How long have horses been in the Americas?

In a Ph.D. dissertation with the imposing title “The Relationship between the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas and the Horse: Deconstructing a Eurocentric Myth” (Univ. of Alaska Fairbanks, 2017), Yvette Running Horse Collin (now Dr. Collin) argues that horses did survive in parts of the Americas from the Ice Age to at least the twentieth century. She surveys archaeological evidence, the historical record, and indigenous oral history to make her case.

Scholarship being what it is — a long, slow process — it will take a long time, decades even, before scholars come to a consensus on this question. But Collin’s work does address a question I’ve long had. The historic record states over and over again that the native peoples of the Americas were superb equestrians. Yet they became superb equestrians in a very few years, whereas I’d expect the level of expertise exhibited would be the result of a long cultural process. And their expertise seems to be reported as being a different kind of expertise than European expertise as equestrians. So if Europeans brought horses to the Americas, how was it that the native peoples of the Americas became such superb equestrians in such a short time?

This whole issue is complicated by a religious issue. The sacred writings of the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) apparently assert that horses were in North America before European contact in the fifteenth century. I would be extremely skeptical of that particular claim, just as I’m skeptical of all claims that every word of every sacred scripture is literally true. Sacred scriptures are more like myths, where mythos represents a different kind of truth than logos, or logical thought. In my view, Collin is making a very different claim from the Latter Day Saints. She is arguing about a bias she believes she has found in historiography, where there are often assumptions placing Europeans at the center of any historical account. So regardless of the religious claims of the Latter Day Saints, Collin’s work should be taken seriously.

Panel on Environmental Relationships, Environmental Readings

The second Wednesday morning session of the Sacred Texts Human Contexts conference, titled “Environmental Relationships, Environmental Readings” at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, May 25 included presentations by Brianne Donaldson, professor at Monmouth College; Jamison Stallman, M.A. candidate at Union Theological Seminary; and Cecille M. Medina-Moldonado, M.A. candidate at Loyola University. I was most interested in hearing Donaldson’s presentation on Jainism, but ultimately found Medina-Moldonado’s presentation equally interesting.

Donaldson’s presentation, titled “I Ask Pardon of All Creatures: The Centrality More Than Human Life Jain Text and Rituals of Repentance,” began with some basic information about Jainsim, including an introduction to the principle of ahimsa, not causing harm. Pointing out that Mahavira, the key figure in early Jainism, was a contemporary of Gautama Buddha, she said, “Both buddha and Mahavira prioritize ethical action over Vedic ritual practice.” [Note that I am not able to include diacritical marks for Sanskrit transliteration on this Web site.]

“Jainism posits a universe of which our universe is just one part,” said Donaldson, adding, “There is no deity.” instead, according to the Tattvartha Sutra, there are six substances, including jiva which may be interpreted as soul, or as sentient substance. All organisms house a jiva, she said, including microorganisms.

Jains believe in reincarnation after death. They also believe in karma, said Donaldson, which she described as a kind of “causal entanglement. “Just to live in the world has a cost.”

“One’s own jiva might yet be reborn in a the body of a plant or animal,” said Donaldson, so care for other organisms is important, as one might sometime be reborn in one of those bodies. This leads to ethical concern for other beings.

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