Pseudoarchaeological claims of horses present in the Americas isn’t all that new. Recently, however, a new story started making the rounds on Facebook with a slightly different twist. Instead of trying to prove the introduction of the horse by the “lost tribe of Israel” or “the Philistines” as they settled the Americas a few thousand years ago, this story introduces something more plausible. Contrary to the current scientific consensus, horses, so the claim goes, didn’t go extinct in the Pleistocene and were not re-introduced post-contact. There are a lot of horse-lovers out there that get angry at people, like some cattle ranchers, who consider wild horses to be invasive specie and want herds destroyed rather than compete with their cattle on public grazing lands. So I expect this fuels some of this claim.
The claim itself isn’t necessarily crazy. I find the general notion that one or more species of Equus might have survived the Pleistocene to be an interesting scientific question. But that’s not the way Yvette Collin seems to approach the issue. In fact, her PhD dissertation (Collin, 2017) from the University of Alaska Fairbanks takes a decidedly pseudoscientific approach to addressing it.
In her dissertation, Collin’s stated purpose is to “deconstruct the history of the horse in the Americas and its relationship with the Indigenous Peoples.” She seems to begin with a conclusion—that there is a “Western science” seeking to “disregard, purposefully exclude, and reconfigure” the traditional knowledge of Native Americans. Ultimately, she’d like to “reconstruct the history of the horse in the Americas in a way that is unbiased and accurate.”
Toward this endeavor, she fails.
Let’s begin with the literature review
Collin seems to miss the point of the literature review. She describes non-written forms of information transmission by Native Americans (oral tradition, wampum belts, rituals, etc.) then goes on about how Natives were persecuted and oppressed until 1978 when Carter signed the Freedom of Religion act, etc.
She mentions how historians record the introduction of horses to the Indians in the 1690s but there are Spanish records that document Indians using horses as early as 1521 in Georgia and the Carolinas. It turns out she’s citing Richard Thornton who is citing Pietro Martire (Peter Martyr) d’ Anghiera’s De Orbo Novo [The New World] (Martyr D’ Anghiera, 1912)?, written in 1530.
One immediately wonders why she didn’t cite the original source. If she had, she might’ve noticed that Thornton, a pseudoarchaeologist, tells it like he wants it known. While Thornton mentions that one of Martyr’s key informants, a captured Native American named Francisco Chicorana, could “not confirm or deny the presence of horses,” he fails to mention that Martyr also wrote of the Americas having lions and tigers and a strange elephant-like beast that we would later understand be a tapir. While it would be easy to conflate a jaguar or puma with a lion or tiger seeing one for the first time, Martyr’s mentions of the horse and Chicorana’s inability to confirm or deny their presence in Duhare (modern Geogia/Carolinas area) isn’t as Thornton misleads one to believe. Martyr writes:
In place of horses, the king is carried on the shoulders of strong young men, who run with him to the different places he wishes to visit. At this point, I must confess, that the different accounts cause me to hesitate. The Dean and Ayllon do not agree ; for what one asserts concerning these young men acting as horses, the other denies. The Dean said: “I have never spoken to anybody who has seen these horses,” to which Ayllon answered, “I have heard it told by many people,” while Francisco Chicorana, although he was present, was unable to settle this dispute. Could I act as arbitrator, I would say that, according to the investigations I have made, these people were too barbarous and uncivilised to have horses.
Collin quotes Martyr directly only to include that last line which denigrates the Native American as inferior to the white Europeans.
To further explain why a proper literature review wasn’t possible, she goes on to describe how Native oral traditions are “precise” and “convey depth and detail in a way that modern-day languages and records are unable” (Collin, 2017, p.30). Collin points out that Native American languages often have many words for concepts like rain, snow, wind, etc., implying that this is what maintains fidelity of a concept being transmitted from one generation to the next.
She omits any agenda by individuals or groups to propagandize, elaborate, embellish or change stories to keep them relevant—all present in human cultures throughout the globe in both historic and prehistoric (i.e. pre-written) periods. Though Collin does provide many 16th century accounts of early visitors to the New World recording and documenting the horses that they spotted. How do we determine which of these are accounts of horses lost by previous expeditions (escaped after being brought off ship or from ships that sunk hitting reefs or rocks) and which of these are partial or pure embellishment meant to entice European benefactors into funding additional expeditions? The horse, after all, was a resource.
What she noticeably omits in this literature review are biological, paleontological, and genetic sources of information. If one has a hypothesis regarding the existence of a mammalian species, one expects these in the literature review. No doubt Collin would have us believe that Native American oral tradition is trustworthy because cultural tradition and linguistic style was guaranteed to ensure fidelity and preclude embellishment or omission of facts inconvenient to the narrative.
