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Horse-drawn chariot carved in the Airavatesvara Temple in Darasuram

The least ancient, but most persuasive, evidence of domestication comes from sites

Examples include horse remains interred in human graves; changes in the ages and sexes of the horses killed by humans; the appearance of horse corrals; equipment such as bits or other types of horse tack; horses interred with equipment intended for use by horses, such as chariots; and depictions of horses used for riding, driving, draught work, or symbols of human power.

Few of these categories, taken alone, provide irrefutable evidence of domestication, but the cumulative evidence becomes increasingly more persuasive.

The least ancient, but most persuasive, evidence of domestication comes from sites where horse leg bones and skulls, probably originally attached to hides, were interred with the remains of chariots in at least 16 graves of the Sintashta and Petrovka cultures. These were located in the steppes southeast of the Ural Mountains, between the upper Ural and upper Tobol Rivers, a region today divided between southern Russia and northern Kazakhstan. Petrovka was a little later than and probably grew out of Sintashta, and the two complexes together spanned about 2100–1700 BCE.[5][30] A few of these graves contained the remains of as many as eight sacrificed horses placed in, above, and beside the grave.

In all of the dated chariot graves, the heads and hooves of a pair of horses were placed in a grave that once contained a chariot. Evidence of chariots in these graves was inferred from the impressions of two spoked wheels set in grave floors 1.2–1.6m apart; in most cases the rest of the vehicle left no trace. In addition, a pair of disk-shaped antler "cheekpieces," an ancient predecessor to a modern bit shank or bit ring, were placed in pairs beside each horse head-and-hoof sacrifice. The inner faces of the disks had protruding prongs or studs that would have pressed against the horse's lips when the reins were pulled on the opposite side. Studded cheekpieces were a new and fairly severe kind of control device that appeared simultaneously with chariots.

All of the dated chariot graves contained wheel impressions, horse bones, weapons (arrow and javelin points, axes, daggers, or stone mace-heads), human skeletal remains, and cheekpieces. Because they were buried in teams of two with chariots and studded cheekpieces, the evidence is extremely persuasive that these steppe horses of 2100–1700 BCE were domesticated. Shortly after the period of these burials, the expansion of the domestic horse throughout Europe was little short of explos

In all of the dated chariot graves, the heads and hooves of a pair of horses were placed in a grave that once contained a chariot. Evidence of chariots in these graves was inferred from the impressions of two spoked wheels set in grave floors 1.2–1.6m apart; in most cases the rest of the vehicle left no trace. In addition, a pair of disk-shaped antler "cheekpieces," an ancient predecessor to a modern bit shank or bit ring, were placed in pairs beside each horse head-and-hoof sacrifice. The inner faces of the disks had protruding prongs or studs that would have pressed against the horse's lips when the reins were pulled on the opposite side. Studded cheekpieces were a new and fairly severe kind of control device that appeared simultaneously with chariots.

All of the dated chariot graves contained wheel impressions, horse bones, weapons (arrow and javelin points, axes, daggers, or stone mace-heads), human skeletal remains, and cheekpieces. Because they were buried in teams of two with chariots and studded cheekpieces, the evidence is extremely persuasive that these steppe horses of 2100–1700 BCE were domesticated. Shortly after the period of these burials, the expansion of the domestic horse throughout Europe was little short of explosive. In the space of possibly 500 years, there is evidence of horse-drawn chariots in Greece, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. By another 500 years, the horse-drawn chariot had spread to China.

Some researchers do not consider an animal to be "domesticated" until it exhibits physical changes consistent with selective breeding, or at least having been born and raised entirely in captivity. Until that point, they classify captive animals as merely "tamed". Those who hold to this theory of domestication point to a change in skeletal measurements detected among horse bones recovered from middens dated about 2500 BCE in eastern Hungary in Bell-Beaker sites, and in later Bronze Age sites in the Russian steppes, Spain, and Eastern Europe.[6][31] Horse bones from these contexts exhibited an increase in variability, thought to reflect the survival under human care of both larger and smaller individuals than appeared in the wild; and a decrease in average size, thought to reflect penning and restriction in diet. Horse populations that showed this combination of skeletal changes probably were domesticated. Most evidence suggests that horses were increasingly controlled by humans after about 2500 BCE. However, more recently there have been skeletal remains found at a site in Kazakhstan which display the smaller, more slender limbs characteristic of corralled animals, dated to 3500 BCE.[3]

