In The News: Archaeologists Find Evidence of Earliest Known Equestrians

A recent discovery reveals humans may have been riding horses at least 5,000 years ago, over 1,000 years earlier than previously thought.

After studying five skeletons found in Yamnaya kurgans, a prehistoric burial mound, archaeologists believe they have found conclusive evidence of horseback riding as early as 3021 BCE, directly countering previous theories that humans didn’t saddle up until much later.

Take the bit between your teeth.

While it’s well documented that horses were used for milk production and meat as early as 3500 BCE, whether or not humans started riding around that same time has been up for debate for almost 30 years.

The muck really hit the fan when a group of archaeologists analyzed horse premolars found at the archeological site of Botai in Kazakhstan and published their findings in the 1998 article, “Bit Wear, Horseback Riding and the Botai Site in Kazakstan.

After completing an experiment with 72 previously unbitted horses ridden with organic bits, mostly hemp rope, to simulate bit wear and comparing the modern-day counterparts to the ancient premolars, they claimed horseback riding definitively began in Kazakhstan between 3400 and 2700 BCE.

Bit Wear, Horseback Riding and the Botai Site in Kazakstan, 1998.

Here come the neigh-sayers.

Immediately, other experts cried foul.

The study was too small. Only 26% of the Botai premolars, just five teeth, showed any wear at all. No cheekpieces or bits were found at the site, either. Historians also pointed out that horseback riding wasn’t depicted in ancient artwork until around 2000 BCE.

In 2021, a study attempted to put the last nail in Botai’s coffin.

It found there was obvious evidence for a hunter-gatherer society that harvested wild horses for meat at the Botai site, but after analyzing the premolars and comparing them with other wild equids, the bit wear theory was inconclusive at best.

Also, it was the wrong type of horse.

It argued, “Recent archaeogenetic analyses reveal, however, that horse remains from Botai are not modern domesticates but instead the Przewalski’s horse, E. przewalskii—warranting reevaluation of evidence for domestication.”

First bioanthropological evidence for Yamnaya horsemanship, 2023.

Dem bones, dem bones…

Which brings us to the latest and greatest study published last March. This one says forget the teeth; forget Botai; let’s look at human skeletons.

“You can read bones like biographies,” Martin Trautmann, an anthropologist at the University of Helsinki and co-author of the study, told the Associated Press.

In the study, they describe what they call “horse rider syndrome,” which is basically wear and tear on specific bones such as the hip sockets, thigh bones, and pelvis that indicate someone rode horses.

Using that criteria, the team classified five skeletons from the Yanmaya, a Bronze Age group who lived across the Eurasian steppe between roughly 3000 and 2500 BCE, as “highly probable riders.”

The study also points to the Yanmayas rapid expansions eastward to the Altai and Mongolia and westward into the southeast of Europe all the way to the Tisza river in eastern Hungary in just a few centuries. Due to the almost 3,000 mile spread between the Tisza river and the Altai mountains, the lack of roads, and the small Yanmaya population, researchers concluded the feat would have been exceedingly difficult without an improved means of transport, i.e., horses.

First bioanthropological evidence for Yamnaya horsemanship, 2023.

What do you think Horse Nation?

Personally, I believe it’s human nature to strap ourselves to almost anything and have a go. I have to imagine our fourth-millennium BCE ancestors saw a particularly beautiful horse, or “the ass of the mountains,” as Mesopotamians liked to call them, and said, “Hold my kumis and watch this.”

Go riding.

Amanda Uechi Ronan is an author, equestrian and wannabe race car driver. Follow her on Instagram @uechironan.