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Anachronisms — Of Horses and Cultures

Updated: Dec 28, 2022

Horses depicted on an Ancient Rock Art Panel overlie even older art in Bears Ears National Monument. But wait! When did horses arrive in North America?

Based on fossil evidence, the genus Equus (horses, zebras, and asses) first appeared on earth in North America about 4 million years ago. They migrated to Eurasia about 2-3 million years ago. Later, they probably criss-crossed the Bering Land Bridge in both directions, but by approximately 12,000 BCE, the horse was extinct in North America.

The horse was reintroduced to this continent in the 1500's by the Spanish. Later, because of their obvious advantage in transportation and warfare, Native Americans adapted the horse to their own purposes and became master horsemen (and women) in their own right.

Pecked figures, unmistakably horses, overlie ancient petroglyphs on a cliff face in Bears Ears National Monument. The color of the horse glyphs has been maintained in Photoshop® while the rest of the cliff face was desaturated - or rendered in black and white. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

We are so accustomed to seeing likenesses of horses that panels like the one above don't come as a surprise. But, if we are to believe the archaeologists, similar rock art panels (without horses) in this region are at least a thousand years old, If there were no modern horses in North America until the 1500s, these images of horses were not made by the same people who made the older, underlying rock art.

There were no modern horses in North America until the 1500s, so these images of horses were not made by the people who made the older, underlying rock art

Archaeologists tell us that nearly all the structures and rock art in the Cedar Mesa region, (and, more broadly, in all of the Bears Ears National Monument) were made by a irregular succession of Archaic, Basketmaker, and Ancestral Puebloan people who ultimately abandoned the area by the 13th century. Later, other people (including the Navajo and Utes) migrated to the region, and in the 16th and 17 centuries incorporated the horse into their cultures.

Another section of the rock art panel seen above. A detailed inspection of the panel clearly shows the horse figures overlying other, more eroded petroglyphs, which must be older. Clicking on this photo will take you to its location on our commercial companion site—Iris Arts. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

The horses pecked into the cliff face were therefore made after European contact and are—at a minimum—many hundreds or thousands of years younger than the rest of the rock art on this panel. The horse figures have been attributed to historic Native American artists (Utes?). The other dates and names on the rock face are assumed to have been made later still—by Mormon settlers.

This rock art panel then, is less about a single anachronism (Horses co-existing with Basketmaker art) and more of an example of the continuum of human history in this part of the world.


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