After their introduction to North America domestic horses revolutionized life across the continent, giving rise to the great horse cultures of the plains and deserts and forming the backbone of economically, politically, and militarily dominant Indigenous empires during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Researchers seeking to understand the early adoption of horses by Tribal Nations and their impacts have primarily relied on historical and ethnographic datasets to enable examination of such interactions over the long term. While these ethnohistorical narratives may identify important milestones, such as a terminus ante quem for when a particular group began riding or keeping horses, they often provide a limited, Euro-centric perspective of the timing and process of how these new animals were integrated into Indigenous culture and ecology. Archaeology, on the other hand, provides an avenue to correct these issues and illuminate gaps in the historic record of early horse dispersal and use. When combined with these and other lines of evidence, the archaeological record provides a more direct means by which to answer questions about the timing and social impacts of domestic equids on human societies.
The Horses and Human Societies in the North American West project is integrating data collected from archaeological horse remains using zooarchaeological and biomolecular techniques (radiocarbon dating, ancient DNA, stable isotopes, and ZooMS) with ethnohistorical sources, Geographic Information Systems, and Indigenous knowledge, to develop a multi-scalar interpretative framework for understanding when and how domestic horses dispersed into the continent. In doing so, this project establishes a framework for understanding the complex interaction between species dispersals, environmental changes, ecological factors, and cultural transformations that will rewrite our understanding of human-horse relations in North America.