Humans were removing horses’ teeth to relieve their pain over 3,000 years ago, according to scientists.
A team of scholars, led by William Taylor of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, examined horse remains from an ancient pastoral culture which roamed the steppes of Mongolia and eastern Eurasia between 1300 to 700 BC.
|Horses congregate near a deer stone site in Bayankhongor, in central Mongolia's Khangai mountains. (c) William Taylor|
The Deer Stone-Khirigsuur Culture is named after the standing stones (‘deer stones’ - often decorated with images of deer) and burial mounds (khirigsuurs) it built across the Mongolian Steppe. These sites were used for ritual burial of hundreds – maybe thousands – of domestic horses.
Through careful study of skeletal remains from these burials, Taylor and colleagues found that Deer Stone-Khirigsuur people began using veterinary dental procedures to remove baby teeth that would have caused young horses pain or difficulty with feeding. In particular, they found evidence of attempts to remove temporary central incisor teeth that had not erupted correctly.
These findings provide the earliest directly dated evidence for veterinary dentistry. They suggest that innovations in equine care by nomadic peoples c 1150 BC allowed horses to be used for increasingly sophisticated mounted riding and warfare.
Drawing on insights from his Mongolian colleagues, Jamsranjav Bayarsaikhan and Tumurbaatar Tuvshinjargal of the National Museum of Mongolia, Taylor argues that the development of horseback riding and a horse-based pastoral economy was a key driver for the invention of equine veterinary care.
The incorporation of bronze and metal mouthpieces for riding spread into eastern Eurasia during the early first millennium BC. It gave riders more control over horses and enabled them to be used for new purposes – especially warfare.
But using metal to control horses brought with it new problems – such as painful interactions with the “wolf tooth” - the vestigial first premolar tooth present in some animals. Dr Taylor and his colleagues found that as herders began to use metal bits they also developed a method for extracting the problematic “wolf tooth”. The first evidence they identified for wolf tooth removal dated to about 750BC.
"We may think of veterinary care as kind of a Western science," Taylor says, "but herders in Mongolia today practice relatively sophisticated procedures using very simple equipment. The results of our study show that a careful understanding of horse anatomy and a tradition of care was first developed, not in the sedentary civilizations of China or the Mediterranean, but centuries earlier, among the nomadic people whose livelihood depended on the well-being of their horses."
Co-author Dr Nicole Boivin, director of the Department of Archaeology at the Max Planck Institute, commented: “In many ways, the movements of horses and horse-mounted peoples during the first millennium BC reshaped the cultural and biological landscapes of Eurasia. Dr Taylor’s study shows veterinary dentistry – developed by Inner Asian herders – may have been a key factor that helped to stimulate the spread of people, ideas, and organisms between East and West.”
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WTT Taylor and others.
PNAS July 17, 2018. 115 (29) E6707-E6715