Humans started riding horses 5,000 years ago, new evidence suggests

We may never know when a man jumped on a horse and rode off into the sunset for the first time, but archaeologists are trying hard to understand how horses left the wild and joined humans on the path of world domination. New research claims to have found the first evidence of horse riding.

A team of scientists reports that humans may have been riding horses as early as 3000 BC—about 1,000 years before the earliest known artistic representation of a human riding a horse. The discovery, which is described in a study published March 3 in the Advances in Scienceit depends on the skeletal analysis of human remains found throughout Eastern Europe.

“I always thought we would find it at some point,” says Katherine Kanne, an archaeologist at University College Dublin, who was not involved in the new research, about signs of people riding horses earlier than previous evidence had suggested. . “Many of us have suspected this for a long time, and for it to come true is really exciting to see – and certainly gratifying.”

To date, researchers have assembled only a fragmentary timeline of how humans have used horses. Around 3500 BC, humans appear to have been milking early domesticated horses, a delicate process, which proves that the animals were already quite tame. But a recent genetic analysis suggests that the lineage of modern domestic horses did not emerge until about 2000 BC, around the same time that chariot wheels and artistic depictions of horsemanship begin to appear. Both indicate uses that require fully domesticated animals.

The new study tackles the challenge by focusing on human skeletons. Many of the remains he examines belong to the Yamnaya people, who have long been associated with horses by archaeologists and who swept across much of Eurasia from their origins in modern-day western Russia between 3000 and 2500 BC. study co-author Volker Heyd, an archaeologist at the University of Helsinki. He notes that the group’s influence throughout Europe continues to this day, for example, in the Indo-European languages ​​spoken across the continent.

Detail of the rider discovered in Malomirovo, Bulgaria. It shows the typical burial custom of the Yamnaya. The radiocarbon date places it in the 30th century BC. Credit: Michał Podsiadło

Heyd and a large group of colleagues had set out to investigate Yamnaya kurgans, or burial mounds, in eastern Europe. These structures and the elements they contain are the only traces of the civilization left. Co-author Martin Trautmann, an anthropologist also at the University of Helsinki, was surprised by a familiar pattern of marks associated with frequent horse riding on the skeleton of a man in his 30s. These patterns – called “horseman’s syndrome” – occur as bones adapt to the biomechanical stress caused by repetitive motion. “Bone is living tissue in living things,” says Trautmann. “You can read life stories from bones.”

Horseman syndrome involves changes in the thigh bones, pelvis, and lower spine. Trautmann had seen these changes in countless skeletons from much later time periods. “Riding is a very specific pattern of biomechanical stress,” he says. “You’re using muscle groups in a way that you normally don’t in everyday movement.”

Trautmann was initially hesitant to connect the markings to horse riding, but soon found similar designs on additional skeletons from the same era. In total, the new paper reports five Yamnaya skeletons that display at least four of six such features out of a total of 217 skeletons included in the kurgan survey.

Not all skeletons were preserved well enough to allow researchers to assess each component of horseman syndrome, however, leading to some gaps in their estimates. “It’s a fascinating paper. I absolutely love it,” says Birgit Bühler, an archaeologist at the University of Vienna, who was not involved in the new research. “But I would be cautious because of these missing criteria.”

And because the research focuses exclusively on human remains, not everyone is convinced that the analysis shows that humans specifically rode horses, despite Yamnaya’s long academic association with horses. “These pathologies may be completely involved with animal transportation, but I don’t really see evidence here that links them to horses,” says William Taylor, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, who was not involved in the new research. Unlike horse riding, scientists have no sense of the marks that riding other types of animals can leave on a human’s skeleton, a gap he says he hopes researchers will begin to address.

Trautmann says he suspects that riding animals that are quite similar to horses, such as mules, would leave signs of rider’s syndrome. Although he is satisfied with the scattered horse bones found at the Yamnaya sites, he hopes that someday scientists will analyze these remains for corresponding skeletal signs that a horse regularly carried a rider.

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