The Yamnaya were possibly the world’s earliest known horsemen

WASHINGTON — The history of the first horsemen may have been written on the bones of the ancient Yamnaya people.

Five excavated skeletons dating to around 3,000 to 2,500 BC scientific advances. This makes the Yamnaya among the earliest humans identified to date as probable horsemen.

Five thousand years ago, the Yamnaya migrated widely, spreading Indo-European languages ​​and altering the human gene pool across Europe and Asia (SN: 11/15/17; SN: 9/5/19). Their voyages eventually stretched from present-day Hungary to Mongolia some 4,500 kilometers (2,800 miles) and are thought to have spanned only a few centuries.

“In many ways [the Yamnaya] changed the history of Eurasia,” says archaeologist Volker Heyd of the University of Helsinki.

Horse domestication began around 3500 BC. Widely used, probably for milk and meat (SN: 7/6/17). Some researchers have suggested that the Botai of what is now Kazakhstan began horseback riding at this time, but this is disputed (SN: 3/5/09). The Yamnaya also had horses, and archaeologists have speculated that humans probably rode them, but evidence was lacking.

But the oldest known depictions of horseback riding date back to around 2000 BC. Complicating efforts to determine when the behavior appeared, possible riding gear would have been made from long-decayed natural materials, and scientists rarely, if ever, find complete horse skeletons from this period.

A photograph of a limestone relief showing someone bareback riding a horse while others go about various tasks.
The earliest depictions of horseback riding date to around 4,000 years ago, although a new study suggests some Yamnaya people rode horses around 1,000 years earlier. This limestone relief from the Tomb of Haremheb in Egypt, dated about 1300 B.C. B.C., shows a bareback riding style that the Yamnaya may have used.Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna

Heyd and his colleagues did not seek evidence of horsemanship. They worked on a massive project called Yamnaya Impact on Prehistoric Europe to understand every aspect of people’s lives.

Assessing over 200 human skeletons unearthed from countries like Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary, bioanthropologist Martin Trautmann noticed that a person’s bones at the femur and elsewhere showed different features than he had seen before. He immediately suspected riding.

“It was just a surprise,” says Trautmann, also from the University of Helsinki.

If it had been an isolated case, he would have turned him down, he says. But as he continued to analyze skeletons, he noticed that several shared the same properties.

Trautmann, Heyd and colleagues examined all skeletons for the presence of six physical signs of horsemanship documented in previous research, a constellation of traits termed horsemanship syndrome. These signs included pelvic and thigh imprints, which could result from the biomechanical stress of sitting spread-legged while holding on to a horse, and healed vertebral damage from injuries that could have resulted from a fall. The team also created a scoring system to account for the severity, preservation, and relative importance of skeletal features.

“Bones are living tissue,” says Trautmann. “So they respond to any kind of environmental stimulus.”

The team considered five Yamnaya males to be common riders because they displayed four or more signs of horsemanship. Nine other Yamnaya males likely rode horses, but researchers were less confident because the skeletons only had three markings on each.

A photo of a Przewalski's horse looking directly at the camera.  The horse is brown with a white nose and brown mane.
A Przewalski’s horse (pictured) resembles in appearance, color, and size the type of horse the Yamnaya may have ridden.Helsinki Zoo

“Hypothetically, it’s very logical,” says bioarchaeologist Maria Mednikova of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, who was not involved in the new study. The Yamnaya were very close to horses, she says, so they probably experimented with horseback riding at some point.

She now plans to check the Yamnaya skeletons she has access to for riding properties. “The human skeletal system is like a book – if you know something, you can read it,” says Mednikova.

Archaeologist Ursula Brosseder, who was also not involved in the work, warns against interpreting this find as a heyday of equestrian sports within the Yamnaya culture. Brosseder, formerly of the University of Bonn in Germany, sees the paper’s discovery as people still figuring out what to do with horses as part of early domestication.

As for Heyd, he says he had long suspected that the Yamnaya rode horses, considering they had the animals and spread so quickly over such a large area. “Now we have evidence.”

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