mare and foal in Kazakhstan

The Eurasia steppe is the only place that horses survived after the last Ice Age. Domestication is believed to have occurred around 4000 B.C. to 3000 B.C. when horses suddenly appeared in places where they hadn't been seen before like Turkey and Switzerland. It is difficult to pin down when domestication took place partly because the bones of wild horses and domesticated horses are virtually the same. [Source: William Speed Weed, Discover magazine, March 2002]

Horses are believed to have been domesticated from wild horses from Central Asia about 6,000 years ago. Ancient men viewed horses primarily as a source of meat and hunted them like other animals. One effective method of hunting horses was driving them over cliffs.

The first domesticated horses are believed to have been horses that were herded rather than hunted. Later they were used as beast of burdens, and later still they were ridden. Horse are believed to have first been ridden to keep track of domesticated animals that ranged over large expanses on the steppe. Some people have speculated that the first horsemen drank the blood of their animals as cattle-herding tribes in East Africa do today.

The first horseback riders and domesticated horses were originally believed to have come from Sredni Stog culture, a site in the steppe areas east of the Dnieper River and north of the Black Sea in what is now the Ukraine, dated between 4200 and 3500 B.C. Russian archeologists excavated Sredny Stog in the 1960s and found scraps of bone and horn that resembled the cheek pieces of bridles plus wear and tear on the teeth of an excavated horse that resembled the wear and tear caused by wearing a bit. Archeologist David Anthony of Hartwick College in New York examined horse teeth found at Sredni Stog sites and concluded the horse teeth dated to 400 B.C., and the site not the home of 6000-year-old riders.

Websites and Resources: Mongols and Horsemen of the Steppe "The Horse, the Wheel and Language, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World", David W Anthony, 2007 ; The Scythians - Silk Road Foundation ; Scythians ; Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the Huns ; Wikipedia article on Eurasian nomads Wikipedia Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; The Mongol Empire ; The Mongols in World History ; William of Rubruck's Account of the Mongols ; Mongol invasion of Rus (pictures) ; Encyclopædia Britannica article ; Mongol Archives

Botai Horsemen

Some archeologist believe that horses were first domesticated by the Botai, a group of people that dressed in marmot furs with the feet still attached and lived in pit houses half dug into the ground in northern Kazakhstan about 6,000 years ago. Excavations from a site called Krasny Yar indicate that people were quite fond of horsemeat. Around 90 percent of the bones found in their homes were from horses.

artifacts and horse bones from the Botai culture site

Many archeologist believe the Botai simply hunted all these horses. Archeologist Sandra Olsen disagrees. She argues the horses were herded, and thus domesticated, and may have been ridden. Her evidence is largely circumstantial. She has noted for example that there are roughly equal numbers of male horse bones and female horse bones founded at Bontai sites. Hunter sites have mostly female bones because females are easier to hunt.

More persuasive is her argument based on the fact that large numbers of full skeletons were found at the Botai sites. She reasoned the horses were herded to the site and slaughtered. Wild horses killed out on the steppe have to be chopped up in pieces to transported back to the site. She has also founded wear and tear on the jawbones similar to that founded on horses who use bridles.

Horses First Domesticated 5,500 Years Ago in Botai, Kazakhstan?

In 2009, scientists announced that pastoral people on the Kazakh steppes appear to have been the first to domesticate, bridle and perhaps ride horses — around 3500 B.C., a millennium earlier than previously thought. The discovery was made near a settlement called Botai in northern Kazakhstan, where the steppes of Central Asia begin to give way to the forests of Siberia. John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times, “Evidence for the earlier date for equine domestication is described in the journal Science by an international team of archaeologists. The report’s lead author is Alan K. Outram of the University of Exeter in England. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, March 5, 2009 +++]

“The archaeologists wrote of uncovering ample horse bones and artifacts from which they derived “three independent lines of evidence demonstrating domestication” of horses by the semi-sedentary Botai culture, which occupied sites in northern Kazakhstan for six centuries, beginning around 3600 B.C. The shape and size of the skeletons from four sites was analyzed and compared with bones of wild horses in the region from the same time, with domestic horses from centuries later in the Bronze Age and with Mongolian domestic horses. The researchers said the Botai animals were “appreciably more slender” than robust wild horses and more similar to domestic horses. +++

