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 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 archive.org/details/horsewheelandlanguage ; The Scythians - Silk Road Foundation silkroadfoundation.org ; Scythians iranicaonline.org ; Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the Huns britannica.com ; Wikipedia article on Eurasian nomads Wikipedia Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; The Mongol Empire web.archive.org/web ; The Mongols in World History afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols ; William of Rubruck's Account of the Mongols washington.edu/silkroad/texts ; Mongol invasion of Rus (pictures) web.archive.org/web ; Encyclopædia Britannica article britannica.com ; Mongol Archives historyonthenet.com

Importance of Horse Domestication

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.

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.” >>>

Looking for Evidence of Horse Domestication

20120209-Model of a chariot from the Oxus Treasure.jpg
Model of a chariot
from the Oxus Treasure
William Taylor wrote in The Conversation: “Tracing the origins of horse domestication in the prehistoric era has proven to be an exceedingly difficult task. Horses – and the people who care for them – tend to live in remote, dry or cold grassland regions, moving often and leaving only ephemeral marks in the archaeological record. In the steppes, pampas and plains of the world, historic records are often ambiguous or absent, archaeological sites are poorly investigated and research is published in a variety languages. [Source: William Taylor, Assistant Professor and Curator of Archaeology, University of Colorado Boulder, The Conversation, March 3, 2020]

“At the heart of the issue is a more basic struggle: How can you distinguish a “domestic” animal from its wild cousin? What does it even mean to be “domesticated?” And can scientists trace this process in archaeological sites that are thousands of years old and often consist of nothing more than piles of discarded bones? As an archaeozoologist, I work in a field that seeks to develop ways to do just this – and with the aid of new technologies, recent research is turning up some surprising answers.

“Analyzing horse bones from archaeological sites across Eurasia, 20th-century scholars argued over whether changes in the size and shape of horse bones might reflect the impacts of human control. They debated whether management of a domestic herd would leave recognizable patterns in the ages and sex of horses in the archaeological record.

“Without agreed-upon criteria for how to recognize horse domestication in the archaeological record, a staggering range of different ideas emerged. In nearly every corner of the world with grassland ecosystems and wild horses, various researchers hypothesized domestication began in Anatolia, Iberia, China and even North America. Some more outlandish models suggested an origin for horse domestication as far back as the last Ice Age, about 20,000 years ago.

“Toward the end of the 20th century, a key breakthrough in the debate came when researchers recognized that the use of bridle mouthpieces, known as a “bit,” can cause unique damage to the teeth of a horse, known as “bit wear.” Still the complicated nature of archaeological data has made the search for horse domestication a process of trial and error. For example, one famous horse with bit wear, from the site of Derievka in Ukraine, seemed to place horse domestication in Eastern Europe as early as around 4000 B.C. – until scientific dating showed that this animal lived around 600 B.C.

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 >>>]

“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.” >>>

artifacts and horse bones from the Botai culture site

“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.” >>>

First Domesticated Horses: Raised for Riding and Milk?

The international team of archaeologists that uncovered the earliest known evidence of horses being domesticated by humans also found evidence that were both ridden and milked. Their findings, published in the March 6, 2009 issue of Science, strongly suggest that horses were originally domesticated, not just for riding, but also to provide food, including milk. [Source: University of Exeter, Science Daily, March 8, 2009 >||<]

According to the University of Exeter: “Through extensive archaeological fieldwork and subsequent analysis, using new techniques, the team developed three independent lines of evidence for early horse domestication. Their findings show that in the fourth millennium BC horses in Kazakhstan were being selectively bred for domestic use. They also show horses were being harnessed, possibly for riding, and that people were consuming horse milk. >||<

“Analysis of ancient bone remains showed that the horses were similar in shape to Bronze Age domestic horses and different from wild horses from the same region. This suggests that people were selecting wild horses for their physical attributes, which were then exaggerated through breeding. The team used a new technique to search for ‘bit damage’ caused by horses being harnessed or bridled. The results showed that horses had indeed been harnessed, suggesting they could have been ridden. >||<

“Using a novel method of lipid residue analysis, the researchers also analysed Botai pottery and found traces of fats from horse milk. Mare’s milk is still drunk in Kazakhstan, a country in which horse traditions run deep, and is usually fermented into a slightly alcoholic drink called ‘koumiss’. While it was known that koumiss had been produced for centuries, this study shows the practice dates back to the very earliest horse herders. >||<

“Lead author Dr Alan Outram of the University of Exeter said: “The domestication of horses is known to have had immense social and economic significance, advancing communications, transport, food production and warfare. Our findings indicate that horses were being domesticated about 1,000 years earlier than previously thought. This is significant because it changes our understanding of how these early societies developed.” >||<

