Evidence for horse domestication: the picture gets clearer

Evidence of thong bridle use suggests horses may have been ridden as early as 5500 years ago.
Evidence of thong bridle use suggests horses may have been ridden as early as 5500 years ago. © Sandra Olsen, Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Scientists have in recent years unearthed startling evidence on the early domestication of the horse. 


Scientists believe a simple thong-style bridle was the first used in domesticated horses.

A thong bridle is simply a leather thong draped over the gap between the teeth of the lower jaw and knotted under the chin, with the trailing ends acting as the reins.

Plains Indians in the United States called this a war bridle or racing bridle and it most likely is the type of bridle that was developed first.

Evidence comes from research into the Botai culture in Kazakhstan, the world’s largest landlocked country, situated in Central Asia.

The research made headlines in 2009, with news that evidence uncovered suggested that horses in the region were both ridden and milked.

It was suggested the evidence pointed to the very beginnings of horse domestication, pushing it back to 5500 years ago.

In August, Saudi officials announced the discovery of evidence at Al-Magar indicating horse domestication in the region dated back 9000 years.

Both sites provide fascinating evidence on how different cultures handled their interactions with an animal that ultimately had a huge effect on humankind over millennia.

The Botai research pulls together a compelling picture of local inhabitants’ life with horses.

The researchers used a technique to search for “bit damage” caused by bridling or harnessing horses on horse remains found in the region. They found tell-tale traces of the use of a thong bridle on the gap between the teeth of the lower jaw.

Evidence of the Botai people’s life with horses came through work by researchers from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the universities of Exeter and Bristol, in Britain.

Data gathered by archaeologists supports the hypothesis that the horse-rich area in the vast, semi-arid, grassy plains, or steppe zones, east of the Ural Mountains in Northern Kazakhstan

The Botai, situated east of the Ural Mountains in Northern Kazakhstan, may have been first to domesticate horses. The Ural Mountains were a prime habitat for wild horses thousands of years ago and may have set the stage for horse domestication by indigenous cultures that commonly hunted them. © Dr Alan Outram, University of Exeter

contributed largely to the development of two neighboring cultures, the Botai in north-central Kazakhstan and the Tersek in the west.

“Having a domesticated animal that could be eaten, milked, ridden, used as a pack animal and potentially for haulage would have had a tremendous impact on any society that initiated or adopted horse herds,” said Sandra Olsen, curator of anthropology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Olsen directed several archaeological teams that excavated sites in Kazakhstan from 1994 to 2002.

Their findings put horse domestication in Kazakhstan about 2000 years earlier than that known to have existed in Europe.

The research team used various techniques to discover that horses provided food and milk, to show that domestic horses differed from wild horses from the same region, and to prove that horses were harnessed and possibly ridden in the fourth millennium BC in Kazakhstan.

Researchers used a novel method of analyzing residue from fat-soluble lipids found on ancient Botai pottery to find traces of fats from horse milk, leading to the conclusion that people consumed horse milk at the beginning of the Copper Age some 5500 years ago.

Mare’s milk is still a staple in Kazakhstan, where it is usually fermented into a slightly alcoholic drink called koumiss.

A Kazakh woman milking a mare at Kenetkul village, northern Kazakhstan. © Sandra Olsen, Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Additionally, examinations of ancient bone remains showed that horses were similar in shape to Bronze Age domestic horses but different from more ancient wild horses from the same region, suggesting that people selected wild horses for their physical attributes, which were exaggerated through breeding.

“It is quite surprising that the Tersek and Botai horse metacarpals differ significantly,” said Olsen. “The Tersek culture and the Botai culture are considered to be the same culture by many archaeologists – they are separated by just two days’ ride on horseback, and they’re very similar in terms of their material culture.

“To find there may have been a difference in the sizes of their horses was something that I did not expect.”

Alan Outram, of Exeter, a key study participant, said: “The domestication of horses is known to have had immense social and economic significance, advancing communications, transport, food production and warfare.”

He said the findings were significant because they changed the understanding of how these early societies developed.

Some comparisons can be made to the early horse-herder culture of the Plains Indians in North America, but with some important differences.

First, American Indians did not go through the process of capturing wild horses, taming them, and breeding them to become more well-mannered.

Instead, when the horse was re-introduced to North America by the Europeans – having evolved in North America, spread to Asia and Europe, before going extinct in the New World about 10,000 years ago – it was fully domesticated.

