Archaeology is the study of the physical remains of the past, and this field of research is slowly picking apart the information available to create a picture of those first people who took wild horses and bred them to ride them across the plains and steppes. From those few humble riders riding spread across the globe, carrying messengers around the Mediterranean coast, and warriors into battle. With the invention of the wheel came the cart and chariot, horses drew the first trains and they stood in giant wheels and propelled ferry boats across lakes. The Huns horses carried them across their empire, the Egyptian armies speed was on the wheels of their chariots, the horse carried us from hunter gathers to the industrial age and beyond.
There is a cave painting from a cave in Iran dated from 300 BC, the wonderfully simplistic drawing shows a horse and a rider. However the first indication of a horse wearing a bit comes from much earlier with a stallion buried near the Dnieper and Don Rivers around 6000 years ago.
The clearest evidence of horses being domesticated is found in genetic studies. Looking at the mitochondrial DNA which is handed down from Mother to Daughter, (or Dam to Filly in this case), it seems that domestication of sorts occurred around 6000 years somewhere around the area occupied by Ukraine today. Why of sorts, because it seems that these domesticated horse had trouble breeding and wild mares were captured to help with the breeding problems, meaning that new blood and so DNA was introduced frequently. However the Y-chromosome studies, looking at DNA passed down via the stallions lineage shows that all the stallions were domesticated during a single period of time.
Looking similar to the Prezwalski’s horse, these early wild horses would have been used for meat and milk as well as riding. The horse collar we know today wasn’t invented until much later, so it’s likely that the breast plate and harness those early horses would have worn wouldn’t have been as efficient.
But who were these first riders, and why did they domesticated the animal that would help carry civilisation forward. Research suggests that all modern horses may descend from one herd, bred and cared for by one tribe. So who might they have been?
The Pontic-Caspain steppe is an area of the Eurasian continent that has been important in the spread of cultures across Indo-Europe, including being the speakers of the first Indo-European language, a proto language that has led to all other Indo-European languages. Occupied by groups of Nomadic horsemen who would later occupy large parts of Europe it is likely that they were the first people to domesticate horses.
Some of the best archaeological evidence comes from the Botai culture in Northern Kazakhstan, these hunter gathers had only two forms of domestic animals, horses and dogs. It is likely that the Botai first domesticated the horse to ride to hunt other wild horses, and at first it was thought all the horse remains found at the site were from wild horses that were hunted and killed. But a corral was found at Krasnyi Yar and indications of dung collection were found at two other Botai locations. Dung collection is a great indication of domestication as cleaning out horses is normally only done with domesticated animals. It is unlikely that anyone enjoys mucking out enough to follow wild herds around and scoop up the manure, especially as these hunter gathers weren’t growing crops that needed fertilisation.
Two skeletons with evidence of bit wear on the horses teeth have been found at Botai sites, clearly bit wear is a good indication that the horses were not only being domesticated for their meat and milk, but also broken and ridden.
It’s interesting to note that in other parts of the world horses died out about 10 000 years ago. Why didn’t this happen in Europe and Asia, could the answer lie in domestication? Were we as species protecting the horses from whatever caused other species to vanish, and horses in America to disappear? Whilst evidence for riding doesn’t appear until 6000 years ago, it’s entirely plausible that early riding was done using some sort of system similar to a hackamore, which doesn’t have a bit, but instead uses pressure on the nose band to control the horse. Given that saddles aren’t really known until 700 BCE then without a bit or saddle there would be little or no evidence remaining for riding remaining, meaning that riding could have occurred much earlier than previously thought.
Those early hunter gatherer tribes took a technological leap forward that is only rivalled by the domestication of the dog millennia earlier, as dogs allowed us to hunt game and guard our homes better, horses allowed people to travel faster and further. It is no surprise that they were amongst those that would later take over most of indo Europe.
The Botai people started the domestication of the horse, and it seems that the horse that was important to them in life, was also a part of their death. One grave has been found of two men, a woman and a child. It’s unclear as to how they died, but what is clear is they were laid to rest in some ceremonial manner, surrounding the pit they were laid in were the bodies of 14 horses. By the time these people were laid to rest the Botai had made the change from a nomadic life hunting horses, to a sedentary lifestyle, breeding and raising horses. Their dogs were similar in size and shape to modern Samoyed breeds and may have been used to hunt alongside, or even herd the horses. Even today dogs are still imported into the region to help herd the horses that are still a vital part of the culture of the area.
It seems that every horse under saddle may have come from this one small tribe on the Steppes 6000 years ago, was it the plentiful animals in the area that lead to these people starting to work with the horses and breed a better stock. Or was it the same reason we are pulled back to work with them today. Horses, like dogs, are so much a part of our past, they are almost a part of how we have grown to be humans, and how we have shaped the world we live in.