Rise of the horse profoundly altered pastoral economies in eastern Eurasia – study

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A Mongolian horse in traditional riding gear. Photo: User: Latebird CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons

The profound influence of horse riding on the early economies of eastern Eurasia is revealed in a fresh study using collagen fingerprinting and analysis of ancient DNA.

The new study led by William Taylor and Nicole Boivin of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany provides insights into early pastoral economies and herding changes in the region.

Their findings provide insights into livestock-based herding subsistence in Mongolia during the late 3rd and early 2nd millennia BCE.

The evidence points to widespread changes in herding ecology linked to the innovation of horseback riding in Central Asia in the 2nd millennium BCE. Their work also offers a framework to explain broad-scale patterns in the movement of people, ideas, and material culture in Eurasian prehistory.

The study team, writing in the journal Scientific Reports, note that horse domestication is widely recognized as a key event in human prehistory.

“The initial domestication of horses has been linked to major changes in human mobility and social organization, particularly in Inner Asia.

“Horses have also been invoked to explain continent-scale population movements, such as the spread of some Bronze Age peoples into Europe.”

By the first millennium BCE, the adoption of horses as transport and military animals by settled peoples in China, western Asia, and the Classical World boosted trade, promoted economic integration, and supported early imperial expansion.

The earliest incontrovertible evidence for the use of horses as transport dates to around 2000 BCE, to chariot burials of the Sintashta culture.

Depictions of horses from the Near and Middle East suggest horses were only very rarely ridden before the end of the second millennium BCE, and when they were, control was unreliable and dangerous, perhaps undertaken primarily for sport or athletic demonstration.

The brutal, spiked design of early chariot cheekpieces, and heavy evidence of use-wear on horse teeth suggest control must have been a serious challenge for the first charioteers.

Recent archaeological work has traced the origins of Mongolia’s horse-based pastoral economy as far back as the late Bronze Age, around 1500 to 700 BCE, to archaeological sites of the Deer Stone-Khirigsuur complex.

Beginning around 1200 BCE, monuments and burials often surrounded by dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of associated horse sacrifices radiated from the Khentii Mountains in the east to as far west as Kazakhstan and Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan, and from Tuva and southern Russia as far as northwestern China.

The researchers noted that while classic models for the emergence of pastoral groups in Inner Asia describe mounted, horse-borne herders sweeping across the Eurasian Steppes during the Early or Middle Bronze Age from 3000–1500 BCE, the actual economic basis of many early pastoral societies in the region is poorly characterized.

For their study, they employed collagen mass fingerprinting and ancient DNA analysis to learn more about stratified layers of archaeofaunal material from Mongolia’s early pastoral cultures.

They identified species present and placed them in a timeline which provides important insights into their lives, and how the advent of horseriding brought about major changes.

They excavated two domestic habitation sites dating to the early Bronze Age – the first such sites pre-dating the second millennium BC in Mongolia. They also analysed faunal material from a third Bronze Age site, previously reported but not previously analysed.

They also analysed previously excavated materials, to assess chronological patterns in domestic horse use and pastoral economies in Mongolia.

One site they investigated, where a pole tent appeared to stand, was dated to about 2500 BCE. They found evidence of roe deer, deer or saiga/gazelle, beaver and sheep. They also found carbonized Chenopodium seeds, which may indicate the practice of dung burning.

Another of the sites, a stone structure from the early/middle Bronze Age, had evidence of domestic animals, mostly sheep and goat, with some cattle or yak. There was no evidence of dietary exploitation of horses.

The third site, which featured the remains of a multi-room structure, was inhabited around 1600 BCE. There was evidence of domesticated animals, sheep and cattle, and an absence of wild game.

The occupants of these early sites may have used horses in occasional ritual contexts, they say, but not in their diets.

The authors say the broader archaeofaunal record of Eurasia suggests important horse-related transformations to pastoral economies during the end of the second millennia BCE.

Indeed, horses had a negligible presence in most Central Asian pastoral archaeozoological sites before the second millennium BCE.

In fact, in pastoral archaeological material from southern regions of Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan and southern Kazakhstan) predating the Sintashta chariots, horses are entirely absent.

“After 2000 BCE, horses appear more widely in Central Asian pastoral assemblages but remain low in frequency throughout the second millennium BCE, typically comprising less than 10% of the total identified specimens.”

However, the adoption of horse riding prompted dramatic alterations to the ecology of herding economies toward the end of the second millennium BCE.

Their findings point to a livestock-based, herding subsistence in Mongolia during the late 3rd and early 2nd millennia BCE.

They found no evidence of dietary exploitation of horses before the late Bronze Age, around 1200 BCE, at which point horses came to have a dominant role in rituals and played a key role in pastoral diets. They also greatly influenced pastoral mobility.

Their analysis supports models for widespread changes in herding ecology linked to the innovation of horseback riding in Central Asia towards the end of the 2nd millennium BCE.

“Horses flourished during the late Bronze Age, taking on both an important role in the pastoral diet and economy as well as markedly increased visibility in ritual contexts.

“Although the absolute frequency of horses varies widely across regions, cultures, and subsistence strategies, the internal consistency of the pattern of increased horse remains within each region of Central Asia is suggestive of a greater number of these animals on the landscape and a more prominent role for them in pastoral economies.”

Mounted riding, they say, would have increased the usefulness of horses as a transport animal.

“The ability to ride horses would have dramatically increased the range of viable economic uses for horses by human societies in Inner Asia – perhaps allowing horses to be managed in meaningful numbers on a free range for the first time.

“In Mongolia, this likely bolstered the value of horses as a source of meat and dairy products, and enabled herders to effectively utilize the dry low-elevation areas of the Eastern Steppe for the first time.

“Innovations in horse transport – first the chariot, followed by mounted horseback riding – may have stimulated widespread transformations in Bronze Age pastoral economies, and help explain large scale population dispersals between east and west across Eurasia.

“Such a framework can explain key broad-scale patterns in the movement of people, ideas, and material culture in Eurasian prehistory.”

Taylor, W.T.T., Clark, J., Bayarsaikhan, J. et al. Early Pastoral Economies and Herding Transitions in Eastern Eurasia. Sci Rep 10, 1001 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-57735-y

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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