New research points to earlier horse-human connections

Revolutionary discoveries in southeastern Europe and the North American West have prompted experts to revise their thinking about the development of the horse-and-human relationship. In both cases, it's all about the timing.

Revolutionary discoveries in southeastern Europe and the North American West have prompted experts to revise their thinking about the development of the horse-and-human relationship. In both cases, it’s all about the timing.

Earliest known riders

In early March, multiple media outlets reported a provocative new discovery: archaeological proof that humans in southeastern Europe were almost certainly riding a small ancestor of the modern horse as early as 5,000 years ago. (This is some 1,000 years before the first artwork depicting humans riding horses.) Considered the earliest known direct evidence of horseback riding, this finding came from new analysis of skeletal remains of a Bronze Age people called the Yamnaya in what are present-day Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. The discovery was detailed in a study published in Science Advances.

Some hypothesize that the type of horse the Yamnaya rode might have resembled the primitive Przewalski’s Horse.

Members of the international team behind this discovery, which occurred during a broader study of the influential Yamnaya culture, used a combination of criteria to determine the probability of “horse rider syndrome” when examining the skeletons. This included wear marks in key areas such as the hip sockets, thigh bones and pelvis–all indications of biomechanical stress.

“There are no singular traits that indicate a certain occupation or behavior,” bioanthropologist Martin Trautmann, the lead author of the study, noted in a University of Helsinki (Finland) press release. “Only in their combination, as a syndrome, symptoms provide reliable insights to understand habitual activities of the past.”

Long association with horses

Researchers believe that humans first started keeping horses for their meat and milk about 5,500 years ago. According to this study’s abstract, this is “widely accepted as indicating domestication.” However, this did not confirm that these early horses were ridden, which is what makes this recent discovery significant.

The Yamnaya people, who swept from what is present-day Western Russia across Eurasia, have been long associated with horses by archaeologists. Obviously, riding represented an improved means of travel, especially through the mountains.

As the article in Science Advances notes, “Using horses for transport was a decisive step in human cultural development. Trade and cultural exchange as well as conflicts and migrations leapt with the increase in speed and range provided by horsemanship.” However, the article also points out that ” ….because of the lack of specialized gear and a comparably short breeding and training history, early horses were probably hard to handle.”

Horses in the American West

Meanwhile, a study published in the journal Science (see “Early dispersal of domestic horses into the Great Plains and Northern Rockies“) is also breaking new ground. According to a University of Oklahoma news release and other sources, it challenges previous beliefs about the horse’s first appearance among Indigenous peoples of the North American West.

The ancestors of Equus caballus are known to have evolved in the Americas more than 4 million years ago, spreading west into Eurasia and Africa. Ancestors of Native Americans migrating to North America toward the end of the last ice age apparently encountered these early horses, but according to archaeological evidence, only seemed interested in hunting them and using their bones as tools.

Then, between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago, the fossil record suggests that these early horses disappeared, possible victims of climate change and/or overhunting–only to be reintroduced to the continent centuries later by European colonizers.

But just how and when this second group of horses got to the North American West has been poorly understood. Many historians have dated the widespread Native adoption of the horse–which triggered a major cultural shift–to the 18th century, when European travelers first documented an equine presence in the central and northern plains. Some theorized that the horses’ appearance in this region began with a 1680 revolt of Pueblo people in New Mexico. After driving the Spanish off, the Pueblos reportedly sold thousands of their horses to neighboring tribes, who then presumably took them north.

Native American oral tradition

However, after examining archaeological evidence, radiocarbon dating and ancient DNA, researchers now believe that these reintroduced horses had made it to the American West at least a century earlier than previously believed–within decades, in fact, after Hernán Cortés’ 1519 conquest of Mexico, which relied heavily on horsepower. This new timeline, which corresponds with some Native American oral traditions, puts horses in the American Southwest as early as the 16th century and reaching the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains ahead of nearly all Europeans.

Collaborators in the U.S. National Science Foundation-funded study included archaeologists from the University of Oklahoma, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the University of New Mexico, as well as geneticists from the University of Toulouse in France and an “extensive research team that is comprised of 87 scientists across 66 institutions.” Also included were scientists and historians from the Lakota, Comanche and Pawnee nations.

“For decades the mainstream story of the horse in North America has relied on Euro-American accounts that often discount the antiquity and complexity of Indigenous responses to and relationships with their horses,” said study co-author Brandi Bethke, Ph.D., lab director and research faculty of the Oklahoma Archeological Survey at the University of Oklahoma. “This study is a first step in correcting these established narratives among both the academic community and the American public.”

For more information about this project, see Horse nations: Animal began transforming Native American life startlingly early | Science | AAAS and Horses and Human Societies in the North American West.

Landing page image: 1850s illustration of Native Americans (Pawnees) and their horses/Getty image




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