Botai location in northern Kazakhstan

“Dr. Outram said in an interview that it was not clear from the research if the breeding of the tamed Botai horses had by then led to the origin of a genetically distinct new species. But their physical attributes were strikingly different, he added, and this made the animals more useful to the people as meat, sources of milk and beasts of burden and locomotion. The second pieces of evidence were the marks on the horses’ teeth and damage to skeletal tissue in the mouths. The researchers said this was caused by the wearing of mouthpieces, bits, inserted for harnessing with a bridle or similar restraint to control working animals.” +++

“ Other archaeologists, digging at other sites, have detected similar traces of what they said was bit wear, but this has been disputed as support for domestication. Dr. Outram said that some of the damage to the Botai teeth and jawbones could have been caused only by bit wear. Botai pottery yielded the third strand of evidence. Embedded in the clay pots were residues of carcass fat and fatty acids that “very likely” came from mare’s milk, the researchers said. This “confirms that at least some of the mares of Botai were domesticated,” they concluded.” +++

Implications of Early Date for Horse Domestication

John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times, “Archaeologists say the discovery may revise thinking about the development of some preagricultural Eurasian societies and put an earlier date to their dispersal into Europe and elsewhere. These migrations are believed to have been associated with horse domestication and the spread of Indo-European languages. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, March 5, 2009 +++]

Kazakh woman on a horse

“Just when and where domestication of horses first occurred has long puzzled archaeologists. Most of their investigations have concentrated on the steppes of Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan, where wild horses were abundant for thousands of years, and burials included the skeletons of prized stallions and early chariots. In his authoritative book, “The Horse, the Wheel and Languages,” David W. Anthony, an archaeologist at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., said in 2007 that some of the best evidence put the beginning of horse domestication in the region around 2500 B.C. +++

“Earlier excavations at Botai sites, conducted by Victor Zaibert of Kokshetau University in Kazakhstan, uncovered piles of horse bones and settlement remains of a people who hunted and herded wild horses for their meat. Dr. Zaibert and Sandra Olsen of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh also found traces of bit wear that first raised the possibility that some Botai horses had been harnessed for work and riding. Both Dr. Zaibert and Dr. Olsen are members of the current excavation team that may have fixed the early time and place for the beginning of the horse-human relationship — a relationship that, as Dr. Outram said, has had “immense social and economic significance, advancing communications, transport, food production and warfare.” +++

Importance of Horse Domestication

Sandra L. Olsen wrote in Natural History magazine, “Many animals—dogs, cattle, goats, pigs, and sheep—were domesticated before the horse, but breeding that one species of livestock was a seminal event. Horses stand apart because of their versatile roles in human society, which came to include dairy production, transportation, haulage, plowing, sports, warfare, religion, and status. It is difficult to place those functions in order of importance, but the horse’s part in warfare does rise above the rest in its effects on geopolitics and human history. [Source: Sandra L. Olsen, Natural History magazine, May 2008 >>>]

“Horse-drawn chariots were not used in battle on a large scale until 1500 B.C., in the Near East, and cavalries only supplanted chariots by around 900 B.C. But you need only recite a short list of ancient empire builders—Alexander the Great, Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Charlemagne, and Napoleon Bonaparte—to realize they all relied mightily on their cavalries. Indeed, more than two millennia later, we even know details about Alexander’s trusted mount Bucephalus. Legend tells us that, as a youth, Alexander tamed this wary animal when no one else could, and the Bucephalus was a dark stallion with a large white star on his forehead and one blue eye. Bucephalus died of injuries received in the Battle of the Hydaspes, in June of 326 B.C.” >>>

