sharing this important find
© 2003‐2010, Drs. Jay F. Kirkpatrick and Patricia M. Fazio. All Rights Reserved.
Are wild horses truly "wild," as an indigenous species in North America, or are they “feral weeds”—barnyard escapees, far removed genetically from their prehistoric ancest ors? The question at hand is, therefore, whether or not modern horses, Equus caballus, should be considered native wildlife.
The question is legitimate, and the answer important. In North America, the wild horse is often labeled as a non-native, or even an exotic species, by most federal or state agencies dealing with wildlife management, such as the National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. The legal mandate for many of these agencies is to protect native wildlife and prevent non-native species from causing harmful effects on the general ecology of the land. Thus, management is often directed at total eradication, or at least minimal numbers. If the idea that wild horses were, indeed, native wildlife, a great many current management approaches might be compromised. Thus, the rationale for examining this proposition, that the horse is a native or non-native species, is significant.
The genus Equus, which includes modern horses, zebras, and asses, is the only surviving genus in a once diverse family of horses that included 27 genera. The precise date of origin for the genus Equus is unknown, but evidence documents the dispersal of Equus from North America to Eurasia approximately 2–3 million years ago and a possible origin at about 3.4–3.9 million years ago. Following this original emigration, several extinctions occurred in North America, with additional migrations to Asia (presumably across the Bering Land Bridge), and return migrations back to North America, over time. The last North American extinction probably occurred between 13,000 and 11,000 years ago (Fazio 1995), although more recent extinctions for horses have been suggested.
Dr. Ross MacPhee, Curator of Mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History, and colleagues, have dated the existence of woolly mammoths and horses in North America to as recent as 7,600 years ago. Had it not been for previous westward migration, over the 2 Bering Land Bridge, into northwestern Russia (Siberia) and Asia, the horse would have faced complete extinction. However, Equus survived and spread to all continents of the globe, except Australia and Antarctica.
In 1493, on Columbus’ second voyage to the Americas, Spanish horses, representing E. caballus, were brought back to North America, first in the Virgin Islands, and, in 1519, they were reintroduced on the continent, in modern-day Mexico, from where they radiated throughout the American Great Plains, after escape from their owners or by pilfering (Fazio 1995).
Critics of the idea that the North American wild horse is a native animal, using only selected paleontological data, assert that the species, E. caballus (or the caballoid horse), which was introduced in 1519, was a different species from that which disappeared between 13,000–11,000 years before. Herein lies the crux of the debate. However, neither paleontological opinion nor modern molecular genetics support the contention that the modern horse in North America is non-native.
Equus, a monophyletic taxon, is first represented in the North American fossil record about four million years ago by E. simplicidens, and this species is directly ancestral to later Blancan species about three million years ago (Azaroli and Voorhies 1990). Azzaroli (1992) believed, again on the basis of fossil records, that E. simplicidens gave rise to the late Pliocene E. Idahoensis, and that species, in turn, gave rise to the first caballoid horses two million years ago in North America. Some migrated to Asia about one million years ago, while others, such as E. niobrarensis, remained in North America.
In North America, the divergence of E. caballus into various ecomorphotypes (breeds) included E. caballus mexicanus, or the American Periglacial Horse (also known as E. caballus laurentius Hay, or midlandensis Quinn) (Hibbard 1955). Today, we would recognize these latter two horses as breeds, but in the realm of wildlife, the term used is subspecies. By ecomorphotype, we refer to differing phenotypic or physical characteristics within the same species, caused by genetic isolation in discrete habitats. In North America, isolated lower molar teeth and a mandible from sites of the Irvingtonian age appear to be E. caballus, morphologically. Through most of the Pleistocene Epoch in North America, the commonest species of Equus were not caballines but other lineages (species) resembling zebras, hemiones, and possibly asses (McGrew 1944; Quinn, 1957). 3 Initially rare in North America, caballoid horses were associated with stenoid horses (perhaps ancestral forerunners but certainly distinct species), but between one million and 500,000 years ago, the caballoid horses replaced the stenoid horses because of climatic preferences and changes in ecological niches (Forstén 1988). By the late Pleistocene, the North American taxa that can definitely be assigned to E. caballus are E. caballus alaskae (Azzaroli 1995) and E. caballus mexicanus (Winans 1989—using the name laurentius). Both subspecies were thought to have been derived from E. niobrarensis (Azzaroli 1995).
