Mongolia was epicenter for early horse culture, study suggests

Domestic horses form the center of nomadic life in contemporary Mongolia. Photo: P. Enkhtuvshin
Domestic horses form the center of nomadic life in contemporary Mongolia.  Photo: P. Enkhtuvshin

The nomadic horse culture that shaped the social and ecological landscape of East and Central Asia has been traced back more than 3000 years on the eastern Eurasian Steppes.

Researchers put its roots in the territory of modern Mongolia.

The spread of horse use and mobile pastoralism in the region has been linked with a wetter, more productive climate.

The early horsemanship developed by Mongolian cultures proved to be one of most influential changes in Eurasian prehistory, going on to shape world trade and politics.

Nomadic horse culture – famously associated with Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes – was traced using radiocarbon technology. It places the spread of domestic horse rituals in Mongolia at around 1200 BC.

The researchers, whose findings have been published online in the Journal of Archaeological Science, produced scientific estimates of the age of horse bones found from archaeological sites belonging to a culture known as the Deer Stone-Khirigsuur Complex.

A "Deer stone" stela in Bayankhongor province, central Mongolia, surrounded by small stone mounds containing domestic horse remains. Photo: William Taylor
A “Deer stone” stela in Bayankhongor province, central Mongolia, surrounded by small stone mounds containing domestic horse remains. Photo: William Taylor

This culture is named after the beautiful carved standing “deer stones” and burial mounds, known as khirigsuurs, its people built across the Mongolian Steppe. The culture is linked with some of the oldest evidence for nomadic herding and domestic livestock use in eastern Eurasia.

Ritualistic burials of domestic horses – sometimes numbering the hundreds or thousands – are found buried around the edge of deer stones and khirigsuurs.

The researchers set out to estimate the spread of domestic horse rituals at these sites using radiocarbon dating.

When an organism dies, an unstable radioactive molecule present in living tissues, known as radiocarbon, begins to decay at a known rate. By measuring the remaining concentration of radiocarbon in organic materials, such as horse bone, archaeologists can estimate how many years ago an animal took its final step.

A domestic horse head burial from Mongolia’s Deer Stone-Khirigsuur complex, used in the study. Photo: William Taylor
A domestic horse head burial from Mongolia’s Deer Stone-Khirigsuur complex, used in the study. Photo: William Taylor

Many previous archaeological projects in Mongolia produced radiocarbon date estimates from horse remains found at these Bronze Age archaeological sites. However, because each of these measurements must be calibrated to account for natural variation in the environment over time, individual dates have large amounts of error and uncertainty, making them difficult to aggregate or interpret in groups.

By using a statistical technique known as Bayesian analysis – which combines probability with archaeological information to improve precision for groups of radiocarbon dates – the researchers were able to produce a high-precision chronology model for early domestic horse use in Mongolia.

Lead author William Taylor, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, says that this model “enables us for the first time to link horse use with other important cultural developments in ancient Mongolia and eastern Eurasia, and evaluate the role of climate and environmental change in the local origins of horse riding.”

According to the study, domestic horse ritual spread rapidly across the Mongol Steppe at around 1200 BC – several hundred years before mounted horsemen are clearly documented in historical records. This was around the time of the first appearance of draught horses in China during the late Shang dynasty.

Distribution of domestic horse remains from deer stones and khirigsuurs across time, showing rapid spread of horse ritual across Mongolia around 1200 BCE (1200BC). The diameter of each red circle indicates the proportion of modeled likelihood for each date within the time slice. Image: Taylor et al (2017): http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2017.03.006
Distribution of domestic horse remains from deer stones and khirigsuurs across time, showing rapid spread of horse ritual across Mongolia around 1200 BCE (1200BC). The diameter of each red circle indicates the proportion of modeled likelihood for each date within the time slice. Image: Taylor et al (2017): http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2017.03.006

When considered alongside other evidence for horse transport in the Deer Stone-Khirigsuur Complex, these results suggest that Mongolia was an epicenter for early horse culture – and probably early mounted horseback riding.

The study has important consequences for our understanding of human responses to climate change.

For example, one particularly influential hypothesis argues that horse riding and nomadic herding societies developed during the late second millennium BC as a response to drought and a worsening climate.

The results from Taylor and his colleagues indicate instead that early horsemanship took place during a wetter, more productive climate period, which may have given herders more room to experiment with horse breeding and transport.

In recent years, scholars have become increasingly aware of the role played by Inner Asian nomads in early waves of globalization.

A key article published this month in Nature argues that nomadic movement patterns shaped the early trans-Eurasian trade networks that would eventually move goods, people, and information across the continent.

The development of horsemanship by Mongolian cultures might have been one of the most influential changes in Eurasian prehistory – laying the groundwork for the economic and ecological exchange networks that defined the Old World for centuries to come.

The researchers came from several academic institutions, including the Max Planck Institute, Yale University, University of Chicago, the American Center for Mongolian Studies, and the National Museum of Mongolia.

Bayesian chronology for early domestic horse use in the Eastern Steppe
William Timothy, Treal Taylor, Burentogtokh Jargalan, K. Bryce Lowry, Julia Clark, Tumurbaatar Tuvshinjargal, Jamsranjav Bayarsaikhan
http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2017.03.006

The abstract can be read here

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