March 6, 2009

Archaeologists Find Early Signs Of Domesticated Horses

Humans domesticated horses as early as 5,500 years ago, according to new findings from a team of archaeologists on Friday.

The new estimate is about 1,000 years earlier than researchers has previously considered, and about 2,000 years earlier than domestic horses are known to have been in Europe.

Researchers from Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, Pa., and the universities of Exeter and Bristol in the U.K., found signs of man's earliest attempts to domesticate horses occurred during the Botai Culture of Kazakhstan.

"The domestication of horses is known to have had immense social and economic significance, advancing communications, transport, food production and warfare. Our findings indicate that horses were being domesticated about 1,000 years earlier than previously thought," said lead author Dr. Alan Outram of the University of Exeter. "This is significant because it changes our understanding of how these early societies developed."

"If it was happening this early, then you've got to think about those forces for social and economic change happening earlier too -- and it is possible that there are yet earlier sites we haven't found," Outram told Reuters.

By studying the remnants of horse bones, researchers noticed that the horses were similar in shape to Bronze Age domestic horses and different from wild horses from the same region, which suggests that the ancient culture took part in methods of selective breeding.

Using a new technique, they also noted "bit damage", which is a sign that horses were being harnessed and bridled, further suggesting that they were ridden. Researchers found traces of the use of a thong bridle on the gap between the teeth of the lower jaw.

Humans not only rode horses, they also milked them, researchers said. That claim is suggested by a lipid residue analysis as well as the discovery of traces of fats from horse milk in ancient Botai pottery, researchers wrote in the study published in Friday's edition of the journal Science.

"Having a domesticated animal that could be eaten, milked, ridden, used as a pack animal and potentially for haulage would have had a tremendous impact on any society that initiated or adopted horse herds," said Sandra Olsen, curator of anthropology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Horse's milk is still consumed in Kazakhstan, and it is often fermented to make a drink called "koumiss."


Image 2: Tell-tale signs of 'bit damage' found by researchers in Kazakhstan are evidence that horses were harnessed and may have been ridden as early as 5,500 years ago. Researchers found traces of the use of thong bridles, which are simply leather thongs draped over the gap between the teeth of a horse's lower jaw and knotted under the chin, with the trailing ends acting as the reins. This is a depiction of the use of a rawhide thong bridle on a primitive domesticated horse. The thong loops over the bar, or diastema, between the anterior and cheek teeth, and is knotted below the chin. Credit: Illustration by Sandra Olsen, Carnegie Museum of Natural History. [ more images ]


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