Warriors who fought on horseback appeared on the Eurasian steppes no later than 1600BC, researchers have shown.
The latest findings cast an important spotlight on a key period in the development of horse riding during the Bronze Age.
The work centered on a large ancient burial mound from the Andronovo culture.
Their examination of how horse bones were lying, bone pathologies, and evidence of associated cheekpieces led them to conclude that horse riding — which followed the use of horses for pulling chariots — was already fully established during the Bronze Age.
The craniums of the horses showed evidence of bridling, and other wear, including the teeth, pointed to the use of bridles with soft bits.
The bone pathologies and the teeth wear are most consistent with the use of the horses for riding or chariotry.
The study team, writing in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, say their findings push back the date for horseback riding from about 900BC to around 1600BC.
This, according to Igor Chechushkov, Emma Usmanova and Pavel Kosintsev, pushes the gradual shift from chariot to horseback riding towards the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE.
The study proved that the Andronovites mastered horse riding several centuries earlier than is commonly believed.
The key evidence was found in what is known as the fifth barrow of the Novoilinovsky-2 burial ground. The burial ground is near the city of Lisakovsk in the Kostanay region of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
Archaeologist Emma Usmanova from Karaganda State University has been working at the burial site for several decades.
About 3500 years ago, the people of the Andronovo culture lived in this region. A distinctive feature of the people was the development of horse breeding. The animals were used not only for food, but also for harnessing to chariots, as well as riding, as confirmed by the remains of horses discovered in the burial ground.
Scientists drew attention to the age of the two buried animals: the stallion was found to be about 20 years old, the mare about 18.
Their lives were too long to have been raised for meat. There was evidence of ancient bridles near the horses. Thus the scientists established a new hypothesis — that the animals were sacrificially buried with the person whom they accompanied during their lifetime.
Chechushkov, from South Ural State University, took part in the laboratory and analytical part of the study. He analyzed the burials and the radiocarbon dates of the artifacts and horse bones.
“We received radiocarbon dates that made it possible to date the complex with an accuracy of several decades,” he explains.
“A comparison of these dates with the known ones allowed us to conclude that horsemanship — that is, the use of horses in military affairs — began to be practiced much earlier than many researchers had previously expected.
“The accepted date for the formation of horsemanship (horses being ridden) is about 900BC. Our materials suggest that armed horsemen who fought on horseback could have appeared in the Eurasian steppes no later than 1600 BC.”
Work at the burial site was carried out with the participation of the paleozoologist Pavel Kosintsev, from the Ural branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Yekaterinburg.
Work on the horse remains found evidence of bridle use.
The overall findings provide important insights into the functioning of human culture at the time.
“It is likely that a militarized elite, whose power was based on the physical control of fellow tribesmen and neighbors, in particular, with the help of developed riding and fighting skills, was buried in the Novoilinovsky-2 burial ground,” Chechushkov says.
“The rider has a significant advantage over the infantryman.
“There may be another explanation,” he adds. “Such elites fulfilled the function of mediating conflicts within the collective, and therefore had power and high social status.”
They could, he says, be rightfully called the “Sheriffs of the Bronze Age”.
Work at the burial ground will continue.
Chechushkov notes that research has confirmed the domestication of horses in Central Eurasia around 2000BC. However, the question of the time and place of their domestication is far from being resolved.