Botai Horse Culture

Botai Horse Culture site

The residents of Botai inhabited huts of 25 to 70 square meters in size. Their close relations with horses was proven by the analyses of osteologic materials (90 percent of bones found at the settlements belonged to horses). Botai inhabitants were able to weave and made object from in pottery, wood and bone. Based on objects found in their sites, they interacted with people from the Ural regions, Siberia and Middle Asia. [Source: “Code for Monuments of History and Culture of Kazakhtan, South-Kazakhstan region”, 1994, ***]

Sandra L. Olsen wrote in Natural History magazine, “Circular arrangements of possible postholes suggested a number of enclosures at the Krasnyi Yar settlement. By taking twenty-five soil samples within one such enclosure and comparing them with soil sampled from outside it and from far away from the site, geologists Michael Rosenmeier and Rosemary Capo, of the University of Pittsburgh, discovered obvious differences. When the soil chemistry was analyzed, the area inside the enclosure proved much higher in phosphates, indicating a dense concentration of manure. Because the Botai had no cattle or sheep, it was clear that this was a horse corral. [Source: Sandra L. Olsen, Natural History magazine, May 2008 >>>]

“Our colleagues Charles French and Maria Kousoulakou, of the University of Cambridge, also identified horse manure in the collapsed remains of houses from Botai and Krasnyi Yar. This probably reflects a practice found even today among Kazakhs, Mongols, and others on the Eurasian steppe: they layer their roofs with livestock manure as a means of insulation. >>>

“The Botai lacked bronze or iron technology, as mentioned earlier. Even so, it is reasonable to conclude that they used simple bridles, hobbles, lassoes, whips, and other tack made from rawhide thongs, as North American Plains Indians often did. Prehistoric rawhide does not survive 5,000 years in a site like Botai, which is shallow and lies out in the open, but tools used to manufacture thongs do. Abundant in all of the Botai settlements is a type of notched tool made from the lower jawbone of a horse; high polish and fine striations along the notch suggest the tool was used to work over strips of rawhide to prevent stretching during use. Horse herders require more thongs than nearly any other society, with the exception of polar peoples, who use them for sleds, snowshoes, and fishing equipment. >>>

milking a horse in Mongolia

“As already mentioned, the Botai primarily used horses for food. The high frequencies of butchering marks made by stone knives on the bones tell us that. Compared with the Neolithic hunters who preceded them, the Botai people left behind fewer bones from other game animals. And they also differed by living in large, permanent settlements. The earlier hunters had small transient camps or home bases of one to a few houses. Botai has more than 160 houses, Krasnyi Yar 54, and Vasilkovka 44. The houses, made of adobe and roofed over with saplings and clay, were semi-subterranean. They were arranged in rows along streets and around small plazas. Most of the houses had their corners oriented toward the cardinal directions. >>>

“But to play devil’s advocate, couldn’t these have been communities of horse hunters? Imagine that for decades, if not hundreds of years, a large concentration of people fixed in one place focused on hunting just one type of game in the surrounding region. Eventually, they would exhaust local wild horse herds, making it necessary to go father and farther afield to find prey. Even if small bands of hunters left the village periodically on long-distance missions on foot, they would not be able to return home with enough meat on their backs to feed the whole community. Surely they would broaden their dietary scope and take more deer or wild cattle; but we don’t see that happening at Botai. In addition, wouldn’t they be selective in what parts of a horse carcass they carried back over long distances? But we find bones from the whole horse, even the heavy pelvis and skull, indicating that the animals were probably killed nearby or in the village. >>>

“The horse historically has had a close association with the Sun God all across the Eurasian steppes and in Indo-European cultures. There are enormous religious sites in Mongolia, called khirigsuurs, dating from Bronze Age times, from about 1500 to 500 B.C., where hundreds or even thousands of horse heads and necks are buried beneath mounds of stones. In most cases the heads were carefully arranged to face southeast, where the rising sun emerges over the horizon in late autumn. Presumably that is the season when they were slaughtered. Mongols and Kazakhs usually do most of their horse slaughtering in the late autumn. At that time of year, horsemeat is most fatty and nutritious and can be frozen in boxes outside the home for several months.” >>>

