Beyond any contributions to science, the recent research paper on the early history of horses in North America published in the journal Science, seemed to be a landmark attempt to respect and collaborate with Native people on science matters held dear to their hearts.
The relationship between horses and tribal people is indeed ancient, on both sides of the Atlantic, and every effort was made in this research paper to respect the beliefs and science of Native people. The paper had more than 79 authors, three principal contributors being Ludovic Orlando, University of Toulouse, Centre d’Anthropobiologie et de Genomique de Toulouse; William Taylor, Assistant Professor of Archaeology at UC Boulder; and Yvette Running Horse Collin, Executive Director and Principal Science Officer at Takuskanskan Waksakliyapi: Global Institute for Traditional Sciences (GIFTS)
Collaborative efforts between traditional western science and the beliefs and sciences of Native people have been few and far between, and certainly never anything on the level achieved by the authors of this research paper. The focus of the paper—“Early dispersal of domestic horses into the Great Plains and northern Rockies”—was chosen for what appears to be a very specific and sensitive reason: it is the critical common ground for all the authors of the paper, representing all perspectives, save one: glaringly absent from the paper are the perspectives of Natives who may or may not agree with the conclusions of the Natives who contributed to this paper.
“What unites everyone is the shared vision of telling a different kind of story about horses,” Taylor said. “Focusing only on the historical record has underestimated the antiquity and the complexity of Indigenous relationships with horses across a huge swath of the American West.”
Orthodoxy, however, did not focus merely on the historical record. They also considered the science, not surprising, considering they were scientists. But Taylor rightly points out that Natives had complex relationships with the horse, and previous to this paper, ignored was the possibility that some of this traditional knowledge about that relationship could provide significant evidence that might alter orthodox perspectives.
Normally, when different cultures, like China and the USA, share science, they do so through the scientists. But scientists are not well represented in Native tribes. Scientists attempting to incorporate aboriginal perspectives, generally network with Natives who are not scientists, who may or may not distort reality with arbitrary belief systems that do not recognize the legitimacy of western science. Scientists must ask themselves; how far can I bend to accommodate the Native perspective? When does the self-evident virtue of compromise start to compromise the science?
The purpose of Karl Popper’s Falsification Principle was to separate pseudoscience from actual science. Rather than proceed from the nonscientific perspective of trying to prove what you already want to be true, science requires an equal amount of mental energy be applied to disproving any theory, and not just by detractors, but by all involved, and as a matter of principle.
The question remains whether this paper achieved cooperation at the expense of that standard.
Orthodoxy held that horses were dispersed largely as a consequence of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, and although the horse had been brought by the Spanish nearly 200 years before, their dispersal was considered minimal before 1680. The paper attempts to establish that the horse was widely dispersed far earlier than 1680, and reached tribes deep in the American West long before Europeans actually visited these tribes. This is as far as the traditional scientists like Taylor appear willing to go. Collin has a different agenda. She wants to push the presence of the horse far deeper into the past, to assert its active use by pre-Columbian Native cultures.
That the Non-Native contributors do not join her in that assertion, is the 400-lbs gorilla in the room when it comes to finding a flaw in this research paper.
Collin obviously wants her Native perspective to be on an equal footing with scientists around the world. Her organization, GIFTS, ends with the word “science.”
“Overall, the scientific community in the United States has not provided a place for Indigenous Peoples, our histories or our sciences,” Collin told NSNT. “There are many wonderful organizations today that work tirelessly to ensure that Native individuals are given a place in the sciences, yet this place is only offered if we agree to step into the Western scientific framework and participate accordingly. This ensures that our narratives are not told accurately, and our scientific questions are not answered. The world needs our Indigenous knowledge and scientific systems now more than ever, and collaborations such as the one we have just formed will help to create a respectful path forward for a more sustainable future.”
All perspectives contributing to the research paper are well intentioned, but the difficult question for scientists to answer is how much is contribution and how much is rhetoric? Are traditional perspectives magically rendered non-anecdotal by time and mainstream acceptance? Eventually, these types of questions will become a critical factor in evaluating the efficacy of the research paper.
“For the first time in this study, the existence of Indigenous scientific systems was acknowledged in a major scientific journal,” Collin said.
