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.
But there was no direct evidence that the Yamnaya civilization regularly domesticated horses.
Archaeologist, then Martin Troutman (opens in new tab) of the University of Helsinki in Finland and his colleagues collected data on six diagnostic skeletal features that have collectively been called “riding syndrome.” Since bone is a living tissue, it responds to stresses placed on it. Continuous riding can cause trauma and degeneration of the spine, but it can also lead to more subtle changes in the leg and hip bones as the human body adapts to regular riding.
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In the skeletons from 39 sites across Eastern Europe, Trautmann and his colleagues found that two dozen had at least half of the features of riding syndrome.
However, they are very confident in identifying five individuals of the Yamnaya culture from present-day Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary as possible horsemen.
“Our findings provide a strong argument that horse riding was already a common activity for some Yamnaya people as early as 3000 [B.C.]”, they wrote in their newspaper.
Birgit Bühler (opens in new tab), an archaeologist at the University of Vienna, told Live Science in an email that she is “excited about their research.” However, Bühler, who has studied riding syndrome but was not involved in this work, was concerned about the researchers’ ability to measure changes in the hip sockets given the poor state of preservation of many of the bones. “Because two key features are missing, I think caution is warranted in interpreting the evidence,” he said.
Most of the skeletons were in such poor condition that the horsemanship could not be analyzed. Taking this into account, however, “we assume that more than 30% of Yamnaya male adults rode frequently,” Trautmann told Live Science in an email.
Sevan Wilkin (opens in new tab), a biomolecular archaeologist at the Institute for Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich, who was not involved in this study, told Live Science in an email that the researchers’ findings about Yamnaya are interesting but “not surprising given the enormous Early Their Bronze Age. extensions”. Expanding so quickly and spreading their genes over such a large area would have been difficult without horses.
Although skeletons with riding syndrome are rarely found, their identification by archaeologists gives us new information about what it was like to live on the eastern steppe five millennia ago. “For the time being,” said Trautmann, “it appears that horsemanship was primarily a male activity, probably linked to animal husbandry, and training probably began early.”
The new discovery was described in an article published Friday (March 3) in the Scientific Advances (opens in new tab).