Horse riding and iron metallurgy drove military evolution – study

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The use of the horse improved transportation, agriculture, and military capacities alike.
Image by czu_czu_PL

The rise of horse riding and metals-related technology were key drivers in military technological evolution, according to the authors of a just-published study.

“Effective horse-riding had far-reaching consequences for the evolution of military technologies, and specifically armor, projectiles such as crossbows, and fortifications,” Peter Turchin and his fellow researchers reported.

The study team, writing in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, charted the evolution of military technologies from the Neolithic period to the Industrial Revolution.

Their investigation covered almost 10,000 years of history.

The researchers explored world population size, connectivity between geographical areas of innovation and adoption, and critical enabling of technological advances, such as iron metallurgy and horse riding.

They found that all of those factors were strong predictors of change in military technology, whereas state-level factors such as identifiable political populations, territorial size, or governance sophistication played no major role.

The international team of researchers found that, once a military technology had proven advantageous in inter-state competition, increased pressure arose on nearby societies to adopt that technology as well so as not to be left behind.

This was seen with key technologies such as horse-mounted warfare that spread initially among nomadic confederations and nearby agrarian societies located along the central Eurasian Steppe.

“Indeed, the domestication of the horse and its use in the civil and military sphere – including both the material components of horse-mounted archery as well as the tactical and organizational means to wield these weapons – appear to be of particular importance in the evolution of technologies and social complexity during the pre-industrial era,” they said.

The use of the horse improved transportation, agriculture, and military capacities alike.

“Further, the creation of new and more lethal weapons in one society could force people in their ‘strike zone’ to invent more sophisticated defenses while also often adopting the offensive technology themselves, prompting further technological advances.”

For example, armor-piercing projectiles from bows and crossbows resulted in the rise of scaled armor and plate armor.

According to the Cavalry Revolution theory, the invention of effective horse-riding in the Pontic-Caspian steppes, combined with powerful recurved bows and iron-tipped arrows, triggered a process of military evolution that spread south.

The history of the military use of the horse went through several stages, starting with the use of the chariot.
The history of the military use of the horse went through several stages, starting with the use of the chariot. Image by Dean Moriarty

The threat of nomadic warriors armed with this advanced military technology spurred the development of counter-measures, while also producing an incentive to adopt horse-riding and effective accompanying combat tactics in areas further and further away from the location of their initial invention within the steppe.

“The history of the military use of the horse went through several stages: The use of the chariot, the development of riding, the formation of light auxiliary cavalry, the development of nomadic riding, the appearance of the hard saddle, armored cataphracts, stirrups and, finally, heavy cavalry — a major branch of troops across Afro-Eurasian societies,” they said.

“As a result, effective horse-riding had far-reaching consequences for the evolution of military technologies, and specifically armor, projectiles such as crossbows, and fortifications.”

They said the combination of iron metallurgy and horse riding had a particularly strong effect on innovation and adoption of military technologies in the periods investigated in their study.

The study team comprised Turchin, Daniel Hoyer, Andrey Korotayev, Nikolay Kradin, Sergey Nefedov, Gary Feinman, Jill Levine, Jenny Reddish, Enrico Cioni, Chelsea Thorpe, James S. Bennett, Pieter Francois and Harvey Whitehouse, from a range of institutions.

Turchin P, Hoyer D, Korotayev A, Kradin N, Nefedov S, Feinman G, et al. (2021) Rise of the war machines: Charting the evolution of military technologies from the Neolithic to the Industrial Revolution. PLoS ONE 16(10): e0258161. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0258161

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

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