Unearthed skeleton sheds light on how Native Americans cared for their horses

Paleontologist Rick Hunter excavates the Lehi horse skeleton. Photos: Bridger Hill, William Taylor

An unearthed horse skeleton in Utah has provided valuable insights into how Native Americans cared for their mounts before Europeans had a permanent presence in the area.

Fresh analysis of the remains, previously believed to date from the Ice Age, reveals that the horse died just a few hundred years ago, and was raised, ridden and cared for by Native Americans.

The findings, reported in the journal American Antiquity, are the latest in the saga of what has become known as the “Lehi horse”.

In 2018, a Utah couple were landscaping their backyard near the city of Provo when they unearthed the almost complete skeleton of the horse, which was about the size of a Shetland pony.

It immediately drew attention from scientists and the media. Preliminary data suggested 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,” explains William Taylor, lead author of the new research and a curator of archaeology at the Museum of Natural History at the University of Colorado Boulder.

But based on a detailed study of the horse’s bones and DNA, Taylor and his colleagues concluded it wasn’t an Ice Age mammal, but a domesticated horse that had likely belonged to Ute or Shoshone communities before Europeans had a permanent presence in the area.

Researchers conduct 3D digitization of bones from the Lehi horse to identify skeletal features linked with horseback riding.

But Taylor is far from disappointed. He says the animal remains reveal valuable information about how indigenous groups in the West looked after their horses, shedding crucial light on the early relationships between horses and their guardians in the Americas.

“This study demonstrates a very sophisticated relationship between indigenous peoples and horses,” says Taylor, also an assistant professor in the university’s 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.”

Taylor leads an effort funded by the US National Science Foundation, called “Horses and Human Societies in the American West”.

He is 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 says. “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.”

A bone of the Lehi horse heavily impacted by arthritis.

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 such as mammoths. This horse, however, showed characteristic telltale fractures in the vertebrae along its back.

“That was an eyebrow-raiser,” Taylor said.

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 Taylor and his colleagues decided to dig deeper.

DNA analyses by co-authors 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 it 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 says.

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 caregivers 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.

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 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 the university 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 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.

Taylor, W., Hart, I., Jones, E., Brenner-Coltrain, J., Thompson Jobe, J., Britt, B., McDonald, HG., Li, Y., Zhang, C., Le Roux, P., Gover, C; Schiavinato, S., Orlando, L., Roberts, P. (2021). Interdisciplinary Analysis of the Lehi Horse: Implications for Early Historic Horse Cultures of the North American West. American Antiquity, 1-21. doi:10.1017/aaq.2020.109

The abstract of the study can be read here.




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