Botai Horse Archeology

Sandra L. Olsen wrote in Natural History magazine, “I saw Botai for the first time in 1993. Discovered only a decade earlier, it had been partly excavated under the direction of Kazakh archaeologist Victor Zaibert, then of the Petropavlovsk Pedagogical Institute (which later became North Kazakhstan University), who claimed to have found the first domesticated horses. The odds that Botai was the very first or the only place where horses were domesticated were incredibly small. But Botai was clearly an ideal place to begin to unravel that mystery. We archaeologists must resign ourselves to never finding the first stone tool ever knapped by humans or the first instance of making fire. Such ephemeral incidents leave few, if any, traces in the archaeological record, and even if they do, the chances are small that we will stumble upon them. We have to settle for pushing back the dates of important episodes to as close to the origin as possible and focusing in on the regions where they might have happened. [Source: Sandra L. Olsen, Natural History magazine, May 2008 >>>]

imagining a Botai culture settlement

“Botai and its smaller sister village sites, Krasnyi Yar and Vasilkovka, were inhabited about 5,300 years ago, not long after horse domestication is thought to have occurred. They are located in the heart of the natural range of the tarpan ( Equus ferus), the wild horse that was the likely ancestor of the domestic horse. No other prehistoric culture we know of focused so utterly on a diet and economy based on the horse. More than 90 percent of the animal bones from Botai sites are derived from horse, with only a scattering of domestic dog and such wild game as aurochs (wild cattle), moose, red deer, and saiga antelope. >>>

“Given all those limitations of the archaeological record, how can archaeologists make progress in identifying where and when domestication began? Our team’s approach has been holistic—piecing together as much evidence as possible, whether direct or more circumstantial. We also take an upside-down approach. If the prehistoric horse bones are difficult to decipher, then why not look at the settlement and traces of the human lifestyle for evidence that they were influenced by horse domestication? “ >>>

Sandra L. Olsen is co-curator of “the Horse,” a special exhibition that opened at the American Museum of Natural History on May 17, 2008. A zooarchaeologist, Olsen is a curator of anthropology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, in Pittsburgh, and an adjunct associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh. She has examined the roles that wild and domesticated animals have played in the lives of various prehistoric peoples, from the American Southwest to much of Western Europe, Russia, and Central Asia. Along with Bruce A. Bradley of the University of Exeter, in England, she led teams at Botai principally from Kokshetau University and North Kazakhstan University. Many members of our crews were ethnic Kazakhs.

Horse Domestication Archeology

Sandra L. Olsen wrote in Natural History magazine, “Archaeologists have heated debates about where and when horses were domesticated for the first time. For many years, textbooks cited Dereivka, a 6,000-year-old site in Ukraine excavated in the 1980s, as having the strongest early evidence. The “smoking gun” was a horse skull, found in a sacrificial pit, that had wear on the lower premolars likely caused by champing at the bit. But many archaeologists, including me, puzzled over how bit wear could have formed when the earliest metal bits found in that region did not appear for another 3,000 years. David Anthony, an anthropologist at Hartwick College’s Yager Museum of Art and Culture in Oneonta, New York, had the skull itself radiocarbon dated, and demonstrated that it was in fact an intrusive Iron Age offering—dating from sometime between 700 and 200 B.C. Dereivka should not be taken off the short list of possible early domestication sites, but it has been stripped of the most concrete evidence for its claim to fame, opening the field to competing sites across the Eurasian steppe. [Source: Sandra L. Olsen, Natural History magazine, May 2008 >>>]

objects from Kelteminar-Botai culture

“Apart from, possibly, the dog and the pig, no other animal has provoked such contention over the “where” and “when” of its domestication. That is because the wild progenitors of many other domesticated animals had more restricted ranges, which meant that the potential places for domestication were much more restricted ranges, which meant that the potential places for domestication were much more restricted. The Eurasian steppe is probably the largest terrestrial ecological zone in the world, stretching across thousands of miles. With few geographic barriers, it has long served as an open freeway for travel by animals and humans.” >>>

