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Horse Articles :: History of Horse Domestication

History of Horse Domestication

Trying to pin down the moment at which horse and human history were first entwined is like trying to name the inventor of the wheel. The domesticated horse looms so large in human culture, and casts its shadow from so far back in time, that we may never know much about its origins.

We can say that the horse's first confirmed appearance in human culture is a dramatic one: the still-haunting Paleolithic cave art of 30,000 BCE, of the sort found in places such as Lascaux, France (though the estimated date for Lascaux's paintings is closer to 16,000 years old). But these were wild horses, hunted in all likelihood for meat.

The next clear picture we have - no pun intended - comes from evidence of chariot burials around 2000 BCE, though evidence is mounting to suggest a date slightly further back: in the Eurasian steppes of 4000 BCE.

In that rough, cold, open environment (centered on what is now Ukraine), archaeologists find evidence of the use of bits in the 6000-year-old remains of horse teeth. (Other evidence from this era and area includes the appearance of horse bones in human graves - apparently cowboys weren't the first to insist on being buried with their loyal steeds.)

A bit later in the archaeological record - 2500-2000 BCE, in Hungary - we find remains of horses whose size, as well as the range of physical variation between each other, attest to the likelihood that horse breeding and breaking was already affecting the species' evolution.

By this point in history, evidence of widespread domestication of horses already abounds: breastplate harnesses, an expansion in the horse's geographic area (perhaps suggesting human adoption of the animals), references to horseback writing in ancient Mesopotamian documents, and, less appetizingly, layers of concentrated horse poop (suggesting the presence of corrals, unless ancient wild horses naturally observed the same group-bathroom-use practices as contemporary American women visiting dance clubs).

Though much of this evidence arises over a large area in a small space of time, suggesting a picture of many contemporaneous but unrelated breakthroughs in horse domestication rather than one culture "discovering" the horse's usefulness and teaching this secret to others, it's still possible that one particular culture got there, so to speak, before all others.

It may have been the Botai culture of Kazhakstan (3500-3000 BCE) - their garbage deposits contain a great many more horse bones than do those of any previous known culture, suggesting that they had more success in hunting wild horses for food, which would seemingly require rudimentary transportation technology, such as, well, horses to ride! On the other hand, say some archaeologists, they may have done their hunting on foot.

Another candidate may be the people who inhabited the coastal steppes of Ukraine north of the Danube delta; these folks' graves include beads made of horses' teeth, plus polished stone mace-heads sculpted into the shape of horse heads. (But, as we know already from those gorgeous Lascaux cave paintings, the use of horses as symbols of grace, beauty, power, probably predates their domestication by a healthy distance.)

Finally, there are the Khvalynsk people of the Volga region of present-day Russia, whose graves yield evidence of ritual sacrifices of horses (wild or not?) as long ago as 4800-4400 BCE. (Some even suggest that the Botai learned what they knew from neighboring Khvalynsk.)

Another intriguing scenario: prehistoric horses were once widespread in modern-day North America, but they all died out around 8000-9000 BCE. The modern horse is entirely descended from those ancient pre-horse species who crossed from American to Eurasia before the last Ice Age, and, given that the same environmental stressors thought to have killed off the American horse were also felt, to a lesser extent, in Eurasia, it's possible that horses would have died off there too had they not been domesticated.

An especially ironic possibility, this, especially in light of another, unrelated theory: that the North American horse died as a direct result of humanity's emergence - they were hunted to death. Perhaps humanity took away with one hand and gave with another.

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