Old human teeth provide evidence of early horse domestication

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Research by archaeologist Andrei Epimakhov has shown that the use of horses on the farm and the transition to dairy farming took place at the beginning of the Bronze Age.
Research by archaeologist Andrei Epimakhov has shown that the use of horses on the farm and the transition to dairy farming took place at the beginning of the Bronze Age.

Fresh evidence of milk consumption by humans puts the potential center of horse domestication around the Black Sea-Caspian steppes in the third millennium BC, according to researchers.

Scientists who analyzed the composition of dental calculus of humans found evidence that people domesticated horses at the beginning of the Bronze Age.

Dental plaque, which hardens during life, retains traces of proteins, including markers of a milk diet, which appeared in the diet of ancient people with the beginning of cattle breeding.

Researchers have been examining Bronze Age migration in the territory of modern Eurasia for a long time.

Earlier, experts found that representatives of the Yamnaya culture spread from Altai and Mongolia to Scandinavian territories. Scientists believe that the spread of the Yamnaya culture resulted from a pastoral economy using wheeled carts and horse transport. However, there was no convincing evidence of this.

Now, an international research group that included archaeologist Andrei Epimakhov, with South Ural State University, proved that the use of horses on-farm and the transition to dairy farming took place at the beginning of the Bronze Age.

Their findings are reported in the journal Nature.

For this, the scientists examined dental calculus samples found in the Volga region, in human teeth that came from the Eneolithic, Early, Middle, and Late Bronze Age. Scientists used a protein extraction method and found casein, a complex peptide found in milk as a calcium salt, in many samples.

A substance distribution map was made. According to these data, the protein could not be detected only in the earliest samples of the series belonging to the Eneolithic.

“We believe that one of the reasons for such successful development of various territories was the revolution in food production,” Epimakhov explained.

“For the first time, people used animals not only as part of the meat diet but also for dairy products. In the Bronze Age, this undoubtedly gave an advantage to migrants.”

The study also provides important answers to the question about the time and place of horse domestication, he says.

An example of the presence of protein in dental calculus in the Volga region (samples containing peptide / total amount of anthropological material) corresponds to the period of the Early Bronze Age.
An example of the presence of protein in dental calculus in the Volga region (samples containing peptide / total amount of anthropological material) corresponds to the period of the Early Bronze Age.

The study team analysed the data in order to examine what kind of milk the herders were consuming, identifying those who were drinking mare’s milk.

“Our discovery indicates that the potential center of horse domestication is the Black Sea-Caspian steppes in the third millennium BC,” he said.

Migration and mobility are the key topics in the research. In 2020, the Russian Science Foundation supported the research by funding the project Migration of Human Collectives and Individual Mobility in the Framework of Multidisciplinary Analysis of Archaeological Information (Bronze Age of the Southern Urals).

Wilkin, S., Ventresca Miller, A., Fernandes, R. et al. Dairying enabled Early Bronze Age Yamnaya steppe expansions. Nature (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03798-4

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

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