How horses changed native cultures after 1492

[ This is a very brief overview of Peter Mitchel’s “Horse Nations”.  As oil and other fossils decline, will we will almost certainly return to using more horse “muscle power” as we did in the past.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Mitchel, Peter.  2015. Horse Nations. The worldwide impact of the horse on indigenous societies post-1492. Oxford University Press.

To remind you of how important horses were to past tribes and civilizations, consider their use in cavalry battle, plowing, transporting goods, pulling carts and wagons, and so on.

The latest archeological evidence shows that horses were probably first domesticated in the mid-fourth-millennium BC in northern Kazakhstan for milk and meat.  Before that horses were one of many hunted animals.  When people first began riding horses is less certain, but certainly by the mid- to late third millennium BC.

This book covers the impact of the horse on cultures all over the world, though I was mainly interested in Native American impacts.  This is such a brief history though, since it wasn’t long before the near extinction of bison and European settlement ended the horse culture of the Plains and other regions with lots of pastureland could sustain thousands of horses.

Horses could radically change a culture.  They determined when and where people camped since they had to have winter fodder and shelter.  For example, in the 1740s Europeans observed that Comanche’s’ large herds forced them to live apart in order to find enough pasture and water for their horses.  To accomplish this, groups split up seasonally.  Before horses, bison were the main decider of where to camp.  By the early 1800s there were an average of four horses per person, and the highest priority, since bison and other essentials couldn’t be procured without horses.

Natives had their horses and dogs transport goods on a travois that they pulled along the ground, and lasted about a year. They could also be used to dry meat or provide shade.  The heaviest cargo was the Tipi.  A Blackfoot home was typically made of 12 to 14 bison hides and altogether (with pegs and lining) weigh about 70-85 kg, and the 19 poles to support it another 180 kg, with total weight of 250-265 kg pulled by 3 horses. Wealthier natives hauling larger lodges needed even more horses.  An average family of 8 living in one tipi probably needed at least 12 horses: 3 to carry the tipi, 2 for packing personal possessions, 3 ridden by women and children plus 2 more for men, and 2 kept for hunting bison.  When families didn’t have enough horses, they overloaded those they had, borrowed horses and became beholden to them, or used more dogs.

It may appear that the unfair distribution of wealth with the 1% owning nearly as much as the bottom 99% is new to modern civilization, but centuries ago some native Americans amassed far more wealth than other tribal members.  For example, about one in twenty Blackfoot members owned 50 or more horses while 25% of families had less than 6, half the ideal number.  The wealthy individuals could now haul around more material possessions, trade horses for more wives, process more bison hides to sell or trade for guns.   This made poorer men who wanted to marry keen to raid other tribes and steal their horses, escalating tribal warfare.  A man could also gain much prestige by giving away some of the horses obtained in a raid.  Poorer men became their laborers, herding and processing hides for the wealthy which enriched them further.  Since horses were lent out far more often than given away, some families began to grow increasingly rich and their wealth hereditary, and less likely to starve.

“Horse wars” became more common, with the fiercest tribes those that lived in the most northern areas where horses were much harder to keep in these harsh environments.

There was an ecological price to pay for this though, repeated use of good winter campsites caused overgrazing, degrading the ability of the land to sustain large numbers of horses in good health.

Pack animals

Experiments show that dogs can drag loads of 60 lbs (27 kg) up to 16.8 miles (27 km) a day, though less than that if temperatures go above 68 F (20 C).  Historic observations recorded loads of 66-100 lbs (30-45 kg) up to 50 km.

Horses can carry 5 times as much further than dogs, as well as pull much harder, with an extra advantage of not competing with people or dogs for food.

You might expect that would be the end of dogs, but they have their advantages.  Horses can’t eat while working, but to maintain their heavy weight a horse must eat about 2% of its mass a day, which means grazing most of the time. Horses also need extra food to survive the harsh winters of the Plains.

And all the horse sweat means double or triple as much water, and even more if a mare is lactating to feed their colt milk that comprises 5% of their body mass every day.  Water is especially problematic in the winter, because the dry grass they eat doesn’t provide them any water.  Often nearby water is polluted by waterfowl, has too much algae, and other problems that sicken horses.  So their better ability to move a lot of weight long distances has a price.  Dogs on the other hand are less liable to be stolen, reproduce faster, grow quicker, withstand cold winters better, and can eat snow to gain enough water.  They can share human shelters, need less training, spend little time eating, and usually don’t stray far.

Packhorses could carry up to 705 lbs (320 kg) at a time, and carried thinks like pemmican made of bison meat, fat, and berries that could last for years.  Mules could do the work of 2 horses and valued that way.

Horses vastly expanded trade.  First because horses were very valuable. Between the Nez Perces and Northern Shoshones, a horse was worth 2 bearskins, or ten sheepskins, or 4 bags of salmon. More goods could be hauled to trade further distances. Before horses most trade routes were along rivers with canoes hauling the gods.

Not all Indians adopted horses in to their culture.  Great Basin bands rejected them because they depended on plants to survive, not animals.  The aridity of the environment meant few could be kept, and there was a risk that horses would eat some of the plants and grasses they depended on.  It was feared they’d harm the land, which turned out to be true, ecological studies show horses reduced grass and shrub cover, impoverished reptile, rodent, and ant populations and diminished soil organic matter, shade, and precipitation interception, causing more erosion.  Destruction which continues to this day, since Nevada has more feral horses than any other state, tens of thousands of them, which are minimally managed and can’t be hunted.


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