The world’s first horsemen swept across Europe about 5,000 years ago

Archaeologists accidentally discovered the world’s first horsemen while studying skeletons found under 5,000-year-old burial mounds in Europe and Asia, according to a new study.

The ancient horsemen were part of the so-called Yamnaya culture, groups of semi-nomadic people who swept across Europe and western Asia, bringing with them the forerunner of the Indo-European language family. The findings strengthen the hypothesis that the horse played an integral role in the expansion of this group, and therefore, in the spread of the Indo-European language.

The new analysis came from 217 human skeletons from the Pontic-Caspian steppe, a geographic region that stretches roughly from Bulgaria to Kazakhstan. For decades, researchers have debated when horses were domesticated. In Kazakhstan, 5,000-year-old horse skeletons show wear on their teeth that could have been from bridles, while others have found possible enclosures. During the same time period, horse milk peptides have been detected in the dental plaque of people from Russia. Importantly, the geographic expansion of the Yamnaya civilization—which expanded 3,000 miles (4,500 kilometers) in a century or two—suggests that horses may have helped as transport animals.

A map of Yamnaya and Afanasievo distribution in Eurasia about 5,000 years ago. (Image: Trautmann et al., Sci. Adv. 9, eade2451 (2023))

But there was no direct evidence that the Yamnaya civilization regularly domesticated horses.

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