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Researchers finally pinpoint the origins of the modern domestic horse

The results of a large-scale international genomic study confirm that ancient horses on the steppes of Russia are the ancestors of the horses we know today.

A groundbreaking study has pinpointed the Western Eurasian steppes—today part of southern Russia—as the cradle of equine civilization. 

Farmer catching horses in north-central Kazakhstan.

Farmer catching horses in north-central Kazakhstan.

A team of more than 160 scientists from disciplines ranging from archeology to linguistics were led by paleogeneticist Ludovic Orlando, of the French National Centre for Scientific Research in an effort to settle the long-standing debate over the origin of domesticated horses (Equus caballus)

"Modern domesticated breeds do not descend from the earliest domestic horse lineage associated with archaeological evidence of bridling, milking and corralling at Botai, Central Asia around 3500 BC," the researchers write in the paper, published in the October 20 edition of the journal Nature. Horses from that area are the ancestors of today’s Przewalski’s horses, an endangered species found only in Mongolia.

The steppes of Russia have long been an area of interest for researchers studying the origins of Equus caballus, but until now there was a lack of corroborating evidence. Meanwhile, other possible geographic candidates—Iberia and Anatolia—have been challenged by the archeological research community.

For their study, the team used ancient DNA collected from preserved skeletal remains to construct genomes of 273 horses who lived between 50,000 years ago and 200 BC. When those genomes were compared to those of modern horses, the data revealed the modern domestic horses descend from horses living in the Western Eurasian steppes, specifically in an area near the Volga and Don Rivers. Further analysis of these genomes revealed that these horses quickly spread to Western Europe.

"Modern domestic horses ultimately replaced almost all other local populations as they expanded rapidly across Eurasia from about 2000 BC, synchronously with equestrian material culture, including Sintashta spoke-wheeled chariots," the authors explain in the paper. 

The migration “was almost overnight,” Orlando told National Geographic Magazine. “This was not something that built up over thousands of years.”

As they expanded, they replaced all the previous lineages that were roaming around Eurasia,” he continued, "...and the other types [of horses living at the time] are sort of the losers.”

Interestingly, the data also suggest these horses were most likely selected by humans for docile behavior and the ability to carry a rider. The authors write:"Combined, early selection at GSDMC and ZFPM1 suggests shifting use toward horses that were more docile, more resilient to stress and involved in new locomotor exercise, including endurance running, weight bearing and/or warfare."

You can read the full paper by clicking here.

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