First evidence of horseback riding is 5,000 years old

WASHINGTON (AP) — Archaeologists have found the earliest direct evidence of horseback riding — an innovation that would change history — in 5,000-year-old human skeletons in central Europe.

“When you get on a horse and ride it fast, it’s exciting — I’m sure ancient people felt the same way,” said David Anthony, a Hartwick College archaeologist and co-author of the study. “Horseback riding was the fastest thing a man could do before the railroads.”

Researchers analyzed more than 200 Bronze Age skeletal remains in museum collections in Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Hungary and the Czech Republic to look for signs of what co-author and anthropologist Martin Trautmann of the University of Helsinki called “riders-riders.” syndrome”. Fairy tale markings suggesting a person was likely to have ridden an animal, including distinctive wear marks on hip sockets, femurs and pelvis.

“You can read bones like biographies,” says Trautmann, who previously studied similar wear patterns on skeletons from later eras, when horseback riding is firmly entrenched in the historical record.

Focusing on human skeletons — which are easier to obtain than horse bones in burial grounds and museums — the researchers identified five likely horsemen who lived around 4,500 to 5,000 years ago and belonged to a Bronze Age people called the Yamnaya.

“There is previous evidence of horse harnessing and milking, but this is the earliest direct evidence of horseback riding yet,” said University of Exeter archaeologist Alan Outram, who was not involved in the research but praised the approach.

The study was published in the journal Science Advances on Friday.

The domestication of wild horses on the plains of Eurasia was a process, not a one-off event, the researchers say.

Archaeologists have found evidence of humans consuming mare’s milk in tooth residue more than 5,000 years ago, and evidence of horses being controlled by harnesses and bits, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the horses were ridden.

Known for their distinctive burial mounds, the Yamnaya culture originated in what is now part of Ukraine and western Russia, an area known as the Pontic-Caspian Steppe. The horses they kept differed from modern horses — likely more easily startled and less tolerant of humans — although they may have been the immediate genetic ancestors of modern horses, which emerged a few centuries later, the researchers say.

The Yamnaya are most significant because of their dramatic spread across Eurasia in just a few generations – moving westward into Hungary and eastward into Mongolia, said archaeologist and co-author Volker Heyd of the University of Helsinki.

“The spread of the Indo-European languages ​​is linked to their movement, and they reshaped the genetic makeup of Europe,” he said.

Her relationship with horses may have partly made this breathtaking movement possible, the researchers suspect. “Horses expand the concept of distance — they begin to see reachable places that were previously unreachable,” said co-author Anthony, the Hartwick College archaeologist.

That doesn’t mean the Yamnaya people were warriors on horseback, since the horses they rode were probably too shy for stressful battlefield situations, he said. But horses may have enabled the Yamnaya to communicate more effectively, form alliances, and manage the cattle herds central to their economy.

Since only a small percentage of the skeletons examined clearly displayed all six traits of horseback riding, “it seems that a minority of people were horseback riders at the time — this doesn’t suggest that an entire society was built on horseback riding,” said molecular archaeologist Ludovic Orlando, who is based at the Toulouse Center for Anthropobiology and Genomics in France and was not involved in the research.

Still, he commended the work for helping to better determine the potential origin of horseback riding.

“This is about the origins of something that has impacted human history like few other things have,” Orlando said.


Follow Christina Larson on Twitter at @larsonchristina.


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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