Skip to main content

Web Content Display Web Content Display

JU Research

Breadcrumb Breadcrumb

Web Content Display Web Content Display

Horse domestication – the latest findings

Horse domestication – the latest findings

The Nature Journal website has published the article “The origins and spread of domestic horses from the Western Eurasian steppes”, presenting the results of the latest genetic research into Eurasian fossil horse populations from the period between around 50,000 to 200 BC. Prof. Marek Nowak from the JU Institute of Archaeology is part of the international research group whose long time cooperation has led to this publication.

What can be surprising, is that the time, place and mechanisms of domestication of horses - these beautiful, friendly and very beneficial animals, closely linked to human culture from its very beginning - have been hard to determine. Archaeologists and archaeozoologists have long known that the horse was not domesticated at the dawn of Neolithic, unlike such animals as cows, sheep, goats or pigs, kept by humans in the Middle East as early as the 9th or 8th millennium BC.

The Eurasian steppe has usually been identified as the area where the horse was first domesticated, without specifying any particular region. Determining the date of horse domestication has proved even more difficult, with some researchers pointing to as early as the 5th millennium BC and others to as late as the 3rd millennium BC. Consequently, there has been very diverse views regarding the spread of domestic horse use, based on inconclusive archaeozoological data. For instance, its presence in Polish lands has been dated to as early as the Middle Neolithic, that is, to the 4th millennium BC.

A research breakthrough in the abovementioned area has occurred during the last 20 years. An intensification of archaeological research in Eurasian steppes led to the identification of Botai site (and culture) in North Kazakhstan as the alleged place of the earliest domestication of horses around the mid-4th millennium BC. From this area the ability to utilise horses for various purposes, including horseback riding, has gradually spread to other regions. According to this conception, it would reach Polish lands in the first half of the 3rd millennium BC. This version seemed to be supported by some genetic data, coming from DNA analyses of relatively few horse skeletons from Western Eurasia. On the other hand, some data seemed to disprove this conception. To put it simply, there was something wrong about it.

It is only recently that a much larger “load” of data, originating from DNA analysis of bones of 264 horses from a very vast area, spanning from north-east Siberia to the Iberian Peninsula, discussed in the article, contributed to a much more consistent explanation of the horse domestication problem.

In the light of these genetic data, processed and compared (also with contemporary horses) with the help of complex statistical procedures and interpreted in accordance with historical and archaeological premises, it turned out that horse populations known from Palaeolithic sites, and - most importantly – Neolithic sites older than the mid-3rd millennium BC, have genetically almost nothing in common with contemporary horse populations. The genetic component (referred to as DOM2) characteristic of contemporary Eurasian horses fully developed as late as the 3dr quarter of the 3rd millennium BC, between the lower Volga and lower Don rivers, although its earliest origins date back to a much earlier period, perhaps even in the 2nd half of the fourth millennium BC.

In any case, it is from this area that a relatively fast expansion of domestic horse in virtually all directions started around 2200-2000 BC. In fact, this was both the expansion (undoubtedly often a violent one) of communities using domestic horses and the spread of know-how related to these animals. It is plausible that in the latter case, a domestic horse played an important part as an exchange commodity and status symbol of bronze-age elite. All these processes led to a radical replacement of former horse populations with a relatively genetically homogenous population, characterised by the aforementioned DOM2 component.

What is more, it was also possible to identify genes that could be linked to the behavioural adaptation of DOM2 horses to be used as steeds. A number of archaeological and historical sources (including the depictions of wheeled carts) also indicate that from a certain moment of this expansion these animals started to be used as draught horses. Consequently, it seems highly probable that DOM2 horses were already domesticated animals. As already mentioned, in Eurasia they replaced horses of other genetic makeup, which probably had not yet been domesticated. Assuming that the hypothesis about horse domestication in Botai is true, it should be definitely regarded as a local development, without any significant impact on neighbouring regions. What’s interesting is that Przewalski’s horses descended, after some genetic perturbations, from Botai ancestors, so, in a sense, they could be considered feral horses.  

The above described scenario means that the thesis so far presented in archaeological and archaeogenetic literature, assuming the expansion (or even invasion) of nomadic peoples, using horses as a means of fast transport, from Volga-Ural steppes, across Black Sea steppes, to Central Europe in the late 4th and early 3rd millennium BC is no longer valid as far as horses are concerned. Domestic horses can’t have been present in Central Europe before the close of the 3rd millennium BC, that is, before the early Bronze Age.

The research discussed in the article also solved the problem of the origins of tarpan, also known as the Eurasian wild horse. The obtained genetic data indicate that the original breed, extinct at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries AD, was a result of cross-breeding between “older” European horses without DOM2 and horses already closely related to DOM2, which means that it must have emerged no earlier that the turn of the 3rd and 2nd millennium BC.

 

Dr hab. Marek Nowak prof. UJ

JU Institute of Archaeology

 

Original text: www.nauka.uj.edu.pl

Link to Nature Journal article: “The origins and spread of domestic horses from the Western Eurasian steppes”   

Recommended
An extraordinary butterfly discovered hiding in plain sight

An extraordinary butterfly discovered hiding in plain sight

Night shift, or when pesticides are harmful

Night shift, or when pesticides are harmful

The Jagiellonian University featured in the QS World University Ranking 2025

The Jagiellonian University featured in the QS World University Ranking 2025

JU delegation takes part in Coimbra Group General Assembly

JU delegation takes part in Coimbra Group General Assembly