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Human Remains Show Earliest Evidence of Horseback Riding

Yamnaya grave of a horse rider discovered in Strejnicu, Romania. Thirty to 40 years old at death, the man displays skeletal traits typical of "horsemanship syndrome." | Alin Frînculeasa
Yamnaya grave of a horse rider discovered in Strejnicu, Romania. The man, 30 to 40 years old at the time of death, displays skeletal traits typical of "horsemanship syndrome." | Alin Frînculeasa

A new examination of skeletal remains from five people belonging to the ancient Yamnaya culture of Europe reveals signs of physical stress that suggest the use of horses for transportation roughly 4,500 to 5,000 years ago. Published in Science Advances, the work offers what is possibly the earliest documented evidence of horseback riding by humans.

"The discovery shows that perhaps we tend to be blinded somewhat by the civilizational light of the ancient Mideast and to overlook the cultural contributions of other regions, forgetting horseback literally was one small step for men from the steppe but a giant leap for mankind," said Martin Trautmann, the lead author of the study and bioanthropologist with Yamnaya Impact on Prehistoric Europe project at University of Helsinki, during a media briefing at the AAAS Annual Meeting.

As pastoralists in the early Bronze age, the Yamnaya people were a particularly mobile group, herding cattle across large swaths of the area. Horseback riding may have made that nomadic tradition easier for them.

Trautmann and 20 co-authors looked for and found traces of "horsemanship syndrome" — osteological markers that collectively point towards regular horseback riding — in skeletons from prehistoric burial sites situated in what is now Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. Their findings illuminate what was previously unknown about people's relationship to horses between the domestication of the animals for milk roughly 5,500 years ago and their adoption for chariot-pulling around 4,000 years ago.

"Horseback riding made the herding cattle and sheep three times more efficient. It changed the human conception of distance. And it was an aid in warfare, even if fighting was done on foot. Riding had profound human effects even its beginning, which we are just now starting to discover," said David Anthony, co-author of the research and anthropologist at Harvard University in the Hartwick College Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

A Brief Horse-Tory

Horseback riding helped ancient humans travel farther, opening up opportunities for long-distance trade and exploration. But early riders tended to either forgo equipment or use perishable material for reins, rendering relevant artifacts rare. Similarly, ancient horses left behind scant evidence of riding. When studied, their features are seldom well-preserved enough to provide helpful information.

Because of these challenges, the anthropological community has struggled to pinpoint when horseback riding first emerged. Research has proven that the animals were domesticated for milk around 3500 BCE in the Western Eurasian Steppe, including Kazakhstan and Russia, and then employed to pull chariots starting approximately 2000 BCE. Scientists have suspected that horseback riding probably appeared in the region between these two moments.

Przewalski’s horse
Modern-day Przewalski’s horses are probably most similar in appearance and size to the horses ridden by Yamnaya people. | Zoo of Helsinki

Initially, Anthony, Trautmann and colleagues were not looking for signs of horseback riding, but rather wanted to learn more about prehistoric Yamnaya people and their diets, lifestyles and culture as part of the YMPACT project. But the analysis of 217 remains from roughly 400 kurgans or burial mounds in the region began to hint that the Yamnaya might have used horses for transportation.

"When I first analyzed the skeletal remains for indicators of physical activity in general, I did not expect to find individuals with the characteristic set of stresses caused by horseback riding," said Trautmann.

Reining In The Data

After seeing some skeletal damage that could be attributed to horseback riding, Trautmann and colleagues developed a checklist of six characteristics, such as pelvic microdamage and vertebrae degeneration, to distinguish horse riders in the sample. They unearthed 24 adults, of which 14 were Yamnaya, who had three or more of these biomechanical indicators.

A second, stricter filtering of the data revealed nine men out of the 24 adults possessed at least four criteria for horsemanship wear and tear. Within those nine were five Yamnaya pastoralists with five or six of the hallmarks, from three different present-day countries. Dated 3021 to 2501 BCE, these five sets of remains represent what may be the oldest known physical evidence of horseback riding.

"Our evidence here is the first in the world so far," said Volker Heyd, a corresponding author of the international study and bioanthropologist leading the YMPACT project by the University of Helsinki. "But we are not saying it may stay for such for another couple of decades."

Notably, while the five people were not female, two people out of the original 24 possible riders were. YMACT researchers think that it could still be plausible that female riders existed in Yamnaya society. Bianca Preda-Bălănică, postdoctoral researcher in the YMPACT project and senior co-author of the study said that women's roles and other social nuances in Yamnaya society have been understudied. She underscored that in the past, the Yamnaya were seen as raiders and killers who infiltrated surrounding agrarian societies, but the new results do not support that characterization.

The group also identified an immigrant man from around 4300 BCE who had horsemanship syndrome — living long before Yamnaya riders were active. The man, found in a grave in modern Hungary, was excluded from the present study because there were no other skeletons of the same period with which to compare his remains. However, the authors note that this finding could motivate bioanthropological efforts to explore whether horseback riding evolved even earlier.

"This reminds us that horse domestication should be understood as a long process that extended back centuries before Yamnaya. Horseback riding appeared at an early point in the [domestication] process — and how early, we're just beginning to investigate," said Anthony.


[Credit for associated image: Egyptian plaque of glazed steatite showing a horse rider trampling a fallen enemy, Nineteen Dynasty Egypt. | The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.]


Abigail Eisenstadt

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