The first evidence of riding was found in “eastern cowboys” | Science

About 5300 years ago, people from the steppes of modern Russia and Ukraine rapidly expanded across Eurasia. Within a few centuries these ‘Yamnaya’ left a lasting genetic mark on populations from central Europe to the Caspian Sea. Today, archaeologists call them the “cowboys of the East” for their animal husbandry and highly mobile lifestyle.

But one part of the classic cowboy image was missing: riding. Although cattle bones and durable wagons have been found at Yamnaya sites, horse bones are rare, and most archaeologists have assumed that humans did not begin riding horses until at least 1000 years later.

In a new study, presented today at the annual meeting of the AAAS (which publishes Science) in Washington, DC, and published in Advances in Science, researchers say they found the first evidence of horse riding not in the bones of ancient horses, but in their Yamnaya riders. “Everyone has focused on horse remains to get an idea of ​​early horse riding,” says co-author and University of Helsinki archaeologist Volker Heyd. “Our approach was to look at people.”

Genetic and other evidence suggests that horses were domesticated as early as 3500 BC. However, the first mentions of horse riding in historical sources or pictorial evidence date more than 2000 years later, long after the spread of the Yamnaya in the steppes. Eastern cowboys, many archaeologists believed, were content to walk alongside their herds of cattle.

Yamnaya tombs are scattered across the steppes of Eurasia, usually containing the body of a man.Michał Podsiadło

As part of a research project on the Yamnaya extension, Martin Trautmann, an anthropologist in Helsinki, and his colleagues examined more than 50 skeletons excavated from mounds in Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria – the western borders of the Yamnaya extension. The Yamnaya were well fed, healthy and tall. The chemical composition of their bones indicated high-protein diets consistent with cattle and sheep grazing. But the skeletons showed signs of typical wear and tear.

Many had spinal compression, which can result from time spent absorbing annoying bumps while sitting. They also showed thick patches on the thigh bone, consistent with a lot of time spent in a hunched over position. The healed injuries—broken collarbones, broken leg bones and cracked vertebrae—matched the kinds of damage a kicking horse might cause or what sports medicine doctors see today in riders thrown from their horses.

In search of an explanation, Trautmann compared the injuries to those seen in later populations where the skeletons were buried with riding gear, horses, or both—strong circumstantial evidence for horse riding. Of the 50 Yamnaya skeletons he looked at, nearly half had changes seen in later horsemen.

A Yamnaya man, buried around 2700 BC. in present-day Romania, had all the bone changes commonly seen in equestrians, as well as spinal damage from a hard fall “on his back,” the authors write. “In a medieval population, it would have been clear that this guy was a horseman,” says Trautmann. “As often in archaeology, the most beautiful finds are the ones you don’t look for.”

However, some other archaeologists are tempering their enthusiasm. Without horse bones to inspect for telltale signs of skeletal damage from riding, they say, there is no reliable way to confirm what the human bones suggest.

“They grossly overinterpret an interesting pattern,” says University of Colorado (CU), Boulder, zooarchaeologist William Taylor. “In isolation, human skeletal data lack the power to distinguish horse riding from other activity patterns.”

An Egyptian graffito of the goddess Astarte on a horse
The earliest equestrian depictions, such as this Egyptian graffito of the goddess Astarte, appear almost 1500 years after the Yamnaya expansion.S. Steiß/Berlin

And although archaeologists have found Yamnaya wagons, oxen and yokes, riding equipment – such as bridles or saddles – is completely missing. “As far as trying to locate people riding horses, I think they’ve done the best job possible bioarchaeologically,” says Arizona State University, Tempe, bioarchaeologist Jane Buikstra. “That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, or convincing, after all.”

The paper’s authors argue that the alterations seen in the human bones are strong circumstantial evidence, especially given hints that the Yamnaya milked horses and genetic evidence for horse domestication on the Pontic steppe shortly after the Yamnaya expansion. Lack of equipment alone “doesn’t rule out the possibility of riding,” says Trautmann. “It is possible to be very active on a horse without specialized equipment.” The glue from perishable leather and fabric, meanwhile, may have long since decomposed, he argues.

More specimens — including horse bones with signs of riding, such as bite marks or damage to the spine from a rider’s weight — would help do that, says CU bioarchaeologist Lauren Hosek. What the team found “is really interesting,” he says. “But there’s a lot more work to be done when the stakes are as high as the first riding.”

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