Sunday, March 08, 2009

Horses domesticated 1000 years earlier than previously thought

This new discovery in Kazakhstan has far reaching implications for the study of migration of ancient peoples:

[Image: Roman Mosaic depicting a battle with Amazons 2nd-4th century CE from Antakya, Turkey, now part of The Louvre's permanent collection, Photo by Mary Harrsch]

"Conventional wisdom would have it that horses were domesticated in the Bronze Age, sometime around 2,000 B.C., perhaps 2,500 B.C. But what we found in this study is that we have very clear evidence of horses being domesticated as early as 3,500 B.C. in the Botai culture, which is in northern Kazakhstan," says Alan Outram, an archaeologist at Britain's University of Exeter who led the team of scientists excavating what appears to have been a horse farm maintained by the Kazakh people of the ancient Botai culture. "And it is not just that we have found that they have been domesticated for food -- but these animals also appear to have been ridden and also milked."

At the site, the archaeologists found the remains of horses' bones and teeth as well as shards of pottery. By examining these closely, they have been able to put together a picture of daily life there.

The horses' bones show the marks left by stone axes and knives used to butcher the animals for meat. That is no surprise, because for centuries before, if not millennia, men had been hunting wild horses.

But what was surprising was to find traces of horses' milk in the remains of the clay jars.

Outram says that because pottery can preserve remnants of what was stored in it, the shards revealed their secrets even after thousands of years.

"Prehistoric pottery, which isn't glazed usually, absorbs a lot of the food that is in it, it soaks into the pottery fabric," Outram says. "The fat that is in food often preserves remarkably well, over thousands of years, because it is trapped in there away from chemical attack or bacterial attack in the soil. And you are able to extract [the fat] and carry out a number of really quite complex analyses on it which indicate what species group it comes from [and] in some cases also what type of foodstuff it was."

The evidence that men were milking horses at the time is perhaps proof enough that horses were already being kept as livestock, much like goats and sheep. But the team also found clear signs that the horses may have been sufficiently tamed to be ridden as well.

"We found evidence that these particular horses had been ridden or at least harnessed," Outram says. He says wear in the horses' mouths of the type they discovered "doesn't occur through natural diet or any other natural process."

"You also get changes to the jaw itself, because as that harness is hitting against the gum in the jaw it irritates the jaw and can cause extra bone growth in that area," Outram says, "and what we had on these Botai horses was both some very clear examples of the bit wear on the teeth [and] also changes to the jaw." - More: Radio Free Europe