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Scientists may have identified the world’s first horse riders

People of the Yamnayan culture originated around the fourth millennium BCE in the area from the northern shores of the Black Sea to the northern area around the Caspian Sea, a region known as the Pontic-Caspian steppes. At some point they migrated westward from there to find greener pastures in what are today´s countries of Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Serbia. They were nomadic pastoralists and hunters who buried their dead in pits covered by large mounds known as kurgans. 

Typical pit-graves attributed to the Yamnaya and dated at 4500-5000 years old are not uncommon on the Eastern European steppes and excavation of these sites has provided skeletal evidence, as well as grave goods, hinting at the physical and cultural nature of these people. They used wagons, both two- and four-wheeled, for transport, and in some instances these wagons have been unearthed in the burial pits alongside the skeletal remains of the likely owners. 

Scientists from the University of Helsinki have recently undertaken an analysis of the skeletons of more than 150 presumed Yamnayan people in Eastern Europe, with the specific aim of determining whether perhaps these nomadic herders were also horseback riders. Horses had been domesticated on the western Eurasian steppes during the fourth millennium BCE, and the pit-graves often contained statues or skeletal remains of horses alongside the deceased Yamnayan, possibly indicating a close relationship between man and horse. However, no evidence existed that proved the Yamnayans ever rode horses.

Since horseback riding is possible without any specialized equipment that would have survived in archaeological deposits, it is not easy to determine if, or exactly when, people began to ride these animals. Current research has focused largely on the horses – their origins, genetic relationships and when they were first domesticated. However, human remains are available in larger numbers and in more complete condition than early horse remains, and the researchers hypothesized it would be possible to determine from the Yamnayan skeletons whether they were indeed riding horses. 

“We studied over 217 skeletons from 39 sites of which about 150 found in the burial mounds belong to the Yamnayans. Diagnosing activity patterns in human skeletons is not unambiguous. There are no singular traits that indicate a certain occupation or behavior. Only in their combination, as a syndrome, symptoms provide reliable insights to understand habitual activities of the past,” explains study lead author Martin Trautmann.

The international team decided to use a set of six diagnostic criteria established as physical indicators of riding activity (the so-called “horsemanship syndrome”):

1. Muscle attachment sites on pelvis and thigh bone (femur).

2. Changes in the normally round shape of the hip sockets.

3. Imprint marks caused by pressure of the acetabular rim on the neck of the femur.

4. The diameter and form of the femur shaft.

5. Vertebral degeneration caused by repeated vertical impact.

6. Traumata that typically can be caused by falls, kicks or bites from horses.

In addition, the researchers also used a strict filtering method to increase the diagnostic reliability of the results. They developed a scoring system that took into account the diagnostic value, distinctiveness and reliability of each symptom. 

The findings, published in the journal Science Advances, show that out of the 156 adult individuals, at least 24 (15.4 percent) can be classified as “possible riders,” while five Yamnaya and two later, as well as two possibly earlier, individuals qualify as “highly probable riders.”

“The rather high prevalence of these traits in the skeleton record, especially with respect to the overall limited completeness, shows that these people were horse riding regularly,” Trautmann states.

“Horseback-riding seems to have evolved not long after the presumed domestication of horses in the western Eurasian steppes during the fourth millennium BCE. It was already rather common in members of the Yamnaya culture between 3000 and 2500 BCE,” says study co-author Professor Volker Heyd, a member of the international team that made the discovery.

The use of animals for transport, in particular the horse, marked a turning point in human history. The considerable gain in mobility and distance had profound effects on land use, trade, and warfare. In fact, the Yamayans spread very rapidly from their area of origin, both to the west and east. In the west they encountered the long-established farmer communities of Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic traditions. For decades, this meeting was considered to have been violent in nature, but research on ancient DNA has now painted a more complex picture of admixture.

“Our research is now beginning to provide a more nuanced picture of their interactions. For example, findings of physical violence as were expected are practically non-existent in the skeletal record so far. We also start understanding the complex exchange processes in material culture and burial customs between newcomers and locals in the 200 years after their first contact,” explains study co-author Bianca Preda-Bălănică.

The researchers acknowledge that further studies are needed to determine whether horses were being ridden to make herding of livestock more convenient, to allow swift and far-ranging raids to be conducted, or as a symbol of status. And one additional finding opens the door to even more exciting speculation …

“We have one intriguing burial in the series,” remarks study senior author Professor David Anthony. “A [very early] grave dated about 4300 BCE at Csongrad-Kettöshalom in Hungary, long suspected from its pose and artefacts to have been an immigrant from the steppes, surprisingly showed four of the six riding pathologies, possibly indicating riding a millennium earlier than the Yamnaya.”

“An isolated case cannot support a firm conclusion, but in Neolithic cemeteries of this era in the steppes, horse remains were occasionally placed in human graves with those of cattle and sheep, and stone maces were carved into the shape of horse heads. Clearly, we need to apply this method [of analysis] to even older collections.”

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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