Recent Evidence Points to Neolithic People Riding Horses Earlier Than Previously Thought

“The origins of horseback riding remain elusive. Scientific studies show that horses were kept for their milk ~3500 to 3000 BCE, widely accepted as indicating domestication. However, this does not confirm them to be ridden. Equipment used by early riders is rarely preserved, and the reliability of equine dental and mandibular pathologies remains contested.

“However, horsemanship has two interacting components: the horse as mount and the human as rider. Alterations associated with riding in human skeletons therefore possibly provide the best source of information. Here, we report five Yamnaya individuals well-dated to 3021 to 2501 calibrated BCE from kurgans in Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary, displaying changes in bone morphology and distinct pathologies associated with horseback riding. These are the oldest humans identified as riders so far.”

przewalskis horse
Photo: Pixabay/MAKY_OREL

That’s the abstract from a paper published today in the online journal Science Advances regarding the skeletal remains of Neolithic people contained within 5,000-year-old burial mounds known as kurgans. It’s significant because it points to the idea that neolithic people were riding horses during their lifetime, which coincides with domestication.

The team assembled consisted of archaeologists and bioanthropologists. The Yamnaya were an early group of steppe people who lived during the Neolithic period. Scientists on the project also viewed more than 200 previously examined remains from 39 sites across southeastern Europe. What makes their finds truly interesting is that the first evidence of horse domestication is dated to around 5,500 years ago with the first horse-drawn chariots appearing 4,000 years ago.

przewalski wild horse
Photo: Pixabay/Pixel-mixer

As noted, the five Yamnaya skeletons — as well as 19 others from the larger sampling of remains — displayed signs common among horseback riders. The markers included muscle attachment sites in the legs, as well as observable changes in the shape of the hip sockets, degradation of the vertebrae from repeated up-and-down movements, and trauma indicative of things like falls, kicks, or bites from equines.

Past research on horse remains in southeastern Europe has provided insight into the type of horses our ancestors domesticated and eventually rode. “They were, of course, closer to the now-extinct wild horse type, which looked similar to Przewalski horses — so, medium-small, stocky, with broad chests and thick necks,” Martin Trautmann, one of the study’s authors, explained.

wild horse Mongolia
Photo: Pixabay/veverkolog

Among the skeletal remains, one individual — a 6,300-year-old skeleton from Hungary — presented with the earliest physical evidence of riding. That person “surprisingly showed four of the six riding pathologies, possibly indicating riding a millennium earlier than Yamnaya,” David Anthony stated in a University of Helsinki release. Anthony is an anthropologist at Hartwick College and Harvard University.

While the skeleton predates equine domestication estimates, to put things into perspective, donkeys are believed to have been domesticated some 7,000 years ago in Africa, and it’s generally accepted that civilization would not have been able to develop at the pace it did without their involvement.

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