“The steppe zones, east of the Ural Mountains in Northern Kazakhstan, are known to have been a prime habitat for wild horses thousands of years ago. They were a commonly hunted animal. This may have set the stage for horse domestication by providing indigenous cultures with access to plentiful wild herds and the opportunity to gain an intimate knowledge of equine behaviour. Horses appear to have been domesticated in preference to adopting a herding economy based upon domestic cattle, sheep and goats. Horses have the advantage of being adapted to severe winters and they are able to graze year round, even through snow. Cattle, sheep and goats need to be to be provided with winter fodder, and were a later addition to the prehistoric economies of the region.>||<

“This study was carried out by the Universities of Exeter, Bristol and Winchester (UK), Carnegie Museum of Natural History (Pittsburgh, USA), and Kokshetau University (Kazakhstan) and was supported by the Natural Environment Research Council, British Academy and National Science Foundation of America.” >||<

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.

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?

Botai location in northern 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. +++

“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

Kazakh woman on a horse

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 +++]

“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.” +++

Botai Horse Culture

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, heritagenet.unesco.kz ***]

Botai Horse Culture site

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. >>>

“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. >>>

milking a horse in Mongolia

“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.

New Studies Raise Doubt About the Botai

William Taylor wrote in The Conversation: “As the 2020s begin, the pace of technological innovation in archaeology continues to accelerate. And new archaeological data have begun to trickle in from understudied areas. With improving methods, new information has triggered serious doubts about the Botai/Indo-European model about domestication. In a shocking 2018 study, a French research team revealed that the horses of Botai were in fact not the domestic horse (Equus caballus) at all, but instead Equus przewalskii – the Przewalski’s horse, a wild animal with no documented evidence of management by human societies. [Source: William Taylor, Assistant Professor and Curator of Archaeology, University of Colorado Boulder, The Conversation, March 3, 2020]

“Another project using ancient DNA analysis of human remains from Botai showed no genetic links between the area’s ancient residents and Indo-European groups, undermining the idea that horse domestication at Botai stimulated a continental dispersal on horseback. In the ensuing chaos, researchers must now find a way to piece together the horse’s story, and find an explanation that fits these new facts.

“Some, including the equine DNA researchers who published the new discoveries, now suggest that Botai represents a separate, failed domestication event of Przewalski’s horse. Other scholars now seek to reevaluate the archaeological and historical records around the horse’s initial domestication with a more skeptical eye. As of the writing of this story, the oldest clearly identified remains of the modern domestic horse, Equus caballus, date back only as far as about 2000 B.C. – to the chariot burials of Russia and Central Asia. From here, researchers are scrambling backwards in time, seeking to find the “big bang” of the human-horse relationship.

Ancient Horse DNA Disproves Botai Horse Domestication Theory

objects from Kelteminar-Botai culture

An extensive study of ancient horse DNA published in February 2018 largely disproved the theory: that modern horses arose more than 5000 years ago in Botai, Kazakhstan. Elizabeth Pennisi wrote in Science magazine Instead, the work “suggests that modern-day domestic horses come from an as-yet-undiscovered stock. The research also shows that the world’s only remaining wild horses, called Przewalski’s horses, are not truly wild. “This paper radically changes our thinking about the origin of modern horses,” says Molly McCue, a veterinarian and equine geneticist at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine in St. Paul, who was not involved with the work. “It’s an exciting and surprising finding.” [Source: Elizabeth Pennisi, Science magazine, February 22, 2018]

“Paleogeneticist Ludovic Orlando at CNRS, the French national research agency in Toulouse, and the University of Copenhagen decided to analyze the ancient DNA of these horses. “I expected to catch evolution red-handed, when domestication first started,” Orlando recalls. He teamed up with longtime Botai zooarchaeologist Alan Outram from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, and together they discovered an ancient corral at the site, another sign of domestication. They collected and later sequenced DNA from 20 Botai horse remains; they did the same for a similar number of horses living in various regions over the past 5000 years. They then compared these sequences to scores of already existing sequences, including Przewalski’s horses, and built a family tree showing which breeds were most closely related. The tree “was really quite a shock,” Orlando says.

”Intensive sequencing of horse DNA at this site in Kazakhstan suggests this is not where today’s domestic horses originated. For one, Przewalski’s horses were in the same part of the tree as the Botai horses. From their relationship, it was clear that these “wild” horses were escaped Botai horses, the team reports today in Science. “We have now found that there are no truly wild horses left” anywhere in the world, Outram says.

“Another surprise was that all the other horses were on a separate branch of the tree, suggesting they were not Botai descendents as many have long thought. “We are now back to the intriguing question—who were the ancestors of our modern horses, and who were the peoples that were responsible for their early husbandry?” says Emmeline Hill, an equine scientist at University College Dublin who was not involved with the study. This new work, which hints that other horses may be represented in these ancient genomes, shows “that [horse] domestication could have been a process with many phases, experiments, failures, and successes,” says Ernest Bailey, a geneticist at the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center in Lexington.