“The ability of archaeologists to identify the timing of domestication often depends on detecting skeletal changes that appeared not long after the process began. One example is the shortened muzzle of the dog, compared with that of the wolf. Others are smaller tusks on the domestic pig and smaller horns on domestic cattle, goats, and sheep than on their wild relatives. The overall body size often changes, too, as people selectively breed to make the animal more tractable, and less dangerous to handle. The aurochs, the ancestor of our domestic cattle, was a formidable beast: bulls could be seventeen hands or5.75 feet high, at the withers, with a horn span some eight feet across! But early horses’ skeletons provide no such obvious transition in morphology or size. Ancestral male horses had no horns or tusks, and even their canine teeth were relatively small in the wild state. It is only by about 1200 B.C. that some change is noticeable in the domestic horse’s skull and stature. >>>

“Another tool archaeologists use to identify livestock is the relative frequencies of different age and sex groups in a collection of animal remains— the so-called mortality pattern. For example, did many of the animals die as juveniles, or did they live to a ripe old age? (Ages are largely determined from the teeth.) Livestock herds are generally managed by culling most of the males before they reach reproductive maturity. By then, as meat animals, they have reached most of their full adult body weight. In addition, the herds are easier to control with fewer adult males competing for the females; the pastoralists can save the males with the most desirable qualities for breeding. >>>

“Unfortunately, with horses, particularly once they began to be ridden, such clues to domestication break down. Stallions were preferred over females for riding by nearly every culture through time, except by people in Arabia. The stallions are slightly bigger and more aggressive, which is advantageous in hunting and battle. Further, females distract the males when they enter estrus, and they have to care for their foals for a period of months after birth, so they complicate missions in which groups must ride over long distances. As a result, the mortality pattern of ancient domestic horses often fails to show significant culling of young males. To further compound the situation, recent mitochondrial DNA studies suggest horse domestication may have occurred many times; or at the very least, many female lineages (which are the source of mitochondrial DNA) were drawn upon from the wild populations across the steppes to supplement small domestic herds.” >>>

Modern Botai Horsemen

On the people that live in the Botai region today, Sandra L. Olsen wrote in Natural History magazine, “Nazar and I were perched on the edge of a thirty-foot river terrace, gazing down at his herd of horses on the opposite bank of a shallow river. They were drinking and grazing in total harmony, heads bobbing and tails switching as if to an unheard melody. Beyond stretched the velvety, sage-green steppe, interrupted by the occasional peak or dark patch of pines. Botai’s inhabitants had the same food preference as modern Kazakhs—horsemeat and perhaps mare’s milk—and they herded horses to survive. Indeed, unlike the modern herders, they ate little else. [Source: Sandra L. Olsen, Natural History magazine, May 2008 >>>]

modern Kazakh shepard

“Admittedly, Nazar’s people have lived in this region for only about 1,100 years: the Kazakh language and culture likely originated farther east, in Siberia. However, they are part of the larger tradition of horse pastoralism, which extends across most of the Eurasian steppes, from Ukraine to Mongolia. Years of excavating the Botai culture great deal about how horses and humans forged their enduring bond. The sites’ configurations and artifacts speak volumes if you can figure out how to interpret them. To do that, I had to fall back on the experience of my Kazakh friends and crew. I watched the herders and their dogs rounding up the horses, the local women milking the mares to make koumiss, a mildly fermented beverage that is a community favorite, and villagers preparing horsemeat in various dishes. >>>

“Gradually I came to understand that those traditions illuminated the lives of their predecessors in the Copper Age, when people made tools of stone, bone, and more rarely, copper, but not yet of the bronze or iron. could see that Nazar and the one other herder from his village led a quiet life, with little human interaction. They were shy and hesitant in the company of the archaeological field crews. But the two men would emerge confident and powerful when mounted on the tall gray Russian stallions they rode to oversee their herd of 250 smaller, bay-colored Kazakh horses. The herders’ life may seem tranquil compared with the stresses of urban dwellers, but it is quite arduous. The herd must be taken out to graze on natural vegetation, and tended through the night, even in the dead of winter, here where temperatures often plummet to a bracing —50 degrees Fahrenheit. (That does not include the wind chill factor, which takes on new meaning when one rides a horse at full gallop!) >>>

