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25th June 2009

Researches at the University of Exeter and Bristol, have managed to trace the origins of horse domestication back to the Botai Culture of Kazakhstan around 5500 years ago, that is 1000 years earlier than first thought. The findings were based on extensive archaeological fieldwork, followed by analysis using new techniques. The size of their limb bones where found to differ with breed and different physical activity. Domesticated horses will tend to have longer and thinner legs. The team analysing the ancient horse bones led by Dr Alan Outram of the University of Exeter, found the bones from the Botai settlement were more like those of modern horses than the wild horses that were present at the time. The research team also looked at damage to teeth and jaws that would have been caused by horses being harnessed or bridled. There was evidence particualarly on the lower first cheek tooth which may have been the result of contact with a bit.

The Bristol researchers led by Professor Richard Evershed, developed a method to detect traces of fat from horse milk in the Bottai pottery. Mares milk is still drunk in some areas in Kazakhstan and can be fermented into an alcoholic drink called ‘koumis’. This study shows that koumis dates back to the very earliest horse herders. Identification of mares’ milk in pottery provides convincing evidence of horse domestication.  It would have been unlikely that the mares’ milk would have been collected if the horses were not domesticated.

Dr Alan Outram said: “The  domestication of horses is known to have had immense social and economic significance, advancing communications, transport, food production and warfare. Our findings indicate that horses were being domesticated about 1000 years earlier than previously thought. This is significant because it changes our understanding of how those early societies developed”.

The steppes, east of the Ural Mountains in Northern Kazakhstan are known to have been a prime habitat for wild horses thousands of years ago. Horses were commonly hunted. This may have set the scene for horse domestication by providing indigenous cultures with access to wild herds and an opportunity to gain intimate knowledge of equine behaviour.

For more details see:

Earliest horse harnessing and milking in the Eneolithic of Prehistoric Eurasia.
AK Outram, N Stear, R Bendrey, S Olsen, A Kasparov, D Chivall, V Zaibert, N Thorne, R Evershed.
Science (2009) 323, 1332-1335