Buried individual from 6300 years ago was possibly a horse rider

The grave of a horse rider discovered in Malomirovo, Bulgaria. Photo: Michał Podsiadło
The grave of a horse rider discovered in Malomirovo, Bulgaria. Photo: Michał Podsiadło

Could humans have been riding horses more than 6000 years ago?

Scientists who recently published findings that suggest riding may have been common for some members of the Yamnayan culture as early as 5000 years ago raised the fascinating possibility in their paper.

The researchers, writing in the journal Science Advances discovered evidence of horse riding by studying the remains of human skeletons found in Yamnayan burial mounds called kurgans, which date back 4500 to 5000 years.

The Yamnayans had migrated from the Pontic-Caspian steppes to find greener pastures in today’s countries of Romania and Bulgaria up to Hungary and Serbia.

Yamnayans were mobile cattle and sheep herders, now believed to be on horseback.

“Horseback-riding seems to have evolved not long after the presumed domestication of horses in the western Eurasian steppes during the fourth millennium BCE,” says Volker Heyd, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Helsinki and a member of the international team which made the discovery.

“It was already rather common in members of the Yamnaya culture between 3000 and 2500 BCE.”

The team examined more than 200 Bronze Age skeletal remains housed in museums in the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania and Hungary.

Among them, they identified five Yamnaya individuals reliably dated to 4500 to 5000 years ago from graves in Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary displaying bone changes and distinct signs associated with horseback riding.

These individuals display four or more of the six skeletal traits indicative of so-called “horsemanship syndrome” with a high level of diagnostic certainty.

The traits include telltale signs of stress reactions within the pelvis and femur, stress-induced vertebral degeneration, and signs of trauma.

However, evidence from one individual hints that the origins of riding may go back further.

“We have one intriguing burial in the series,” says David Anthony, a senior co-author in the study and an emeritus professor with Hartwick College in the United States.

“A grave dated about 4300 BCE at Csongrad-Kettöshalom in Hungary, long suspected from its pose and artifacts to have been an immigrant from the steppes, surprisingly showed four of the six riding pathologies, possibly indicating riding a millennium earlier than Yamnaya.

“An isolated case cannot support a firm conclusion,” he says, “but in Neolithic cemeteries of this era in the steppes, horse remains were occasionally placed in human graves with those of cattle and sheep, and stone maces were carved into the shape of horse heads.

“Clearly, we need to apply this method to even older collections.”

The regions west of the Black Sea constitute a contact zone where mobile groups of herdsmen from the Yamnaya culture first encountered the long-established farmer communities of Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic traditions.

For decades, the Early Bronze Age expansion of steppe people into southeastern Europe was explained as a violent invasion.

With the advent of ancient DNA research, the differences between these migrants from the east and members of local societies became even more pronounced.

“Our research is now beginning to provide a more nuanced picture of their interactions,” explains Bianca Preda-Bălănică, another team member from the University of Helsinki.

“For example, findings of physical violence as were expected are practically non-existent in the skeletal record so far. We also start understanding the complex exchange processes in material culture and burial customs between newcomers and locals in the 200 years after their first contact.”

The use of animals for transport, in particular the horse, marked a turning point in human history. The considerable gain in mobility and distance had profound effects on land use, trade, and warfare.

Current research has mostly focused on the horses themselves. However, horse-riding is an interaction of two components – the mount and its rider – and human remains are available in larger numbers and in more complete condition than early horse remains.

Since horseback riding is possible without specialized equipment, the absence of archaeological finds with regard to the earliest horsemanship is not unexpected.

Martin Trautmann, a bioanthropologist in Helsinki and the lead author of the study, said they studied more than 217 skeletons from 39 sites. About 150 found in the burial mounds belonged to the Yamnayans.

Diagnosing activity patterns in human skeletons is not unambiguous, he says. “There are no singular traits that indicate a certain occupation or behavior. Only in their combination, as a syndrome, symptoms provide reliable insights to understand habitual activities of the past.”

The international team decided to use a set of six diagnostic criteria established as indicators of riding activity – the so-called “horsemanship syndrome”.

To increase the diagnostic reliability, the team also used a stricter filtering method and developed a scoring system that takes into account the diagnostic value, distinctiveness and reliability of each symptom.

In all, out of the 156 adult individuals of the total sample, at least 24 (15.4%) could be classified as “possible riders”, while five Yamnaya and two later as well as two possibly earlier individuals qualify as “highly probable riders”.

“The rather high prevalence of these traits in the skeleton record, especially with respect to the overall limited completeness, show that these people were horse riding regularly,” Trautmann said.

Further research is needed to determine if the primary use of horseback riding was as a convenience in a mobile pastoral lifestyle, as a means of swift and far-ranging raids, or simply a symbol of status.

Who were the Yamnayans?

The Yamnayans were a population and culture that evolved in the Pontic-Caspian steppes at the end of the fourth millennium BCE.

By adopting the key innovation wheel and wagon, they were able to greatly enhance their mobility and exploit a huge energy resource otherwise out of reach, the sea of steppe grass away from the rivers, enabling them to keep large herds of cattle and sheep.

Thus committing to a new way of life, these pastoralists, if not the first true nomads in the world, expanded dramatically within the next two centuries to cover more than 5000 kilometers between Hungary in the west and, in the form of the so-called Afanasievo culture, Mongolia and western China in the east.

The Yamnayans are said to be the first to spread proto-Indo-European languages.

First bioanthropological evidence for Yamnaya horsemanship. Martin Trautmann et al. Science Advances, 3 Mar 2023, Vol 9, Issue 9, https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.ade2451

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

Earlier Horsetalk report 

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