04 May 2009

More on Early Horse Domestication

Science Daily has several more articles on archaeological discoveries in the Ponto-Caspian region, steppe country now including some of Russia, as well as the countries of Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Romania. The area is unsurprising considering the strength of horse culture in this area over the centuries.

But "Archaeologists Find Earliest Known Domestic Horses: Harnessed and Milked" pushes the history of the domesticated horse back quite a bit:
The researchers have traced the origins of horse domestication back to the Botai Culture of Kazakhstan circa 5,500 years ago. This is about 1,000 years earlier than thought and about 2,000 years earlier than domestic horses are known to have been in Europe.

I did giggle in horror a bit when I saw the illustration of an animal that looks like a Przewalski horse with a leather loop in its mouth. The current incarnations of these creatures are about as intractable as any wild animal can get. My neighbor, a former zoo worker and fine horsewoman, said the stallions are especially fierce. I wonder if the people of the steppes actually did breed domesticated horses starting with this stock:

I wonder if they've gotten DNA to support the domestication of these creatures. I'm just skimming the articles, and I'm no archaelogist, but I wonder if other varieties of equids were lurking around. Right now though, the only support I have for this from "Mystery Of Horse Domestication Solved?," another Science Daily article:

Based on ancient DNA spanning the time between the Late Pleistocene and the Middle Ages, targeting nuclear genes responsible for coat colorations allows to shed light on the timing and place of horse domestication. Furthermore the study demonstrates how rapid the number of colorations increased as one result of the domestication. As well, it shows very clearly that the huge variability of coloration in domestic horses which can be observed today is a result of selective breeding by ancient farmers.

Of course, people have reverse engineered horses to reconstruct the ancient Przewalski and get back their consistent coloration.

If ancient horsemen started with this little equid, I'm in awe of them. The Kazakhs are still amongst the toughest horsemen in the world, but I wonder how many would-be horsemen died and how many generations of equids were eaten before one person stayed on and the equid agreed to be ridden.

A bit more on the Przewalski here.