This is a major step in the right direction, regardless of what else the research paper contributes. But Collin goes on to say, “Regarding the genomics analysis, readers of the study can see that the genomics analysis provided focuses on the variance (the less than 1 percent of the genome that was seen as different between the horses in the study) while the Lakota analysis would instead focus on the more than 99 percent of the genome that appears the same between the two ancient North American samples analyzed in the study and the modern horses in our herds today.”
While this sounds like science on the surface, it is actually rhetoric, because it attempts to speak for all Lakota analytical perspectives as operationally differing from mainstream perspectives for this reason. It logically assumes that any legitimate Lakota perspective must reflect the perspective of Collin and GIFTS. The non-Native contributors to the research paper do nothing to address this and give no indication they even recognize it as a problem.
Collin then goes on to assert that Mitakuye Oyasin is the Lakota “science of relationally, interdependence and connection—that serves as one of the most basic principles.” Mitakuye Oyasin is a belief, not a science. It is what people say before they enter and when they exit a sweat lodge. Belief, however efficacious, is not science, and if it is science, it is only science because of serendipity, not scientific veracity.
In order for science to meet the standard Collin has asserted for Lakota science, scientists would have to abandon both the scientific method (which involves “careful observation, rigorous skepticism about what is observed, given that cognitive assumptions can distort how one interprets the observation”) and Popper’s Falsification Principle.
Christina Larson of the AP did a story on the research paper, and the headline ran, “Indigenous groups in the American West lived alongside horses by the early 1600s, study finds.” This is what the research paper addresses, but there appears to be a conflation of the content of Larson’s headline, and the assertion horse cultures existed prior to Columbus. The research paper does not assert the latter. It asserts the following: “We conducted an interdisciplinary study of an assemblage of historic archaeological horse remains, integrating genomic, isotopic, radiocarbon, and paleopathological evidence. Archaeological and modern North American horses show strong Iberian genetic affinities, with later influx from British sources, but no Viking proximity. Horses rapidly spread from the south into the northern Rockies and central plains by the first half of the 17th century CE, likely through Indigenous exchange networks. They were deeply integrated into Indigenous societies before the arrival of 18th-Century European observers, as reflected in herd management, ceremonial practices, and culture.”
This study impacts the Lakota because it has been oft asserted by those opposing the Lakota getting back the Black Hills that the Lakota did not arrive in the Black Hills until the 18th Century, this assertion based upon the 1680 Pueblo Revolt scenario. But if the research in this paper holds up under peer review, it goes a long way to dispel that assertion. Oglala Attorney Mario Gonzalez, who contributed to the research paper, has a French map that shows the Lakota in the area a hundred years before white historians place them here. The Lakota could have acquired the horse and crossed the Missouri and entered the Black Hills nearly two hundred years before Jedidiah Smith became the first American to see the Black Hills in 1822.
This from the conclusion in the research paper: “This study established that Indigenous peoples were living and interacting with the horse before the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 CE, which was the earliest date accepted by Western science. However, current genetic evidence shows that the horses caretaken by Indigenous peoples from as early as the first half of the 17th century CE do not share an excess of genetic ancestry with Late Pleistocene North American horses. Given that the Horse Nation is foundational to Lakota lifeways, one possible implication of this finding is that relationships of the kind developed by Lakota peoples could have already been in place by the Late Pleistocene. Such life management practices may even have extended to other members of the horse family at that time. Testing these implications requires further paleontological, archaeological, genetic, and ethnographic research.”
The Late Pleistocene ended just about 12,000 years ago. The research paper has gone a long way to establish horse presence in Native tribes long before 1680. It then takes a leap and speculates that maybe the Lakota had contact with the horse or horse relatives during the Late Pleistocene, rather than accept Collin’s assertion tribes had contact in more recent times, and had a relationship with the horse when Columbus landed at San Salvador.
Andrew Curry writes in Science: “Drawing on Native oral histories—including the Lakota tradition that the tribe has had a relationship with the horse ‘since time immemorial’—Collin argued that the horse never went extinct in the Americas at all.”
But this research paper does not argue that, only that the horse was widespread before 1680.
(Contact James Giago Davies at email@example.com)