A team of researchers has found the earliest evidence of people riding horses by studying the remains of human skeletons found in burial mounds west of the Black Sea, called kurgans, dating to between 4,500 and 5,000 years ago.
The study, published Thursday in the journal Science Advances, indicates that these earthen burial mounds belonged to the Yamnayans culture, whose inhabitants had migrated from the Pontic-Caspian steppes to find greener pastures in what is now Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Serbia.
The first to ride a horse
The Yamnayans were nomadic herders who travelled with cattle and sheep and are now believed to have travelled on horseback. “Equestrianism appears to have evolved shortly after the supposed domestication of horses in the western Eurasian steppes,” says Volker Heyd, a professor of archaeology at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and a member of the international team that made the discovery.
These regions west of the Black Sea constitute a contact zone where nomadic herding groups of the Yamnayans culture first encountered long-established farming communities with Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic traditions. For decades, the expansion of people from the steppe into southeastern Europe during the Early Bronze Age was explained as a violent invasion.
With ancient DNA research, the differences between these eastern immigrants and members of local societies became even more pronounced.
“Our research is now beginning to provide a more nuanced picture of their interactions. For example, findings of physical violence as expected are virtually non-existent in the skeletal record thus far. We also began to understand the complex exchange processes in material culture and funeral customs between newcomers and locals in the 200 years after their first contact,” says Bianca Preda-Balanica, also from the University of Helsinki.
The use of animals for transport, particularly the horse, marked a turning point in the history of humanity. The considerable gain in mobility and distance had profound effects on land use, trade, and warfare.
Current research has focused primarily on horses. However, assembling a team involves an interplay of two components, and human remains are available in greater numbers and in a more complete state than early horse remains.
Since horseback riding is possible without specialized equipment, the absence of archaeological finds regarding older riding is not unexpected.
“We studied more than 217 skeletons from 39 sites, of which about 150 found in the burial mounds belong to the Yamnayans. The diagnosis of activity patterns in human skeletons is not unequivocal. There are no unique traits that indicate a certain occupation or behaviour. Only in their combination, do the symptoms offer reliable information to understand the habitual activities of the past”, explains Martin Trautmann, a bioanthropologist at the University of Helsinki.
Impression marks caused by pressure
The researchers used six diagnostic criteria as indicators of equestrian activity: muscle attachment sites on the pelvis and femur, changes in the normally round shape of the hip sockets, impression marks caused by pressure from the acetabular rim on the neck of the femur, the diameter and shape of the femoral shaft, vertebral degeneration caused by repeated vertical impact, and trauma that can typically be caused by falls, kicks, or horse bites.
To increase diagnostic reliability, the team also used a more stringent filtering method and developed a scoring system that takes into account the diagnostic value, distinctiveness, and reliability of each symptom.
In total, of the 156 adult individuals in the total sample, at least 24 (15.4%) can be classified as “possible riders”, while five Yamnayans and two later, as well as two possibly earlier individuals, are listed as ” very probable riders”.
“The fairly high prevalence of these traits in the skeletal record, especially with regard to general limited integrity, shows that these people rode horses regularly,” says Trautmann.
Who were the Yamnayans?
The Yamnaya (also spelled Yamna or Yamnayan) were a prehistoric people who lived in the steppe region of modern-day Russia and Ukraine during the Copper Age and the Bronze Age (approximately 3300–2000 BCE). They are also known as the Pit Grave Culture, as they are known for burying their dead in deep pits or graves.
The Yamnaya culture is known for their distinctive burials, which often included burial mounds, wagons, and sacrificed animals. They were skilled horse riders and used their horses for transportation and for warfare.
The Yamnaya people are also thought to have been among the first to domesticate horses, which allowed them to travel long distances and spread their culture and language across Eurasia.
Thus committing to a new way of life, these shepherds, if not the first true nomads in the world, expanded dramatically in the next two centuries to cover more than 5,000 kilometers between Hungary in the West and, in the form of the so-called Agrasiev culture, Mongolia and western China in the East.
After having buried their dead in graves under large mounds, called Kurgans, it is said that the Yamnayans were the first to spread the proto-Indo-European languages.
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