Thus, based on a great deal of paleontological data, the origin of E. caballus is thought to be about two million years ago, and it originated in North America. However, the determination of species divergence based on phenotype is at least modestly subjective and often fails to account for the differing ecomorphotypes within a species, described above. Purely taxonomic methodologies looked at physical form for classifying animals and plants, relying on visual observations of physical characteristics. While earlier taxonomists tried to deal with the subjectivity of choosing characters they felt would adequately describe, and thus group, genera and species, these observations were lacking in precision. Nevertheless, the more subjective paleontological data strongly suggests the origin of E. caballus somewhere between one and two million years ago.
Reclassifications are now taking place, based on the power and objectivity of molecular biology. If one considers primate evolution, for example, the molecular biologists have provided us with a completely different
evolutionary pathway for humans, and they have described entirely different relationships with other primates. None of this would have been possible prior to the methodologies now available through mitochondrial-DNA analysis.
A series of genetic analyses, carried out at the San Diego Zoo’s Center for Reproduction in Endangered Species, and based on chromosome differences (Benirschke et al. 1965) and mitochondrial genes (George and Ryder 1986) both indicate significant genetic divergence among several forms of wild E. caballus as early as 200,000–300,000 years ago.
These studies do not speak to the origins of E. caballus per se, but they do point to a great deal of genetic divergence among members of E. caballus by 200,000 to 300,000 years ago. Thus, the origin had to be earlier, but, at the very least, well before the disappearance of the horse in North America between 13,000–11,000 years ago. 4 The relatively new (30-year-old) field of molecular biology, using mitochondrial-DNA analysis, has recently revealed that the modern or caballine horse, E. caballus, is genetically equivalent to E. lambei, a horse, according to fossil records, that represented the most recent Equus species in North America prior to extinction. Not only is E. caballus genetically equivalent to E. lambei, but no evidence exists for the origin of E. caballus anywhere except North America (Forstén 1992).
According to the work of researchers from Uppsala University of the Department of Evolutionary Biology (Forstén 1992), the date of origin, based on mutation rates for mitochondrial-DNA, for E. caballus, is set at approximately 1.7 million years ago in North America. This, of course, is very close, geologically speaking, to the 1–2 million-year figure presented by the interpretation of the fossil record.
Carles Vilà, also of the Department of Evolutionary Biology at Uppsala University, has corroborated Forstén’s work. Vilà et al. (2001) have shown that the origin of domestic horse lineages was extremely widespread, over time and geography, and supports the existence of the caballoid horse in North American before its disappearance, corroborating the work of Benirschke et al. (1965), George and Ryder (1995), and Hibbard (1955).
A study conducted at the Ancient Biomolecules Centre of Oxford University (Weinstock et al. 2005) also corroborates the conclusions of Forstén (1992). Despite a great deal of variability in the size of the Pleistocene equids from differing locations (mostly ecomorphotypes), the DNA evidence strongly suggests that all of the large and small caballine samples belonged to the same species.
The author states, “The presence of a morphologically variable caballine species widely distributed both north and south of the North American ice sheets raises the tantalizing possibility that, in spite of many taxa named on morphological grounds, most or even all North American caballines were members of the same species.”