Botai culture

Some of the most intriguing evidence of early domestication comes

Some of the most intriguing evidence of early domestication comes from the Botai culture, found in northern Kazakhstan. The Botai culture was a culture of foragers who seem to have adopted horseback riding in order to hunt the abundant wild horses of northern Kazakhstan between 3500–3000 BCE.[32][33] Botai sites had no cattle or sheep bones; the only domesticated animals, in addition to horses, were dogs. Botai settlements in this period contained between 50–150 pit houses. Garbage deposits contained tens to hundreds of thousands of discarded animal bones, 65% to 99% of which had come from horses. Also, there has been evidence found of horse milking at these sites, with horse milk fats soaked into pottery shards dating to 3500 BCE.[3] Earlier hunter-gatherers who lived in the same region had not hunted wild horses with such success, and lived for millennia in smaller, more shifting settlements, often containing less than 200 wild animal bones.

Entire herds of horses were slaughtered by the Botai hunters, apparently in hunting drives. The adoption of horseback riding might explain the emergence of specialized horse-hunting techniques and larger, more permanent settlements. Domesticated horses could have been adopted from neighboring herding societies in the steppes we

Entire herds of horses were slaughtered by the Botai hunters, apparently in hunting drives. The adoption of horseback riding might explain the emergence of specialized horse-hunting techniques and larger, more permanent settlements. Domesticated horses could have been adopted from neighboring herding societies in the steppes west of the Ural Mountains, where the Khvalynsk culture had herds of cattle and sheep, and perhaps had domesticated horses, as early as 4800 BCE.[33]

Other researchers have argued that all of the Botai horses were wild, and that the horse-hunters of Botai hunted wild horses on foot. As evidence, they note that zoologists have found no skeletal changes in the Botai horses that indicate domestication. Moreover, because they were hunted for food, the majority of the horse remains found in Botai-culture settlements indeed probably were wild. On the other hand, any domesticated riding horses were probably the same size as their wild cousins and cannot now be distinguished by bone measurements.[6] They also note that the age structure of the horses slaughtered at Botai represents a natural demographic profile for hunted animals, not the pattern expected if they were domesticated and selected for slaughter.[34] However, these arguments were published prior to the discovery of a corral at Krasnyi Yar and mats of horse-dung at two other Botai sites. A study in 2018 revealed that the Botai horses did not contribute significantly to the genetics of modern domesticated horses, and that therefore a subsequent and separate domestication event must have been responsible for the modern domestic horse.[35]

The presence of bit wear is an indicator that a horse was ridden or driven, and the earliest of such evidence from a site in Kazakhstan dates to 3500 BCE.[3] The absence of bit wear on horse teeth is not conclusive evidence against domestication because horses can be ridden and controlled without bits by using a noseband or a hackamore, but such materials do not produce significant physiological changes nor are they apt to be preserved for millennia.

The regular use of a bit to control a horse can create wear facets or bevels on the anterior corners of the lower second premolars. The corners of the horse's mouth normally keep the bit on the "bars" of the mouth, an interdental space where there are no teeth, forward of the premolars. The bit must be manipulated by a human or the horse must move it with its tongue for it to touch the teeth. Wear can be caused by the bit abrading the front corners of the premolars if the horse grasps and releases the bit between its teeth; other wear can be created by the bit striking the vertical front edge of the lower premolars,[36][37] due to very strong pressure from a human handler.

Modern experiments showed that even organic bits of rope or leather can

The regular use of a bit to control a horse can create wear facets or bevels on the anterior corners of the lower second premolars. The corners of the horse's mouth normally keep the bit on the "bars" of the mouth, an interdental space where there are no teeth, forward of the premolars. The bit must be manipulated by a human or the horse must move it with its tongue for it to touch the teeth. Wear can be caused by the bit abrading the front corners of the premolars if the horse grasps and releases the bit between its teeth; other wear can be created by the bit striking the vertical front edge of the lower premolars,[36][37] due to very strong pressure from a human handler.