“It might seem unduly cruel for the horses themselves, having to scratch through the winter ice and snow to find enough of the sparsely spaced, shriveled Artemisia and feathergrass to survive, until you realize that wild horses thrived near the Arctic Circle during the last glacial maximum of the Pleistocene epoch, the Ice Age that ended about 11,500 years ago. Horses, it seems, are quite well adapted to cold, dry environment.” >>>

Sintashta-Petrovka Culture of the Russian and Kazakhstan Steppes

Indus Valley cart
“The culture of the Russian and Kazakhstan steppes was virtually unknown until” the early 1980s, Wilford wrote in the New York Times, “when Russian archeologists began systematic excavations at several sites east of the Ural Mountains. One of the first sites explored was at a place called Sintashta, southeast of the city of Magnitogorsk. Another was Petrovka, 400 miles to the east on the Ishym River in northern Kazakhstan. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, February 22, 1994]

“Archeologists thus refer to these ancient people as the Sintashta-Petrovka culture. Their widely scattered settlements were linked culturally, as seen in the many similarities of their ceramics, metal weapons and tools, architecture and burial rituals. Find in Ancient Cemetery

At Sintashta, archeologists uncovered a large settlement of about 50 rectangular structures arranged in a circle within a timber-reinforced earthen wall. They found slag deposits from copper metallurgy, bronze weapons and gold earrings and the remains of six chariots in a cemetery of elite graves covered by earth mounds, or kurgans. Similar artifacts, and more chariots, were discovered at several other sites.

Russian scientists estimated that the culture flourished between 1700 and 1500 B.C. This inspired Dr. Stuart Piggott, a retired archeologist at Edinburgh University in Scotland and a specialist on ancient wheeled transport, to propose several years ago that if these people had developed chariots, as preliminary reports from the graves suggested, they could be the earliest developed anywhere.

But it was not until the end of the cold war that Western scholars began to learn the details of these excavations and could test Dr. Piggott's hypothesis. Enter Dr. Anthony, who had been collaborating with Russian archeologists on other research involving prehistoric cultures. He went to Dr. Nikolai B. Vinogradov, an archeologist at Chelyabinsk State Pedagogical Institute, who directed excavations of the chariot burials, and got permission to apply new radiocarbon dating techniques on those materials.

Sintashta-Petrovka Grave witha Chariot

20120209-Model of a chariot from the Oxus Treasure.jpg
Model of a chariot
from the Oxus Treasure
“In a grave pit at Krivoe Ozero, 120 miles north of Sintashta, archeologists had found an assemblage of materials typical of these burials,” Wilford wrote in the New York Times. “The heads of two ritually killed horses were deposited next to the body of a man and a chariot, much like later Aryan practices. Other grave goods included spear points, a bronze ax and a dagger, three pots and four disk-shaped cheekpieces from a horse harness. The bit used to control a horse passes through these cheekpieces, which were made of bone and antler. The rein is attached to the bit. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, February 22, 1994]

For dating the burial, Dr. Anthony took four samples of bone from the skulls of two horses in a single grave. They were analyzed at the University of Arizona at Tucson by a highly accurate type of radiocarbon dating technology using an accelerator mass spectrometer. This yielded a range of age estimates, from 2136 to 1904 B.C., with an average of 2026 -- much earlier than the Russians had estimated. Similar ages were determined independently at Oxford University in England, using samples from other steppe sites.

The chariots in the graves had decayed to dust, but not without a trace. The wheels had been fitted into slots cut into the dirt floor of the burial chamber. The lower parts of each wheel left stains as they decayed. The stains preserved the shape and design of the wheels. Some parts of a chariot superstructure were also preserved in this way.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except Botai archaeology images, Astana Times, settlement picture, Science Daily, and map, KU Biodiversity Institute

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2019

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