|Excavations in Malomirova, Bulgaria (c) Michal Podsiadlo|
New evidence suggests that people were riding horses as much as 5000 years ago.
The origins of horseback riding are still unknown. Research suggests that horses were domesticated for their milk around 3500 to 3000 BCE. However, this does not conclusively demonstrate that they were being ridden at that time.
Now, researchers have unearthed evidence of horse riding by analysing the remains of human skeletons discovered in ancient burial mounds dating back 4500-5000 years.
The earthen burial mounds, or “kurgans”, were associated with the Yamnaya culture. The Yamnaya people were nomadic herders who primarily raised cattle and sheep, and they migrated to present-day Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Serbia from the Pontic-Caspian steppes. This region is a vast area of grasslands and semi-arid plains situated in Eastern Europe and Western Asia, spanning from the Danube River in the west to the Ural Mountains in the east, and from the Black Sea in the south to the Volga River in the north. The area encompasses parts of modern-day Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Romania, Moldova, and Georgia.
According to a study published in Science Advances, researchers have identified five Yamnaya individuals, dated from 3021 to 2501 BCE, from burial mounds located in Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary. These individuals displayed changes in bone structure and distinct pathologies that are typically associated with horseback riding. The study authors note that these individuals are the oldest known humans to be identified as riders to date.
“Horseback-riding seems to have evolved not long after the presumed domestication of horses in the western Eurasian steppes during the fourth millennium BCE. It was already rather common in members of the Yamnaya culture between 3000 and 2500 BCE”, says Volker Heyd, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Helsinki and a member of the international team, which made the discovery.
“We studied over 217 skeletons from 39 sites of which about 150 found in the burial mounds belong to the Yamnayans” explains Martin Trautmann, Bioanthropologist in Helsinki and the lead author of the study.
Deducing activity patterns from human skeletons can be a complex process. According to Trautmann, there are no specific physical traits that can definitively indicate a particular occupation or behaviour. “Only in their combination, as a syndrome, symptoms provide reliable insights to understand habitual activities of the past,” he says.
The research team used a set of six diagnostic criteria as indicators of riding activity (the so-called “horsemanship syndrome”):
1. Muscle attachment sites on pelvis and thigh bone (femur);
2. Changes in the normally round shape of the hip sockets;
3. Imprint marks caused by pressure of the acetabular rim on the neck of the femur;
4. The diameter and form of the femur shaft;
5. Vertebral degeneration caused by repeated vertical impact;
6. Damage that typically can be caused by falls, kicks or bites from horses.
Altogether, out of the 156 adult individuals of the total sample at least 24 (15.4%) can be classified as 'possible riders', while five Yamnaya and two later as well as two possibly earlier individuals qualify as 'highly probable riders'.
Overall, after analysing the skeletal remains of 156 adult individuals in the sample, the researchers were able to classify at least 24 (15.4%) as "possible riders". In addition, they identified five Yamnaya individuals, two later individuals, and two possibly earlier individuals 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 states.
“We have one intriguing burial in the series” remarks David Anthony, emeritus Professor of Hartwick College USA and also senior co-author in the study.
“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, 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 researchers recommend conducting additional research to ascertain the main purpose of horseback riding among the Yamnaya people. It is unclear whether riding was primarily used for convenience in a mobile pastoral lifestyle to enable more efficient cattle herding, as a means of swift and far-ranging raids, or simply as a symbol of social status. Further investigation could shed more light on the role of horseback riding in Yamnaya culture and its impact on their way of life.
For more details, see:
First bioanthropological evidence for Yamnaya horsemanship
Martin Trautmann, Alin Frînculeasa, Bianca Preda-Bălănică, Marta Petruneac, Marin Focşǎneanu, Stefan Alexandrov, Nadezhda Atanassova, Piotr Włodarczak, Michał Podsiadło, János Dani, Zsolt Bereczki, Tamás Hajdu, Radu Băjenaru, Adrian Ioniță, Andrei Măgureanu, Despina Măgureanu, Anca-Diana Popescu, Dorin Sârbu, Gabriel Vasile, David Anthony, Volker Heyd.
SCIENCE ADVANCES (2023) Vol 9, Issue 9