Spanish horses joined Indigenous South Americans’ societies long before Europeans came to stay

Archaeological digs show Spanish horses were part of these societies by the early 1600s

horse bones

Partial horse leg bones found in southern Argentina (shown here) contributed to new evidence that Indigenous groups incorporated these animals, introduced by Spanish colonists in the 1500s, into their cultures a century or more before Europeans permanently settled in that region.

W.T.T. Taylor et al/Science Advances 2023

Hunter-gatherers in southernmost South America integrated horses with Spanish pedigrees into their societies around 400 years ago, long before Europeans occupied that region, a new study suggests.

Analyses of horse remains uncovered at Chorrillo Grande 1, a site in Argentina’s Patagonian region, indicate that locals raised and ate transatlantic equines by the early 1600s, say archaeozoologist William Taylor of the University of Colorado Boulder and colleagues.

Spaniards reached south-central South America around 1536 but moved north after a few years, leaving behind horses and other livestock. Patagonian hunter-gatherers incorporated growing numbers of horses into their way of life a century or more before Europeans settled the region permanently in the mid-1800s, Taylor’s group concludes December 8 in Science Advances.

Related findings indicate that offspring of horses brought by Spaniards to Mexico in 1519 reached Indigenous people in North America by the early 1600s, before those groups encountered Europeans (SN: 3/30/23).

Excavated horse remains at Chorrillo Grande 1 consisted of three partial leg bones and six teeth. DNA from these finds identified three domestic horses, one male adult and two female juveniles, the scientists say. Radiocarbon dating of horse specimens, food crusts on unearthed pottery pieces and other finds places people there starting between 1599 and 1653.

Fractures and burned patches on limb bones suggested that the two female horses were butchered for food. Europeans in Patagonia during the 1800s wrote about the consumption of mare’s meat and blood by local Tehuelche hunter-gatherers.

Horses quickly assumed many roles in Native American cultures, Taylor suspects. Other historical documents describe groups across southern South America herding horses, riding horses to hunt other animals, using horses in ceremonies and making items such as tents and stringed instruments out of horse products.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

More Stories from Science News on Anthropology