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The earliest archeological traces of the domestication of horses

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March 9, 2009

Mare milking in present-day Kirghizstan. Here, the foal is present to initiate the milk le...

Mare milking in present-day Kirghizstan. Here, the foal is present to initiate the milk let down. Photo by Nicolas Lescureux

March 8, 2009 An international team of archeologists has discovered the earliest known traces to date of horse domestication by humans, dating back to 5500 years. This discovery suggests that horses were harnessed, probably for riding, and exploited for their milk. The researchers have traced the origins of horse domestication back to the Botai Culture of Kazakhstan around 5,500 years ago – about 1,000 years earlier than thought and about 2,000 years earlier than domestic horses are known to have been in Europe.

The discovery suggests that horses were both ridden and milked and the findings could point to the very beginnings of horse domestication and the origins of the horse breeds we know today.

The 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.

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.

The analysis of ancient bone remains, led by Dr Alan Outram of the University of Exeter, showed that the horses were similar in shape and size 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.

The Bristol researchers, led by Professor Richard Evershed, developed a novel method to detect traces of fat from horse milk in the Botai pottery. 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.

Professor Evershed commented that: “It is very interesting that we’ve seen horse milking in a region which lacked the conventional agricultural package.”

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.

The research was published in the 6 March 2009 issue of Science.

About the Author
Mike Hanlon After Editing or Managing over 50 print publications primarily in the role of a Magazine Doctor, Mike embraced the internet full-time in 1995 and became a "start-up all-rounder" – quite a few start-ups later, he founded Gizmag in 2002. Now he can write again.   All articles by Mike Hanlon
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