The bones of nomads who lived in what is now south-eastern Europe thousands of years ago have just provided mankind’s earliest evidence of equestrianism.
According to an analysis of the wear and tear of the bones of individuals of the Yamnaya culture, who lived between 3021 and 2501 BC. Living on the Eurasian steppe, these people not only kept horses for their milk, but rode them to get around and to help herd cattle and sheep.
This is an important piece in the human evolution jigsaw puzzle, as the introduction of horseback riding dramatically changed the speed and distance at which we could travel through the world.
“Horse riding seems to have evolved not long after the putative domestication of horses on the western Eurasian steppes in the fourth millennium BC. to have developed,” explains archaeologist Volker Heyd of the University of Helsinki in Finland. “It was already known among members of the Yamnaya culture between 3000 and 2500 BC. fairly common.”
Finding evidence of horseback riding in ancient cultures can be a little harder than you might think. Some, like the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, left art depicting riders on horseback; In earlier cultures, whose art may not have endured over the centuries, evidence of horses, such as their bones in human settlements, is insufficient to draw any conclusions.
For example, previous studies had found traces of mare’s milk on potsherds and mare’s milk peptides in tartar deposits from Yamnayan individuals, so it’s possible that forage was the only reason horses were kept.
However, the lack of riding gear also cannot be taken as evidence that humans did not ride horses, as it is possible to ride without them.
But the Yamnaya culture is named after something they are well known for: the pits, known as kurgans, in which their dead were buried. “Yamnaya” is the Russian word for “pit”.
In these kurgans we have found many skeletons in good condition. The Yamnaya’s death practices have allowed archaeologists and anthropologists to learn more about their way of life.
A team of scientists led by bioanthropologist Martin Trautmann of the University of Helsinki tried to examine evidence of horsemanship in the Yamnaya. But first they had to figure out what that evidence might look like.
“It is not easy to diagnose activity patterns in human skeletons,” explains Trautmann. “There are no singular characteristics that indicate a specific activity or behavior. Only in their combination, as a syndrome, do symptoms provide reliable insights to understand habitual activities of the past.”
Researchers developed six criteria that, taken together, could be taken as evidence of horse riding. These included stress patterns at the muscle insertion sites of the pelvis and femur; specific changes in the shape of the hip sockets; marks from the pressure of the hip socket on the femoral head; shape and diameter of the femoral shaft; wear of vertebrae from repetitive impact compression; and any trauma associated with a fall from, or a kick or bite from, a horse.
They conducted a thorough examination of 217 skeletons at 39 sites. 150 of these skeletons have been archaeologically assigned to the Yanmaya culture. 24 of the Yanmaya skeletons were found to have possibly been ridden on horses.
It has been determined that five Yanmaya people are highly likely to be horsemen; Two other skeletons that existed before the Yanmayans and two more that came later were also most likely horsemen.
One of those two early burials was extremely interesting, the researchers said, and suggested the team’s methodology might have broader applications.
“A tomb from 4300 BC. C. at Csongrad-Kettőshalom in Hungary, long suspected of steppe immigrants by its pose and artefacts, surprisingly showed four of the six equestrian pathologies, possibly suggesting that a millennium earlier than Yamnaya was ridden,” he says, an anthropologist David Anthony of Hartwick College.
“An isolated case cannot support a sure conclusion, but in Neolithic cemeteries of this period on the steppes, horse remains were occasionally placed in human graves with those of cattle and sheep, and stone clubs were carved in the shape of horses’ heads. we must apply this method to even older collections.”
The research was published in scientific advances.