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History Of Horse Domestication

By Jeffrey Rolo

Few would dispute that horse domestication forever changed the course of human history. Other animals may have been domesticated even earlier than the horse (such as the dog and cattle), but arguably no other species' domestication has had the same impact.

From the ancient times where horses provided milk, meat and transportation to nomadic tribes in the Eurasia region, to the medieval period where horses changed the face of warfare, domesticated horses allowed humanity to expand and progress in ways once considered unimaginable. And although technology is quickly surpassing agriculture in many areas of the world, even in today's modern world the horse continues to play an important role in human society: delighting both the old and young in horse shows; serving the public as police horses; assisting farmers with their grueling work; and simply serving as faithful and beloved companions to horse lovers around the world.

But exactly when did horse domestication begin?

This is a question that historians and scientists have attempted to answer for hundreds of years, but deciphering historical events that took place thousands of years ago is quite the puzzle, so progress has been slow. Even as recently as 2009, studies on the history of horse domestication continue to shed new light on the subject, and correct prior misconceptions on the topic.

As of the time of this article's writing, the most up to date historical information regarding domesticated horses comes from a group of archaeologists who, as explained by lead author Alan Outram of the University of Exeter in England, believe that archaeological remnants in the Kazakhstan region prove that domestication of the horse began around 3500 B.C. 5,000 years ago!

This study conflicts with that of archaeologist David W. Anthony, who penned the book The Horse, The Wheel, and Languages in 2007. In his book, Anthony pointed out that evidence at that time suggested that horse domestication began around 2500 B.C. So, if Outram's findings uncovered two years later are true, the historical starting point for horse domestication was just shifted back another 1000 years.

Originally it was believed by many that the transition from pack animal to that of a riding animal was a slow process, but although domesticated horses did indeed begin as sources of food before graduating to pack mules and eventually to riding animals, Alan Outram's study indicates that horses may have served as riding animals long before many first suspected.

The source of his team's historical studies was remnants of the Botoi culture, a semi-sedentary tribe that once lived in the Kazakhstan region around 3000-3500 B.C. He uncovered three types of evidence for his hypothesis regarding horse domestication:

  1. Equine skeletons obtained during these archaeological digs demonstrated that domesticated horses owned by the Botoi were significantly more slender than the bulkier skeletons of typical Mongolian wild horses. A horse's cannon bone is an important piece of evidence, because domesticated horses possess significantly thinner cannon/shin bones.
  2. Ceramic shards of Botoi pottery possessed residue of fatty acids that "very likely" came from mare's milk, according to Outram. Equine fatty lipids are a key indication that domesticated horses were used as a milk supply during those ancient days. (And even though most of the world has since transitioned to cow's milk, even today residents of the Kazakh region continue to drink horse milk.)
  3. Perhaps the most telling piece of evidence that the Botoi culture had mastered the art of horse domestication around 3500 B.C. was remnants of horse teeth and mouth skeletal tissue obtained from once domesticated horses. These remnants showed telling signs of bit wear (where the metal bit would, over time, unnaturally wear or damage a horse's teeth and mouth).

Archaeologists continue to study the history of horse domestication to this day, and who knows what further findings may be uncovered in the future. For now, we can safely state that horse domestication began among the nomadic tribes of the Eurasian region of the world before spreading to Europe and North America, and the most recent and definitive evidence points to 3500 B.C. as a safe guesstimate as to when horses were first domesticated in a widespread and multi-role manner.

While horses enthusiasts and historians would mutually agree that our equine companions have served an invaluable historic role, there are some that question whether today's domestication of the horse is indeed a good thing.

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