Modern experiments showed that even organic bits of rope or leather can create significant wear facets, and also showed that facets 3mm (.118 in) deep or more do not appear on the premolars of wild horses.[38] However, other researchers disputed both conclusions.[34]

Wear facets of 3 mm or more were found on seven horse premolars in two sites of the Botai culture, Botai and Kozhai 1, dated about 3500–3000 BCE.[33][39] The Botai culture premolars are the earliest reported multiple examples of this dental pathology in any archaeological site, and preceded any skeletal change indicators by 1,000 years. While wear facets more than 3 mm deep were discovered on the lower second premolars of a single stallion from Dereivka in Ukraine, an Eneolithic settlement dated about 4000 BCE,[39] dental material from one of the worn teeth later produced a radiocarbon date of 700–200 BCE, indicating that this stallion was actually deposited in a pit dug into the older Eneolithic site during the Iron Age.[33]

Soil scientists working with Sandra Olsen of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History at the Chalcolithic (also called Eneolithic, or "Copper Age") settlements of Botai and Krasnyi Yar in northern Kazakhstan found layers of horse dung, discarded in unused house pits in both settlements.[40] The collection and disposal of horse dung suggests that horses were confined in corrals or stables. An actual corral, dated to 3500–3000 BCE was identified at Krasnyi Yar by a pattern of post holes for a circular fence, with the soils inside the fence yielding ten times more phosphorus than the soils outside. The phosphorus could represent the remains of manure.[41]

Geographic expansion

The appearance of horse remains in human settlements in regions where they had not previously been present is another indicator of domestication. Although images of horses appear as early as the Upper Paleolithic period in places such as the caves of Lascaux, France, suggesting that wild horses lived in regions outside of the Eurasian steppes prior to domestication and may have even been hunted by early humans, concentration of remains suggests animals being deliberately captured and contained, an indicator of domestication, at least for food, if not necessarily use as a working animal.

Around 3500–3000 BCE, horse bones began to appear more frequently in archaeological sites beyond their center of distribution in the Eurasian steppes and were seen in central Europe, the middle and lower Danube valley, and the North Europe, the middle and lower Danube valley, and the North Caucasus and Transcaucasia. Evidence of horses in these areas had been rare before, and as numbers increased, larger animals also began to appear in horse remains. This expansion in range was contemporary with the Botai culture, where there are indications that horses were corralled and ridden. This does not necessarily mean that horses were first domesticated in the steppes, but the horse-hunters of the steppes certainly pursued wild horses more than in any other region. This geographic expansion is interpreted by many zoologists as an early phase in the spread of domesticated horses.[31][42][43]

European wild horses were hunted for up to 10% of the animal bones in a handful of Mesolithic and Neolithic settlements scattered across Spain, France, and the marshlands of northern Germany, but in many other parts of Europe, including Greece, the Balkans, the British Isles, and much of central Europe, horse bones do not occur or occur very rarely in Mesolithic, Neolithic or Chalcolithic sites. In contrast, wild horse bones regularly exceeded 40% of the identified animal bones in Mesolithic and Neolithic camps in the Eurasian steppes, west of the Ural Mountains.[42][44][45]

Horse bones were rare or absent in Neolithic and Chalcolithic kitchen garbage in western Turkey, Mesopotamia, most of Iran, South and Central Asia, and much of Europe.[42][43][46] While horse bones have been identified in Neolithic sites in central Turkey, all equids together totaled less than 3% of the animal bones. Within this three percent, horses were less than 10%, with 90% or more of the equids represented by onagers (Equus hemionus) or another ass-like equid that later became extinct, Equus hydruntinus.[47] Onagers were the most common native wild equids of the Near East. They were hunted in Syria, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Iran, and Central Asia; and domesticated asses (Equus asinus) were imported into Mesopotamia, probably from Egypt, but wild horses apparently did not live there.[48]

In Northern Caucasus, the Maikop culture settlements and burials of c. 3300 BC contain both horse bones and images of horses. A frieze of nineteen horses painted in black and red colors is found in one of the Maikop graves. The widespread appearance of horse bones and images in Maikop sites suggest to some observers that horseback riding began in the Maikop period.[49]

Later, images of horses, identified by their short ears, flowing manes, and tails that bushed out at the dock, began to appear in artistic media in Mesopotamia during the Akkadian period, 2300–2100 BCE. The word for "horse", literally translated as ass of the mountains, first appeared in SumerianLater, images of horses, identified by their short ears, flowing manes, and tails that bushed out at the dock, began to appear in artistic media in Mesopotamia during the Akkadian period, 2300–2100 BCE. The word for "horse", literally translated as ass of the mountains, first appeared in Sumerian documents during the Third dynasty of Ur, about 2100–2000 BCE.[48][50] The kings of the Third Dynasty of Ur apparently fed horses to lions for royal entertainment, perhaps indicating that horses were still regarded as more exotic than useful, but King Shulgi, about 2050 BCE, compared himself to "a horse of the highway that swishes its tail", and one image from his reign showed a man apparently riding a horse at full gallop.[51] Horses were imported into Mesopotamia and the lowland Near East in larger numbers after 2000 BCE in connection with the beginning of chariot warfare.

