The first horsemen in the world were found near the Black Sea

A rider’s grave has been discovered in Malomirovo, Bulgaria. Credit: Michał Podsiadło

Researchers discovered evidence of horse riding by studying the remains of human skeletons found in mounds called kurgans, which are between 4,500 and 5,000 years old. The clay burial mounds belonged to the Yamnaya culture. The Yamnayans had migrated from the Pontic-Caspian steppes to find greener pastures in the present-day countries of Romania and Bulgaria to Hungary and Serbia.

The Yamnayans were cattle movers and herdsmen, now believed to be mounted.

“Horsemanship appears to have evolved shortly after the supposed domestication of horses on the western Eurasian steppes during the fourth millennium BC. Archeology at the University of Helsinki and member of the international team that made the discovery.

These areas west of the Black Sea form a contact zone where mobile groups of shepherds from the Yamnaya culture first encountered the long-standing agricultural communities of the Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic tradition. For decades, the spread of steppes in southeastern Europe in the Early Bronze Age was explained as a violent invasion.

With the advent of ancient DNA research, the differences between these immigrants from the East and members of local societies became even more stark.

“Our research is now beginning to provide a more nuanced picture of their interactions. For example, the expected findings of physical violence are virtually non-existent in the skeletal record so far. We are also beginning to understand the complex exchange processes in material culture and burial customs between newcomers and locals 200 years after their first contact,” explains Bianca Preda-Bălănică, another team member from the University of Helsinki.

Horse riding is a pivotal moment in human history

The use of animals for transportation, especially the horse, marked a turning point in human history. The significant gain in mobility and distance had profound effects on land use, trade, and warfare. Current research has focused primarily on the horses themselves.

However, horsemanship is an interaction of two components—the mount and its rider—and human remains are available in greater numbers and more complete condition than early horse remains. Since horse riding is possible without specialized equipment, the absence of archaeological findings about the earliest horse riding is not unexpected.

Traces of riding are found on the skeletons

“We studied over 217 skeletons from 39 sites, of which 150 found in burial mounds belong to the Yamnayans. The diagnosis of activity patterns in human skeletons is not clear. There are no unique features that indicate a specific occupation or behavior. Only in their combination, as a syndrome, the symptoms provide reliable insights into the understanding of habitual activities of the past,” explains Martin Trautmann, Bioanthropologist in Helsinki and the lead author of the study published in Advances in Science.

The international group decided to use a set of six diagnostic criteria established as indicators of equestrian activity (the so-called “riding syndrome”):

  1. Muscle attachment points in the pelvis and femur (femur).
  2. Changes in the usually round shape of the hip sockets.
  3. Imprints caused by the pressure of the rim of the acetabulum on the neck of the femur.
  4. The diameter and shape of the shaft of the femur.
  5. spinal degeneration caused by repeated vertical impact.
  6. Injuries that can usually be caused by falls, kicks or bites from horses.

To increase diagnostic reliability, the team also used a more stringent filtering method and developed a scoring system that takes into account the diagnostic value, specificity and reliability of each symptom. Overall, of the 156 adults in the total sample at least 24 (15.4%) can be classified as “probable riders”, while five Yamnaya and two later as well as two possibly earlier individuals qualify as “very likely riders”. “The rather high prevalence of these features in the skeletal record, especially in relation to the overall limited completeness, indicates that these people rode horses regularly,” states Trautmann.

Whether the primary use of riding was as a convenience to a mobile pastoral lifestyle, to allow for more efficient cattle herding, as a means of rapid and extensive raiding, or simply as a status symbol needs further investigation.

The first horsemen in the world

Overview of the archaeological excavations at Malomirovo, Bulgaria. Credit: Michał Podsiadło

Could it all have happened sooner?

“We have an interesting burial in the series,” observes David Anthony, professor emeritus of Hartwick College in the US and also a senior co-author on the study.

“A grave dating to about 4300 BC in Csongrad-Kettöshalomin Hungary, long suspected from its posture and artefacts to be a migrant from the steppes, surprisingly showed four out of six equestrian pathologies, possibly indicating riding a millennium earlier than Yamnaya. A single case cannot support a safe conclusion, but in Neolithic cemeteries of this era on the steppes, horse remains were occasionally placed in human graves with cattle and sheep graves, and stone battlements were carved in the shape of horse heads. Clearly, we need to apply this method to even older collections.”

Who were the Yamnayans?

The Yamnayaans were a population and culture that evolved in the Pontic-Caspian steppes in the late fourth millennium BC.

By adopting the basic wheel and wagon innovation, they were able to greatly improve their mobility and exploit a vast, otherwise inaccessible energy resource, the steppe sea away from rivers, enabling them to keep large herds of cattle and sheep.

Thus committed to a new way of life, these pastoralists, if not the world’s first true nomads, expanded dramatically over the next two centuries to cover more than 5,000 kilometers between Hungary in the west and, in the form of the so-called Afanasievo culture, Mongolia and western China to the east. Having buried their dead in burial pits under large mounds, called kurgans, the Yamnayaans are said to be the first to spread Proto-Indo-European languages.

More information:
Martin Trautmann et al, First Bio-Anthropological Evidence for Yamnaya Horsemanship, Advances in Science (2023). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.ade2451.

Yamnaya’s impact on Prehistoric Europe: … n-prehistoric-europe

Provided by the University of Helsinki

Reference: World’s first horse riders found near Black Sea (2023, March 3) Retrieved March 4, 2023, from html

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