Horses, Donkeys, and the Anthropocene in the Greater Mississippi

August 27th, 2019

What was the impact of the domestication of horses on the natural and cultural landscapes of the Mississippi? This research project takes a closer look at the interconnected relationship between horses and humans.

The arrival of horses on the North American continent has exerted a tremendous influence on land use patterns, societal developments, and cultural practices. But how did early indigenous societies domesticate horses and how has this process, in turn, shaped and changed the landscape and culture of the Mississippi?

The arrival of European horses in the Americas prompted drastic changes to the cultural and ecological landscape of the continent’s interior. Horses changed the way that the peoples of the Mississippi region used the land, allowed them to develop new forms of subsistence, and prompted major socio-cultural changes that reshaped the history of the Americas. Although historical documents partially chronicled this process, the record is incomplete—it offers only tantalizing clues as to when animals were first adopted by people in the region or how they developed techniques for managing, breeding, and controlling horses, donkeys, and mules.

Animal bones from archaeological sites have proven to be a valuable resource for understanding human–horse interactions in the past. Through techniques such as 3D scanning and osteology, researchers can gain a detailed picture of horse health, health care, management, and use by humans (such as bridling and transport), even in the absence of historical records. Unfortunately, these remains are scarce in early historic archaeological sites in central areas of North America. But since 2017, researchers have begun using laser-based mass spectrometry and ancient DNA to help identify horse bones from these contexts, using biomolecular methods to understand factors such as sex, diet, and other information, which it is possible to attain even from tiny or badly fragmented bits of bone. Pairing this approach with radiocarbon dating and Bayesian statistical modeling, incorporating historic and ethnohistoric records, we plan to model the geographic spread of domestic equids into the region. Combining these data with paleoecological and environmental data sets, the role played by these domesticated animals in transforming landscapes and ecologies will be explored.

This research study will involve traveling to archaeofaunal collections in the Mississippi River Valley region and beyond. By conducting both an osteological study as well as a biomolecular study of horse remains, the project will investigate the history of equine management and care in early indigenous societies and map how the introduction and spread of domesticated horses altered the natural and cultural landscape of the ancient Mississippi region.