Summer School: Thank You, Sintashta.

Scientists have traced the origin of the modern horse to a lineage that emerged 4,200 years ago.

The earliest horse ancestors evolved in North America and made their way across the Bering Strait into Asia a million years ago. Domesticating wild horses was a process, not a single event, and scientists have found evidence of people consuming horse milk in dental remains from around 5,500 years ago and the first evidence of horseback riding 5,000 years ago.

But a new study, published in Nature, now suggests that widespread “horse-based mobility” can be linked to a single culture, the Sintashta, which existed between 2050 and 1750 BCE.

East of the Ural Mountains, the Sintashta built heavily fortified towns dedicated to protecting scarce resources. They were not farmers, with archaeological evidence showing little to no evidence of agricultural development. They were pastoralists, depending entirely on grazing livestock. They were also an extremely aggressive war culture made up primarily of horse breeders, trainers, and metallurgists specializing in weapons.

It was in this environment, 4,200 years ago, that the lighter, faster, spoke-wheeled chariot and one particular lineage of horse were born. The importance of both is highlighted in the numerous burial mounds discovered by scientists.

But what was so different about the Sintashta horses?

What researchers refer to as DOM2 horses are distinguishable from their predecessors primarily based on two genes: GSDMC and ZFPM1. GSDMC is linked to chronic back pain in humans, and ZFPM1 is linked to mood regulation and aggressive behavior.

Long story short, DOM2 horses had better backs and better temperaments, and ancient humans loved them.

“DOM2 horses dispersed outside their core region, first reaching Anatolia, the lower Danube, Bohemia, and Central Asia by approximately 2200 to 2000 [BCE], then Western Europe and Mongolia soon afterwards, ultimately replacing all local populations by around 1500 to 1000 [BCE],” states another study from 2021.

Petroglyphs depicting steppe Chariots, Indo-European c.2,000 BCE, From

“We saw this [DOM2] genetic type spreading almost everywhere in Eurasia—clearly, this horse type that was local became global very fast,” said the most recent article’s co-author, Ludovic Orlando, a molecular archaeologist at the Centre for Anthropobiology and Genomics of Toulouse in France.

The DOM2 genetic lineage, now believed to be the ancestor of all domesticated horses, became so widespread that within less than three hundred years, the horses as far as Spain were genetically similar to those in Russia.

Wild horses in Rostovsky nature reserve, Wikimedia Commons.

The Sinstashta evolved into the widespread Andoronovo culture that would eventually lead to archaic Iranian-speaking and archaic Aryan-speaking peoples, notable in that both grew into powerful horse cultures. The Indo-Aryans went so far as to worship the horse for its speed, strength, and intelligence.

For more information, watch this mini-history lesson by Dan Davis History.

Go riding.

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