So what physical evidence does Collin present? Within the literature review section of her dissertation, Collin describes a 3-inch clay horse figurine that was “found on Roods Creek about 2 miles from the Chattahoochee River.” Collin also describes a small stone horse effigy that “was found in a 1974 dig ‘near the Yuchi Creek near Fort Benning, Georgia.'”
As physical evidence goes, these items are pretty much useless. First, the source she’s citing is a pseudoarchaeological book on pre-Columbian visits to the Americas by white Europeans (Farley, 1993)?. Moreover, neither of these objects are with any context that can be dated or effectively described. The first was alleged to be found by a Catholic friar; the second was by a pair of boys digging in the bank of a creek (Farley, p. 342) (Collin, p. 47).
Read Collins’ account carefully:
…and that “Manford Metcalf of Columbus, Georgia, put into my hand a small stone effigy which resembled a horse head,” which was found in a 1974 dig “near the Yuchi Creek near Fort Benning, Georgia.”
And now Farley’s original passage:
At the same 1979 symposium, Manford Metcalf of Columbus, Georgia, put into my hand a small stone effigy which resembled a horse head. He explained that his boys had found it in 1974 while digging in the side of a hill near the Yuchi Creek near Fort Benning, Georgia.”
As an archaeologist, I can tell you there’s a definite distinction between “a 1974 dig” and “boys digging in the side of a hill in 1974.” This is a blatant mischaracterization—a borderline lie—by Collins.
Rock art and geoglyphs
Collin is correct when she says rock art motifs with a horse are considered as post-contact period motifs. But it isn’t because of a “dominant Western culture” or a refusal to date the rock art in other ways. It’s because this is an effective method of dating: use of motifs. Dating rock art is hard. Not just complicated or involved hard, but really hard. Sometimes it just cannot be done. The most effective methods are relative association of a motif or stylistic element with an event or period. Often the best dates that can be had are large ranges. Occasionally, a fairly well dated element will be of a pigment that overlaps or underlays another pigment in a consistent fashion, allowing the archaeologist recording the rock art to make some basic, relative assumptions about the dates.
While it is possible to do radiocarbon analysis on rock art, it’s an extremely involved and destructive process. Pigment has to be scraped from the rock art itself. Usually, the archaeologist looks for a recent spall for a sample candidate. Then the pigment has to be separated. There’s often a binder and an emulsifier along with the pigment material itself. If the archaeologist is very lucky, she’ll have sufficient quantities of one of these elements that happens to be from a formerly living organism and will, thus, have carbon 14 isotopes within it to test.
Very often, however, no viable sample is found and no one wants to go chipping away at the rock art willy-nilly. And, then, when a sample is successfully analyzed, there’s a crazy chance of error. But this is pigment-based rock art. Petroglyphs are a whole other problem. There really isn’t any effective way to date these. It’s possible to date the patina or lichens that begin to build up in the underlying strata after the cortex of the rock is removed by pecking. But this is a pretty rare thing.
One of the ways a patina can form is through a natural process of desert varnish, which is essentially the result of a bacteria that consume manganese and iron dust. Desert varnish (DV) takes thousands of years to form, but it is possible to measure the amount of minerals (Mn, Fe, and Pb) in a petroglyph that is slowly developing that patina of desert varnish again. Using a handheld, x-ray fluorescence device one can measure the pecked portion and the unpecked portions of rock, do some math, then look the age up on a calibration curve. The downside is that the technique is still a bit experimental and requires that the minerals above be present in the natural geology of the area.
One of the rock art examples that Collin cites is from 48th Unnamed Cave in Eastern Tennessee and dates to about 6000 years BP. Captions of the image simply say, “quadruped animal,” but she assumes this is a horse. A direct date was obtained using accelerated mass spectrometry (AMS) on a sample of charcoal pigment. But the date says nothing about the species of the animal. Visually, it’s a quadruped. Instead of citing the primary source (Simek, Cressler, Herrmann, & Sherwood, 2013)? directly, Collin curiously cites an internet news source (Smith, 2013)? and criticizes that writer’s characterization of cave art in the region of East Tennessee as including “otherworldly characters, supernatural serpents and dogs…” by saying “this interpretation of the pictographs illustrating large quadrupeds accompanying people makes little sense culturally,” as if she knew what people 6000 years ago were thinking.
Had she looked at the original source, Collin would have read that the inclusion of canids (dogs, wolves, coyotes) in the local cave art was far from uncommon. And she would have seen an image that was clearly of a group of canines as example. But this might not be her actual complaint since she also says, “no dogs near the dimensional size illustrated in these pictographs were known to exist…” Collin is clearly under the mistaken belief that rock art will only include imagery that is to scale.
