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Archaeological discovery reveals rapid spread of horses in South America

A recent study led by a University of Colorado Boulder researcher, in collaboration with colleagues in Argentina, provides fresh insights into how the introduction of horses in South America sparked rapid economic and social transformations in the region.

William Taylor, an assistant professor of anthropology and curator of archaeology at CU Boulder, highlights that the narrative surrounding people and horses in the Americas is more dynamic than previously understood. The research, particularly in Patagonia, reveals that the spread of horses and the development of horse-based lifestyles in the southernmost regions of South America were swift and largely independent of European control.

Taylor, who has been studying horses since 2011, emphasizes the continental-scale impact of horses in the Americas from their early arrival in the 16th century. Juan Bautista Belardi, a professor of archaeology at the Universidad Nacional de la Patagonia Austral in Argentina, led the field research at Chorrillo Grande 1, a canyon site in southern Argentina. This site, revealing an Aónikenk/Tehuelche campsite, provided insights into how Indigenous people of the Tehuelche nation utilized horses for hunting, transportation, warfare, and sustenance.

Belardi notes that Chorrillo Grande 1 is likely one of many archaeological sites scattered across the canyon, with human occupation dating back at least 3,500 years. This extended timeline enables researchers to model how hunter-gatherers interacted with the landscape, shedding light on the intricate relationship between people and horses in the region.

An introduction to horses

To delve deeper into the impact of horses on the landscape and society, William Taylor and his colleagues at CU Boulder employed advanced techniques such as DNA sequencing, , and isotope analysis on the items unearthed by Juan Bautista Belardi's team at Chorrillo Grande 1 in Patagonia. The combination of and isotopic data provided insights into the life history and mobility of horses in the region, showcasing how their introduction transformed the way hunter-gatherers utilized the landscape.

Horses quickly became integral to the lifestyle of these communities, offering advantages such as energy savings through riding, expanded hunting radius, reduced time needed to locate prey, and enhanced transportation capabilities. Additionally, horses provided consumable resources and hides, prompting a significant shift in the economic and social aspects of life in Patagonia.

Taylor emphasizes that horses played a transformative role in reshaping the world by connecting people across vast distances, turning grasslands into thriving cultural, economic, and political centers. Even in contemporary times, the enduring impacts of horses are subtly embedded in the world around us.

Taylor's interest in the “human-horse story” stems from his family's history with horses, and he sees it as a lens to understand not only the past but also the present. His upcoming book, “Hoof Beats: How Horses Shaped Human History,” delves into the global history of the human-horse relationship.

This research is seen as a stepping stone, with Taylor expressing the hope that it will catalyze further into the role of horses in ancient Argentina and South America. The collaborative efforts aim to expand this understanding and connect it with research in other parts of the ancient world, painting a comprehensive picture of the enduring impact of horses on human societies.

Source: University of Colorado at Boulder

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