“Orlando and his colleagues lay out two possible scenarios to explain their family tree. In one, as Botai horsemen expanded to other parts of Europe and Asia, they bred their herds with so many wild species that almost none of the original Botai DNA remained. As a result, those horses don’t seem related to the Botai, even though they actually are. In the second scenario, the Botai horses didn’t survive, and were replaced by horses domesticated elsewhere, creating at least two centers of horse domestication (as there may have been for dogs, cats, and other animals). Outram suspects that in addition to the Botai horses east of the Ural Mountains, there may have been domesticated horses to the west that won out thanks to migrations, he explains.

“One major barrier remains to knowing which scenario is right: a dearth of DNA samples from between 4000 and 5000 years ago. So Orlando and his colleagues are collecting more. But another kind of DNA might help them in their work—ancient human DNA that details migration and population patterns from that time. Indeed, they already have some evidence from unpublished studies. But Outram is keeping quiet about that work. “My mouth is zipped for now.”

Newer Evidence from Mongolia and Central Asia

modern Kazakh shepard

William Taylor wrote in The Conversation: “New data from places typically left out of the conversation, such as Mongolia, may help fill the holes in the story of horse domestication. My colleagues and I, led by Shevan Wilkin, recently recovered ancient proteins from the teeth of Mongolia’s ancient herders that suggest these pastoralists who lived around 3000 B.C. drank the milk of cattle or sheep or goats - with no evidence they drank milk from horses. [Source: William Taylor, Assistant Professor and Curator of Archaeology, University of Colorado Boulder, The Conversation, March 3, 2020]

“In fact, much of Central Asia may not have had domestic horses at all until well after 2000 B.C. Another recent study suggests the late second millennium B.C. saw a spike in the frequency of domestic horses across the continent - perhaps because the innovation of horseback riding occurred much later than researchers had commonly assumed.

“The urgent question now becomes: Where did the first ancestors of the modern domestic horse first find themselves under human care? And what does this tell researchers about the rest of human history that followed? In the decades to come, the story of humans and horses is likely to be dramatically rewritten – maybe more than once.

First Horse-Pulled Chariots

Chariots were long thought to have preceded mounted riders by at least 1,000 years. Because oxen were better suited for pulling plows and heavy loads, horses were attached to lighter vehicles that evolved into chariots. Lightweight chariots, employing technology similar to that used to make racing bicycles light, could move quite fast. Ancient Egyptian chariots, pulled by a pair of horses and weighing only 17 pounds, could reach easily reach speeds of 20 miles-per-hour. A cart pulled by oxen, by contrast, rarely exceeded two miles-per-hour.

Chariots preceded mounted horses and saddles in part because the early domesticated horses were small and not strong enough to support men on their backs. The first chariots were probably used by shepherds to help them hunt wolves, leopards and bears that threatened their flocks and were alter adapted for warfare.

The important elements of a chariot were the wheels, chassis, draught pole and metal fittings. Advancement in metallurgy, woodworking, tanning and leatherworking, the uses of glues, bone and sinew all made the construction of chariots possible but the most important development of all was the improvement in physique of horse to pull such a vehicle.

Earliest Evidence of Chariots

Hittite Lion-hunt relief
at Aslantepe
John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times, “In ancient graves on the steppes of Russia and Kazakhstan, archeologists have uncovered skulls and bones of sacrificed horses and, perhaps most significantly, traces of spoked wheels. These appear to be the wheels of chariots, the earliest direct evidence for the existence of the two-wheeled high-performance vehicles that transformed the technology of transport and warfare.[Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, February 22, 1994]

“The discovery sheds new light on the contributions to world history by the vigorous pastoral people who lived in the broad northern grasslands, dismissed as barbarians by their southern neighbors. From these burial customs, archeologists surmise that this culture bore a remarkable resemblance to the people who a few hundred years later called themselves Aryans and would spread their power, religion and language, with everlasting consequence, into the region of present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India. The discovery could also lead to some revision in the history of the wheel, the quintessential invention, and shake the confidence of scholars in their assumption that the chariot, like so many other cultural and mechanical innovations, had its origin among the more advanced urban societies of the ancient Middle East.

New analysis of material from the graves shows that these chariots were built more than 4,000 years ago, strengthening the case for their origin in the steppes rather than in the Middle East. If the ages of the burial sites are correct, said Dr. David W. Anthony, who directed the dating research, chariots from the steppes were at least contemporary with and perhaps even earlier than the earliest Middle East chariots. The first hint of them in the Middle East is on clay seals, dated a century or two later. The seal impressions, from Anatolia, depict a light, two-wheel vehicle pulled by two animals, carrying a single figure brandishing an ax or hammer.