Another rock art example Collin uses as evidence that horses were in the Americas in pre-contact times is a pictograph element at Alto de Pitis in Peru. The description (van Hoek, 2013)? as a horse with rider dating to after 1540 is refuted by Collin based on a blog post from NephiCode.com (DowDell, 2016)?, which she agrees with. She derides van Hoek for not bothering to date the rock art without bothering to describe what dating method would possibly be appropriate for this panel. I honestly don’t know if Alto de Pitris would be a good candidate for XRF dating or not, but van Hoek did, indeed, date this element of the panel, but with relative dating based on the understood existence of the horse in Peru.
Also, among the physical evidence Collin presents for pre-contact horses are the Blythe Intaglios, a set of geoglyphs near Blythe, California in the Colorado Desert. Two of these are of quadrupeds that are generally accepted to be mountain lions. They certainly don’t resemble horses other than being quadruped. While the Blythe Intaglios are often said to be at least 1,000 years old, their actual date is unknown, mainly due to the “lack of associated time-sensitive artifacts and charcoal-bearing features” (Gilreath, 2007 p. 289).
With the geoglyphs, Collin also leans on the words of Craig Downer, who advocates for wild horses and burros to not be seen as invasive. Reviewing his bibliography for the work Collin cited, we see the familiar pattern of going to pseudoscientific sources like the magazine Ancient American—another entity, like NephiCode, with an agenda for arguing that Mormons and Jews were the ancestors of Native Americans.
Downer writes of his own discovery of alleged horse petroglyphs that he personally dated to over 1,000 years old. The method of dating? He visually compared the patina hues (Downer, 2014)?. No XRF device. No long-term study of patination and the associated color hues and patterns. No indication at all of what comprised the patina. So it is not at all surprising, Downer’s article was published in the American Journal of Life Sciences, which is listed on Beal’s List of Predatory Journals (http://bealslist.weebly.com).
Collin continues citing fringe and pseudoarchaeological sources in her PhD dissertation to the point that it just becomes hard to trust any of her sources. There’s a variety of post-contact Equus remains that she describes and the occasional discovery that is alleged to be pre-contact. Such as the Pratt Cave excavations by Ernie Lundelius. Collin now cites another fringe writer (S. E. Jones, 2012)? who spoke of Pratt Cave, where two horse bones were recovered (a metapodial and a portion of a phalanx), both on the surface of the cave interior.
Radiocarbon dating of samples at strata below the surface revealed the oldest date in the cave to be 2820 +/- 180 years BP (Lundelius, E. L., 1979)?. That didn’t keep Jones from stating that there was a date range of 6020 to 5890 BCE for bones deposited on the surface after the samples below that dated to a maximum of about 870 BCE! Ludelius states in his paper on Pratt Cave that the surface bones were from a “small form about the size of an ass” and, although he couldn’t be sure if it was domestic or feral, it was certainly modern and likely introduced to the cave by a predator. It would seem that Jones is pulling data from thin air since he offers no citation that explains the extreme age he claims. Lundelius certainly didn’t use that age and confrmed as much in personal correspondance with me.
Not without a single surprise, Jones’ article was published first in Ancient American magazine a fringe, hyper-diffusionist periodical that features many articles about how ancient peoples in the Americas had contact and help from smarter, more technologically advanced, white people from places like Europe well before Columbus arrived. Collin also cites another set of excavated horse bones that Jones also discussed in that same article. In doing so, she cites the original publication directly, but leaves out a critical observation that points to their conclusion: cut marks on the bone from a steel tool. Eckles and his colleagues acknowledge that bone occasionally produces young results (this is because of younger material clinging to buried bone) but agree that the upper limit of their obtained radiocarbon dates (after the mid 17th century) is realistic and that this is an early historic site in Wyoming (Eckles, Lockewood, Kumar, Wedel, & Walker, 1994)?.
Collin begins her dissertation with a clear chip on her shoulder for so-called “mainstream academia” and “Western science.” There is no “western” science. There is science. The methods of which work regardless of where you are geographically or what your ethnicity is. That’s the wonderful and marvelous thing about science is that it can be wielded by even the most oppressed or marginalized among us if its methods are adhered to. The only real trick is to observe the universe in a logical fashion and record data in a manner reasoned enough that it will provide consistent results.
While Collin rightfully pointed out the presence of bias among non-indigenous or non-Native researchers, she also pledged to overcome any bias of her own. She failed. From the outset. Her abstract revealed a conclusion that she began with and proclaimed the data she would find. No serious attempt was shown in her work to falsify her hypothesis, indeed, her null hypothesis was unclear: what would show her to be wrong as she gathered data?