In another study, Kruger et al. (2005), using microsatellite data, confirms the work of Forstén (1992) but gives a wider range for the emergence of the caballoid horse, of 0.86 to 2.3 million years ago. At the latest, however, that still places the caballoid horse in North America 860,000 years ago. 5 The work of Hofreiter et al. (2001), examining the genetics of the so-called E. lambei from the permafrost of Alaska, found that the variation was within that of modern horses, which translates into E. lambei actually being E. caballus, genetically. The molecular biology evidence is incontrovertible and indisputable, but it is also supported by the interpretation of the fossil record, as well.
Finally, very recent work (Orlando et al. 2009) that examined the evolutionary history of a variety of non-caballine equids across four continents, found evidence for taxonomic “oversplitting” from species to generic levels. This overspitting was based primarily on late-Pleistocene fossil remains without the benefit of molecular data. A co-author of this study, Dr. Alan Cooper, of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, stated, “Overall, the new genetic results suggest that we have underestimated how much a single species can vary over time and space, and mistakenly assumed more diversity among extinct species of megafauna.”
The fact that horses were domesticated before they were reintroduced matters little from a biological viewpoint. They are the same species that originated here, and whether or not they were domesticated is quite irrelevant. Domestication altered little biology, and we can see that in the phenomenon called “going wild,” where wild horses revert to ancient behavioral patterns. Feist and McCullough (1976) dubbed this “social conservation” in his paper on behavior patterns and communication in the Pryor Mountain wild horses.
The reemergence of primitive behaviors, resembling those of the plains zebra, indicated to him the shallowness of domestication in horses.
The issue of feralization and the use of the word "feral" is a human construct that has little biological meaning except in transitory behavior, usually forced on the animal in some manner. Consider this parallel. E. Przewalskii (Mongolian wild horse) disappeared from Mongolia a hundred years ago. It has survived since then in zoos. That is not domestication in the classic sense, but it is captivity, with keepers providing food and veterinarians providing health care. Then they were released during the 1990s and now repopulate their native range in Mongolia. Are they a reintroduced native species or not? And what is the difference between them and E. caballus in North America, except for the time frame and degree of captivity?
The key element in describing an animal as a native species is (1) where it originated; and (2) whether or not it co-evolved with its habitat. Clearly, E. 6 caballus did both, here in North American.
There might be arguments about “breeds,” but there are no scientific grounds for arguments about "species.”
The non-native, feral, and exotic designations given by agencies are not merely reflections of their failure to understand modern science but also a reflection of their desire to preserve old ways of thinking to keep alive the conflict between a species (wild horses), with no economic value anymore (by law), and the economic value of commercial livestock.
Native status for wild horses would place these animals, under law, within a new category for management considerations. As a form of wildlife, embedded with wildness, ancient behavioral patterns, and the morphology and biology of a sensitive prey species, they may finally be released from the “livestock-gone-loose” appellation.
Please cite as: Kirkpatrick, J.F., and P.M. Fazio. Revised January 2010. Wild Horses as Native North American Wildlife. The Science and Conservation Center, ZooMontana, Billings. 8 pages.
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Fazio, P.M. 1995. ʺThe Fight to Save a Memory: Creation of the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range (1968) and Evolving Federal Wild Horse Protection through 7 1971,ʺ doctoral dissertation, Texas A&M University, College Station, p. 21.
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Jay F. Kirkpatrick, Director, The Science and Conservation Center, ZooMontana, Billings, holds a Ph.D. in reproductive physiology from the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University.
Patricia M. Fazio, Research Fellow, The Science and Conservation Center, ZooMontana, Billings, holds a B.S. in agriculture (animal husbandry/biology) from Cornell University, and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in environmental history from the University of Wyoming and Texas A&M University, College Station, respectively. Her dissertation was a creation history of the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range, Montana/Wyoming.
Please note: This document is the sole intellectual property of Drs. Jay F. Kirkpatrick and Patricia M. Fazio. As such, altering of content, in any manner, is strictly prohibited. However, this article may be copied and distributed freely in hardcopy, electronic, or Website form, for educational purposes only.