"Scholarly caution tells me the matter is not resolved," said Dr. Anthony, an anthropologist at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y. "But my gut feeling is, there's a good chance the chariot was invented first in the north." While praising Dr. Anthony's work, Mary Littauer, an independent archeologist and co-author of "Wheeled Vehicles and Ridden Animals in the Ancient Near East" (Brill, 1979), was not ready to concede the point. "It's still debatable," she said. "A spoked wheel is not necessarily a chariot, only a light cart on the way to becoming chariots."

Other archeologists and historians said they would not be surprised to learn that the chariot had originated in the steppes. After all, pastoralists there were probably the first to tame and ride horses; as Dr. Anthony determined in other research reported four years ago, this may have occurred at least 6,000 years ago. Then they developed wagons with solid disk wheels, and many centuries later learned to make the lighter spoked wheels, the breakthrough invention leading to the fast, maneuverable chariot. The results of Dr. Anthony's dating research was presented at a meeting of the American Anthropological Association and an interpretation of the results was published in Archaeology, the magazine of the Archeological Institute of America.

DNA Shows Selective Breeding Made Horses Faster — and More Likely to Get Sick

Thoroughbreds are not only quicker than ancient wild horses, they are also remarkably different from the domesticated animals that nomads rode across the Asian steppe just 2,300 years ago. Ben Guarino wrote in the Washington Post: “At some point in the past two millennia — peanuts on an evolutionary time scale — humans transformed their horses into equine speed demons. Selective breeding had a price, though. Unhelpful mutations plagued the animals. The current population of domesticated horses is about 55 million, but at some point in their history, their genetic diversity crashed. The Y chromosomes of all the world's stallions are now quite similar, suggesting that only a relatively few males were the ancestors of today's horses.[Source: Ben Guarino, Washington Post. April 27, 2017 ^]

“Humans have not always bred so selectively, according to a study published in the journal Science. Ancient equestrians “were not interested in superfast animals. They were more interested in diversity and potential,” said Ludovic Orlando, a professor of molecular archaeology at the University of Copenhagen's Natural History Museum of Denmark and an author of the new study. Orlando and his colleagues sequenced the genomes of 14 ancient horses: one 4,100-year-old mare and 13 stallions, which dated back 2,700 to 2,300 years. The stallions, ridden by the nomadic Scythians, had genes linked to an array of coat colors and traits associated with endurance or sprinting, as well as many diverse Y chromosomes. ^

“Orlando and his colleagues chose to sequence Scythian stallions for several reasons: The animals lived about halfway through the 5,500-year timeline of horse domestication. The horses also offered a ready supply of genetic material. To honor their royalty, Scythians sacrificed animals from many different tribes and buried the remains in underground chambers in what is now Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan's permafrost kept ancient DNA fresh. “It’s like we had a natural freezer waiting for us for 2,300 years,” Orlando said. In places, the scientists dug up not just tooth and bone material but hairs. Some horse skulls still wore the decorations their owners had created millennia ago. ^

“Some, but not all, of their horses carried genetic variants seen in today's sprinting horses. A single gene mutation can dictate a horse's gait — how motor neurons connect to muscle tissues allows an animal to amble. Ambling gaits have a four-step pattern, bringing the legs of the same side together for a smoother ride. The scientists could test whether Scythians cared about breeding for a more comfortable ride: The nomads did not. ^

“Among the sacrificed were horses with bay, spotted, chestnut, black and cream-colored coats. The variety of coat colors — still found in Kazakhstan today — supported what is known as the neural crest hypothesis, Orlando said. As a rule, domesticated mammals develop coats of varied colors and floppy ears; this is sometimes called the “domestication syndrome.” In Russia, for instance, a decades-long experiment to tame the fox has produced animals with droopy ears and shorter, curlier tails. Biologists proposed that a pool of cells called the neural crest, which pops up in animal embryos and turns into tissues like skin and ear cartilage, might explain why different species grow similar traits. ^

“DNA from the Scythian horses was some of the “first empirical evidence that supports the neural crest hypothesis,” Orlando sad. What's more, for the first 3,000 years of domestication, horse breeders were able to keep unhelpful mutations at bay. Modern horses have several “nasty mutations,” Orlando said, that make some animals prone to seizures or wounds that won't heal, for instance. ^

“But something happened to horses on the way from the Kazakh steppe to Churchill Downs: Somehow, breeders swept away horse genetic diversity. Orlando is trying to figure out why. He offered three likely scenarios for when hyperselective breeding eliminated diversity from the gene pool in the quest for specialized traits. Perhaps it was the fault of the Roman Empire and its horses. Or perhaps horse breeders in the Middle Ages were highly selective. Or maybe the rise of the modern racehorse in 18th-century Britain did the horse genome in. ^

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 August 2020

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