The importance of having indigenous researchers and scientists around the world answering questions and exploring the heritage of their own people cannot be overstated. This is all the more reason why such an endeavor should be undertaken in a manner that places the work in a position that is as close to being beyond reproach as possible. Indeed, this should be a goal of any legitimate research endeavor.
Reliance on sources so questionable as to be considered pseudoscientific, pseudoarchaeological, and pseudohistoric, however, has the effect of diminishing any research endeavor to the fringes of science at best. It places doubt on any future work the researcher produces. And it taints the reputations of those that academically validate it. But more importantly, when it comes to advancing indigenous or historically marginalized people, such works become obstacles to those that deserve that advancement.
Collin’s dissertation cites Ancient Origins, Richard Thornton, and Dell Dowdell, and each of these sources variously or indirectly promote ideas about Native Americans which can be considered racist. Dowdell, the creator of nephicode.com, actively promotes the notion that Native Americans are the descendants of white Mormons and he believes the Earth is only as old as one of the cave paintings mentioned earlier in this article. Conspiracy theorist Richard Thornton publishes pseudoarchaeological claims of Maya settlements in Georgia. And Ancient Origins is a website that traffics in all manner of fake, fraudulent, and fantastic archaeological news, books, and media for profit. Authors they promote range from racists to general conspiracy theorists.
Coming across any one of these in a dissertation for a PhD should be enough to put all that dissertation’s sources in question. There were, perhaps, a dozen or more questionable sources of this caliber.
I’m certainly not categorically opposed to the idea that Equus may have survived the Pleistocene extinction and continues even today. This, I think is a perfectly valid, scientific hypothesis. But it’s one that should be tested using science. Not “Western science.” Not through the lens of non-indigenous academia. It should simply be tested with science, a set of methods available to anyone willing to use them regardless of geographic origin, cultural affiliation, or ethnic heritage.
References and Further Reading
Collin, Y. R. H. (2017). The Relationship Between the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas and the Horse: Deconstructing a Eurocentric Myth (University of Alaska Fairbanks). Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/1895090520?accountid=6180%5Cnhttp://dw2zn6fm9z.search.serialssolution.com?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&ctx_enc=info:ofi/enc:UTF-8&rfr_id=info:sid/ProQuest+Dissertations+%26+Theses+Global&rft_val_fmt=info:ofi/fmt:kev:mtx:disserta
DowDell, D. (2016). The Horseman of Alto de Pitis – Part III. Retrieved from NephiCode.com website: http://nephicode.blogspot.com/2016/05/the-horseman-of-alto-de-pitis-part-iii.html
Downer, C. C. (2014). The Horse and Burro as Positively Contributing Returned Natives in North America. American Journal of Life Sciences, 2(1), 5. https://doi.org/10.11648/j.ajls.20140201.12
Eckles, D., Lockewood, J., Kumar, R., Wedel, D., & Walker, D. N. (1994). An Early Historic Period Horse Skeleton from Southwestern Wyoming. The Wyoming Archaeologist, 38(3–4), 55–68.
Farley, G. (1993). In Plain Sight: Old World Records in Anceint America. Columbus, GA: ISAC Press.
Gilreath, A. J. (2007). California Prehistory: Rock Art in the Golden State. In T. L. Jones & K. A. Klar (Eds.), Colonization, Culture, and Complexity (pp. 273–290). Lanham, MD: Rowman Altamira.
Jones, S. E. (2012, January). Were There Horses in the Americas Before Columbus? Ancient American, 5–6.
Lundelius, E. L., J. (1979). Post-Pleistocene mammals from Pratt Cave and their environmentalsignificance. In H. H. Genoways & R. J. Baker (Eds.), Biological Investigations in the Guadalupe Mountains, National Park, Texas (pp. 239–258). Washington D. C.: National Park Service, Proc.
Martyr D’ Anghiera, P. (1912). De Orbe Novo (F. (trans. . MacNutt, Ed.). Project Gutenberg reproduction ed.
Simek, J. F., Cressler, A., Herrmann, N. P., & Sherwood, S. C. (2013). Sacred landscapes of the south-eastern USA: Prehistoric rock and cave art in Tennessee. Antiquity, 87(336), 430–446. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003598X00049048
Smith, M. (2013). Ancient Tennessee Cave Paintings Show Deep Thinking by Natives. CNN Online, June 23(Sunday). Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2013/06/20/us/tennessee-cave-art
van Hoek, M. (2013). The Horseman of Alto de Pitis, Peru: A Post-Columbian Outsider in a Pre-Columbian Landscape. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/22684628/VAN_HOEK_M._2013._The_Horseman_of_Alto_de_Pitis_Peru_A_Post-Columbian_Outsider_in_a_Pre-Columbian_Landscape._Andean_Rock_Art_Papers_-_Part_1_-_Paper_1