Physical Address

304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124

Earliest evidence of horseback riding found in ‘eastern cowboys’

About 5300 years ago, people from the steppes of modern-day Russia and Ukraine expanded rapidly across Eurasia. Within a few centuries these “Yamnaya” left a lasting genetic mark on populations from central Europe to the Caspian Sea. Today, archaeologists call them “eastern cowboys” for their livestock herding and highly mobile lifestyle.

But one part of the classic cowboy picture was missing: horseback riding. Although cattle bones and sturdy wagons have been found in Yamnaya sites, horse bones are scarce, and most archaeologists assumed people did not start to ride horses until at least 1000 years later.

In a new study, presented today at the annual meeting of AAAS (which publishes Science) in Washington, D.C., and published in Science Advances, researchers say they’ve found the earliest evidence of horseback riding not in the bones of ancient horses, but in their Yamnaya riders. “Everyone has focused on horse remains to get an idea of early horse riding,” says co-author and University of Helsinki archaeologist Volker Heyd. “Our approach was to look at humans.”

Genetic and other evidence suggests horses were domesticated as early as 3500 B.C.E. Yet the earliest mentions of riding in historical sources or pictorial evidence date from more than 2000 years later, long after the Yamnaya spread across the steppes. The eastern cowboys, many archaeologists thought, were content to walk alongside their herds of cattle.

Yamnaya grave mounds dot the steppes of Eurasia, usually containing the body of one man.Michał Podsiadło

As part of a research project on the Yamnaya expansion, Martin Trautmann, an anthropologist at Helsinki, and colleagues looked at more than 50 skeletons excavated from grave mounds in Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria—the western frontier of Yamnaya expansion. The Yamnaya were well-fed, healthy, and tall; the chemical composition of their bones showed protein-rich diets consistent with herding cattle and sheep. But the skeletons showed signs of distinctive wear and tear.

Many had compression of the vertebrae, which can result from time spent absorbing jarring bumps while seated. They also showed thick spots on the thigh bone consistent with lots of time spent in a crouched position. Healed injuries—broken collarbones, fractured foot bones, and cracked vertebrae—matched the kinds of damage a kicking horse might inflict, or what sports medicine doctors today see in riders thrown from their horses.

Searching for an explanation, Trautmann compared the injuries with those seen in later populations where skeletons were buried with riding equipment, horses, or both—strong circumstantial evidence for horseback riding. Of the 50 Yamnaya skeletons he looked at, almost half had changes that were seen in later horse riders.

One Yamnaya man, buried around 2700 B.C.E. in what is today Romania, had all the bone alterations routinely seen in horse riders, plus spinal damage from a hard fall “on his backside,” the authors write. “In a medieval population, it would have been clear this guy was a horse rider,” Trautmann says. “As so often in archaeology, the coolest finds are the ones you’re not looking for.”

Some other archaeologists are reining in their enthusiasm, however. Without horse bones to inspect for telltale signs of skeletal damage from riding, they say, there’s no reliable way to corroborate what the human bones suggest.

“They’re strongly overinterpreting an interesting pattern,” says University of Colorado (CU), Boulder, zooarchaeologist William Taylor. “In isolation, human skeletal data doesn’t have the power to distinguish horse riding from other activity patterns.”

An Egyptian graffito of goddess Astarte on horseback
The earliest depictions of horse riding, such as this Egyptian graffito of the goddess Astarte, appear nearly 1500 years after the Yamnaya expansion.S. Steiß/Berlin

And although archaeologists have found Yamnaya wagons, oxen, and yokes, riding equipment—such as bridles or saddles—is missing entirely. “In terms of trying to identify people riding horses, I think they’ve done the best job possible bioarchaeologically,” says Arizona State University, Tempe, bioarchaeologist Jane Buikstra. “That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, or convincing, ultimately.”

The paper’s authors argue the alterations seen in human bones are powerful circumstantial evidence, especially given hints that the Yamnaya milked horses and the genetic evidence for horse domestication on the Pontic steppe not long after the time of the Yamnaya expansion. The lack of equipment alone “doesn’t exclude the possibility of horse riding,” Trautmann says. “It’s possible to be very active on a horse without specialized gear.” Tack made of perishable leather and cloth, meanwhile, might have decomposed long ago, he argues.

More samples—including horse bones with signs of riding, such as bit marks or spinal damage from the weight of a rider—would help make the case, says CU bioarchaeologist Lauren Hosek. What the group has found “is really interesting,” she says. “But there’s a lot more work to be done when the stakes are as high as the earliest horse riding.”

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.