A further expansion, into the lowland Near East and northwestern China, also happened around 2000 BCE, again apparently in conjunction with the chariot. Although Equus bones of uncertain species are found in some Late Neolithic sites in China dated before 2000 BCE, Equus caballus or Equus ferus bones first appeared in multiple sites and in significant numbers in sites of the Qijia and Siba cultures, 2000–1600 BCE, in Gansu and the northwestern provinces of China.[52] The Qijia culture was in contact with cultures of the Eurasian steppes, as shown through similarities between Qijia and Late Bronze Age steppe metallurgy, so it was probably through these contacts that domesticated horses first became frequent in northwestern China.[citation needed]

In 2008, archaeologists announced the discovery of rock art in Somalia's northern Dhambalin region, which the researchers suggest is one of the earliest known depictions of a hunter on horseback. The rock art is in the Ethiopian-Arabian style, dated to 1000 to 3000 BCE.[53][54]

About 4200-4000 BCE, more than 500 years before the geographic expansion evidenced by the presence of horse bones, new kinds of graves, named after a grave at Suvorovo, appeared north of the Danube delta in the coastal steppes of Ukraine near Izmail. Suvorovo graves were similar to and probably derived from earlier funeral traditions in the steppes around the Dnieper River. Some Suvorovo graves contained polished stone mace-heads shaped like horse heads and horse tooth beads.[55] Earlier steppe graves also had contained polished stone mace-heads, some of them carved in the shape of animal heads.[56] Settlements in the steppes contemporary with Suvorovo, such as Sredni Stog II and Dereivka on the Dnieper River, contained 12–52% horse bones.[57]

When Suvorovo graves appeared in the Danube delta grasslands, horse-head maces also appeared in some of the indigenous farming towns of the Tripolye and Gumelnitsa cultures in present-day Romania and Tripolye and Gumelnitsa cultures in present-day Romania and Moldova, near the Suvorovo graves.[58] These agricultural cultures had not previously used polished-stone maces, and horse bones were rare or absent in their settlement sites. Probably their horse-head maces came from the Suvorovo immigrants. The Suvorovo people in turn acquired many copper ornaments from the Tripolye and Gumelnitsa towns. After this episode of contact and trade, but still during the period 4200–4000 BCE, about 600 agricultural towns in the Balkans and the lower Danube valley, some of which had been occupied for 2000 years, were abandoned.[59] Copper mining ceased in the Balkan copper mines,[60] and the cultural traditions associated with the agricultural towns were terminated in the Balkans and the lower Danube valley. This collapse of "Old Europe" has been attributed to the immigration of mounted Indo-European warriors.[61] The collapse could have been caused by intensified warfare, for which there is some evidence; and warfare could have been worsened by mounted raiding; and the horse-head maces have been interpreted as indicating the introduction of domesticated horses and riding just before the collapse.

However, mounted raiding is just one possible explanation for this complex event. Environmental deterioration, ecological degradation from millennia of farming, and the exhaustion of easily mined oxide copper ores also are cited as causal factors.[5][59]

Perforated antler objects discovered at Dereivka and other sites contemporary with Suvorovo have been identified as cheekpieces or psalia for horse bits.[56] This identification is no longer widely accepted, as the objects in question have not been found associated with horse bones, and could have had a variety of other functions.[62] However, through studies of microscopic wear, it has been established that many of the bone tools at Botai were used to smooth rawhide thongs, and rawhide thongs might have been used to manufacture of rawhide cords and ropes, useful for horse tack.[32] Similar bone thong-smoothers are known from many other steppe settlements, but it cannot be known how the thongs were used. The oldest artifacts clearly identified as horse tack—bits, bridles, cheekpieces, or any other kind of horse gear—are the antler disk-shaped cheekpieces associated with the invention of the chariot, at the Sintashta-Petrovka sites.

Horses interred in human graves