Olsen said: “American Indians had the advantage of receiving an animal that was already selected to be more docile and controllable.

“Although the Plains Indians often had to develop their own tack, harnesses and equipment used for riding, they often saw the bridles and other equipment that the Spaniards and other Europeans had.

“There is no question that there are similarities in the Plains Indian societies and some cultures on the Eurasian steppe that depended heavily on the horse, but we must take care in carrying that analogy too far,” Olsen said.

The discoveries in Al-Magar, in Saudi Arabia, are equally startling.

They not only push evidence of horse domestication back to about 9000 years ago, but may also point to the very roots of the Arabian horse breed.

The large statue found in Al-Magar of a horse, around one metre in length.
Harness can also be seen on another of the statues.

One statue shows the unique neck and head characteristics of the breed. Two are said to show evidence of harness and a bridle. A nearby cave drawing appears to show a man riding a horse, and other evidence points to horses and other animals being part of the inhabitants’ daily lives.

Among more than 80 artifacts found at Al-Magar is a one-metre long statue of a horse, comprising head, neck and chest.

Officials say the statue, which could well be the largest known sculpture of a horse during that period, has features similar to that of the original Arabian horses, characterised by a long neck and unique head shape.

The head of the statue carries what officials say are clear signs of a bridle.

Several statues of animals were found on the site, indicating the animals were part of the inhabitants’ daily lives. They included horses, sheep, goats, Saluki dogs, ostriches, falcons and fish.

All statues were made of the same local rocks available at the site and it seems they had been fixed on a central building at the southern bank of the river before the mouth point of the river at the waterfall.

This central building might have had a major role in the social life of the site inhabitants.

There are also rock drawings at the area next to the Al-Magar site.

These were created by deep pecking and engraving the rock surface.

Ibexes, ostriches and other animals, as well as human figures including a knight riding a horse are carefully depicted, officials said.

Another drawing shows hunting ibexes followed by hound dogs, and another with five dogs surrounding an ibex.

The artworks have over time turned black, which indicates they were made when the site was inhabited.

Other rock drawings were found among the remains of the central building at Al-Magar, including drawings of horses and humans.

Finds at the site also included arrowheads, scrapers and spearheads. Other objects included stone grain-grinders, a stone pestle for pounding grain, gravitation stones used in weaving looms, a stone reel for spinning and weaving, a soapstone pot decorated by geometrical motifs, and stone tools for leather processing which reflected advanced knowledge in handcraft activities.

Al-Magar is located in the province of Tathleet, between the towns of Tathleeth and Wadi Al Dawasir, about 120km from the latter.

In March, 2010, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities started survey and exploration work after the site was reported by a Saudi citizen.

Horse head and neck sacrifice in a pit outside an ancient house at the Botai site of Krasnyi Yar, northern Kazakhstan. © Sandra Olsen, Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Man either settled the area before it turned to desert, or during a period of tremendous climate change which ended with the spread of desert through the region.

It is believed humans lived in the area initially because of its ability to support agriculture and animal husbandry.

Archaeological items were found all over site’s surface, including arrowheads and precisely made stone scrapers similar to those man used during the Neolithic period.

Carbon-dating carried out in the United States found that the site dated back 9000 years.

The site was first discovered by a Saudi citizen who collected some archaeological objects scattered on the surface. Another Saudi citizen reported the site to local authorities, who in turn reported it to the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities.

Commission staff contacted the person who collected the archaeological objects, who immediately returned all objects and guided concerned officials to the site. The commission said it rewarded two people for their co-operation.

It began exploration around the site in March 2010, with a scientific team including Saudis and international researchers, archaeologists and specialists in prehistoric periods.

Ceramic beaker from Botai settlement, northern Kazakhstan. © Sandra Olsen, Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Saudi officials say the site is surrounded by other sites extending over a wide area, where similar objects have been found. Typically, some of them were connected with the agriculture activity. Other artifacts of interest found at Al-Magar include a stone dagger bearing the same features and shape of the Arabian daggers used today on the Arabian Peninsula.

“This artifact is an important cultural [find] as the dagger is one of the most important cultural and traditional elements among the Arabs,” an official said.

Another significant stone piece was found at the site, bearing small cut lines on the edges. The parallel lines were set in groups, perhaps for accounting, numbering or timing purposes. Future studies may reveal its use.



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