June 9, 2004
Several new rock art discoveries dated around 1700-1750 depict mounted warriors, likely Comanche, on horses clad in leather armor, the first such petroglyphs found in Colorado.
University of Colorado-Boulder anthropology doctoral student Mark Mitchell, who identified the art, said Plains Native Americans probably acquired horses from the Spanish in northern New Mexico beginning about 1650 through raiding or trading. The idea of leather-armored horses and riders to deflect spears and arrows probably came from observing armored Spanish horse soldiers in the Southwest or Mexico.
“There is some recorded history but virtually no archaeology of the Comanche, which makes these rock art depictions very valuable,” said Mitchell. “They should point us to additional places to look for Comanche sites containing artifacts associated with horses.”
Mitchell published a paper on the subject in the March 2004 issue of Antiquity.
The new finds by Mitchell include three in Colorado and one in central Kansas. He identified two separate rock art depictions of armored horses on the Purgatoire River in southeast Colorado, both showing the horses’ armor as rough trapezoids of leather on each side with straight-to-flaring front and back margins, curved at the top and bottom. “Both also clearly show an armored collar from which horses’ heads protrude,” said Mitchell.
A third petroglyph in Baca County in Colorado depicts a single armored horse and rider incised in rock. The horse’s feet and head are shown protruding from the armor. Two parallel lines adjacent to the rider’s torso may represent human body armor. The rider holds a short lance in his left hand.
Previous rock art discoveries as far north as Canada, which appear to date several decades later than those on the southern plains, indicate northern Plains Native Americans also used leather armor to protect the horse and rider. But cavalry tactics on the northern plains appear to have been less sophisticated than those in the south.
The fourth petroglyph identified by Mitchell, from central Kansas, “clearly depicts an armored horse,” he said. The armor again is trapezoidal in shape and shows a horse head protruding from an armored collar. The leather-armored Comanche likely used short bows, arrows and spears during battle.
The best historical evidence for armored and mounted Plains Native Americans comes from a hide painting produced in a Jesuit mission in present-day New Mexico by a Native American in about 1720, said Mitchell. The painting depicts a band of mounted warriors on leather-armored horses and holding spears, attacking a ground force of Apaches holding shields, spears and bows and arrows.
“This strategy of leather armor only lasted for about a century, from 1650 to 1750,” said Mitchell. This “post-horse/pre-gun” period faded as firearms became available (via trades with the French and English) which could penetrate the leather armor of mounted warriors.
A previous study by University of Nebraska archaeologists indicated French traders may have visited and perhaps traded guns with the Comanche as early as 1748. The Comanche also may have been trading with the Wichita and Pawnee by 1751.
Many anthropologists now believe some Plains tribes moved south specifically to obtain horses from the Spanish. Some Comanche bands may have had a dozen horses per warrior, forcing them to camp near large lakes or rivers to keep the people and horses watered.
The period of mounted Native American warriors, including the century of some using armored hides, is a relatively brief but significant time frame in the history of Plains Native Americans. “For the previous 1,000 years, these peoples were very sedentary, living in villages and farming, and were not mobile until the arrival of the horse,” noted Mitchell.
This article is based on a news release from the University of Colorado.