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First slaughtered, then milked, finally ridden, domesticated horses appeared 5,500 years ago

In Mexico, nearly 50 years ago, Jocotepec photographer John Frost and I traveled to distant, tiny pueblitos, photographing well-trained horses, and experimenting with borrowed, clearly unfamiliar, tractors.

I filmed horses at work – more important than ever if machinery was going to displace caballos. Besides, the clattering, smoke-belching Farmall and John Deere tractors scared not only local livestock, but also Mexican farm families. Frost was amused by one farmer’s complaint that the machinery emitted a roar of an unendurable future.      

Horses were first domesticated on the plains of North Kazakhstan some 5,500 years ago. That was thousands of years earlier than could be comprehended by most humans who were to drink their milk, then kill and eat them. Finally, humans learned to ride them like kings. 

Taming horses in Kazakhstan changed human history, reshaping everything from transportation and agriculture to modern warfare. But experts long struggled to pinpoint when, where and how the life-changing “horse-conversion” first occurred.

Now, archaeologists say they have the answer, after finding the world’s oldest horse corrals among the Kazakh people of the ancient Botai culture (located between the Caspian Sea and Mongolia).  

Alan Outram of the University of Exeter in England says these findings, recently released in the journal “Science,” changed understanding of how very early human societies developed. “Once you have horse riding, you have greater transport and trade capability, plus dramatic potential warfare advantages,” he has said. 

“If it was happening this early, then you’re compelled to think about the forces for social and economic change happening earlier also – and the possibility that there are yet earlier sites still unfound.”  

Archaeologists long suspected that Botai people were the world’s first horsemen, but earlier evidence seemed to mar this belief. Some argued the Botai simply hunted horses. Now Outram has examined three pieces of evidence proving domestication. That effort found that the leg bones of ancient Botai horses that were similar to later Bronze Age domesticated horses, very different from wild ones. This suggested breeding by humans. Most importantly, they identified markings on horses’ teeth, showing they had been fitted with bits or bridles. They additionally analyzed organic residues in broken pots, finding traces of mare’s milk. Usually fermented into a slightly alcoholic drink, this “koumiss” is still drunk in Kazakhstan.

Investigations of the Copper Age, and Botai culture (3700–3100 BC) of north-central Kazakhstan reveal an unusual economy focused primarily on horses. The large, permanent settlements have yielded enormous collections of horse remains. Excavations at the eponymous site have produced an astonishing 300,000 or more bone fragments, over 90 percent of which were derived from horses. The Botai culture is now seen as a crucial source of information for documenting horse domestication, one of the most seminal developments in human history. It provides an optimal case study for this elusive achievement because Botai sites are located in the heart of the native geographic range of the European wild horse, Equus ferus, and date to the fourth millennium BC, sometime soon after horse domestication began. A result: This culture offered an ideal opportunity for developing a multidisciplinary, holistic approach to research questions surrounding the process.

The preceding Neolithic people of the northern Kazakhstan “forest-steppe” were nomadic hunters who made a variety of animals their prey: red deer, moose, aurochs (wild cattle), saiga antelope, European wild horses. Their sites consisted of shallow campsites and occasionally one or two semi-subterranean houses, implying that they traveled in small bands and remained in one location for very brief intervals. Then sometime in the fourth millennium BC, the Botai radically changed their lifestyle, settling in substantial, year-round villages. The settlement of Botai had over 160 pit houses, while remote sensing revealed that Krasnyi Yar had 54 and Vasilkovka IV had 44. The fourth site, Roshchinskoe, is yet to be investigated in detail. Botai stone tools also morphed dramatically from the light, easily transported blades of the peripatetic Neolithic hunters to heavier bifaces. The cord and comb-impressed pottery, on the other hand, continued to be similar to that of their ancestors.

Investigations of the Botai sites in the past two decades reveal that the ancient people were sedentary pastoralists who raised herds of domesticated horses. They also had domesticated dogs, but no additional livestock. The same wild species were hunted as in the Neolithic environment, but much less frequently.

The large numbers of cut and chop marks on the horse bones showed the Botai were clearly eating horse meat. The chopping methods reflect the routine division of horse carcasses into smaller portions and marrow extraction. For sufficient fat intake, marrow and bone grease would have been an essential part of the diet. Residue analysis by Dr. Richard Evershed (Outram et al. 2009) identified horse milk in several pots, indicating that fermented mare’s milk, or koumiss, was widely consumed.

Dried horse manure was used as a building material for insulating roofs. A corral was identified based on geochemical markers for manure (high concentrations of phosphorus) and urine (high concentrations of sodium) in an enclosure at Krasnyi Yar. Horses were normally slaughtered in or near the village, rather than hunted and field-dressed. Horses were sacrificed and their heads and necks were placed in pits around the perimeters of houses, facing NE or SE, toward the rising sun in the spring or autumn. Large numbers of strong-smoothers, made from horse mandibles, may reflect the need for rawhide thongs for equestrian tack. Hundreds of bone artifacts were made from the remains of horses, including female figurines from phalanges. These shed light on the dress construction and decorations of the women of Botai.

Although the Botai subsisted primarily on horse meat, other animal remains have also been found, albeit in smaller amounts. The array of wild animals that were hunted includes aurochs, saiga antelope, moose, red deer, wolf, fox, wolverine, beaver, marmot, hare, and a variety of birds. Very few fish were found, despite fine sieving at the excavations, and no specific fishing equipment has been found at Botai sites.

Dogs, most of which resembled the Samoyed breed, were second in frequency after horses in the faunal assemblages. Their remains are closely associated with those of horses in sacrificial pits, reflecting their relationship in life. Dogs remain important today in herding horses. Dog skulls, or whole bodies, were interred in paired pits just outside houses on the west or southwest side.  

It is clear that the Botai culture represented a dramatic shift in nomad lifestyle that sprung from the arrival of domesticated horses. Because this change appears full-blown rather suddenly, some believe the horse was domesticated elsewhere, possibly in the Ukraine, then introduced into the North Kazakhstan area.

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