Earliest Evidence of Riding Found Among “Eastern Cowboys” | Science

About 5,300 years ago, people from the steppes of present-day Russia and Ukraine spread rapidly throughout Eurasia. Within a few centuries, these “Yamnaya” populations left enduring genetic traces from Central Europe to the Caspian Sea. Today, archaeologists call them “Eastern Cowboys” because of their cattle herding and highly mobile lifestyle.

But one part of the classic cowboy image was missing: horseback riding. Although cattle bones and sturdy chariots have been found at Yamnaya sites, horse bones are scarce, and most archaeologists have assumed that humans first began riding at least 1,000 years later.

In a new study released today at the AAAS Annual Meeting (the Science) in Washington, DC, and published in scientific advances, researchers say they found the earliest evidence of horseback riding not in the bones of ancient horses, but in their Yamnaya riders. “Everyone has focused on horse remains to get an idea of ​​early riding,” says co-author and University of Helsinki archaeologist Volker Heyd. “Our approach was to look at people.”

Genetic and other evidence suggests that horses were bred as early as 3500 BC. were domesticated. However, the earliest mentions of horseback riding in historical sources or pictorial evidence come from more than 2000 years later, long after the Yamnaya had spread across the steppes. Eastern cowboys, many archaeologists thought, were content to walk alongside their herds of cattle.

Yamnaya burial mounds dot the steppes of Eurasia and usually contain a man’s body.Michał Podsiadlo

As part of a research project on the Yamnaya Extension, Martin Trautmann, an anthropologist in Helsinki, and colleagues examined more than 150 skeletons unearthed from burial mounds in Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria – the western boundary of the Yamnaya Extension. The Yamnaya were well-fed, healthy, and large; The chemistry of their bones indicated a high-protein diet compatible with herding cattle and sheep. But the skeletons showed clear signs of wear.

Many had vertebral compression that can result from time spent absorbing jarring shocks while seated. They also showed fat spots on the femur, which is a result of spending a lot of time in a crouched position. Healed injuries — broken collarbones, fractured foot bones and fractured vertebrae — paralleled the type of damage a kicking horse might cause, or what sports medics now see in riders being thrown from their horses.

Seeking an explanation, Trautmann compared the injuries to those observed in later populations where skeletons were buried with riding gear, horses, or both – strong circumstantial evidence for riding. Of the 150 Yamnaya skeletons he looked at, almost half showed alterations seen in later riders.

A Yamnaya man who lived around 2700 B.C. B.C., in modern-day Romania, had all the bony changes routinely seen in horsemen, plus spinal damage from a hard fall “on his bum,” the authors write. “In a medieval population it would have been clear that this guy was a horseman,” says Trautmann. “As is so often the case in archaeology, the coolest finds are the ones you don’t even look for.”

Some other archaeologists, however, restrain their enthusiasm. Without horse bones to examine for telltale signs of skeletal damage from riding, there is no reliable way to confirm what the human bones suggest.

“You’re grossly overinterpreting an interesting pattern,” says zoo archaeologist William Taylor of the University of Colorado (CU), Boulder. “Human skeletal data alone are unable to distinguish horseback riding from other activity patterns.”

An Egyptian graffito of the goddess Astarte on horseback
The earliest depictions of horseback riding, like this Egyptian graffito of the goddess Astarte, appear almost 1500 years after the expansion of Yamnaya.S. Steiss/Berlin

And although archaeologists have found Yamnaya chariots, oxen and yokes, riding equipment – such as bridles or saddles – is completely absent. “In terms of trying to identify humans on horses, I think they did the best possible job bioarchaeologically,” says bioarchaeologist Jane Buikstra of Arizona State University, Tempe. “That doesn’t mean it’s ultimately perfect or convincing.”

The paper’s authors argue that the changes observed in human bones are strong circumstantial evidence, particularly given the evidence that the Yamnaya milked horses and the genetic evidence of horse domestication in the Pontic Steppe not long after the Yamnaya Expansion period. Just the lack of equipment “doesn’t rule out riding,” says Trautmann. “It’s possible to be very active on a horse without special equipment.” Perishable leather and cloth harnesses, on the other hand, may have decomposed long ago, he argues.

More samples — including horse bones with riding marks like bite marks or damage to the spine from a rider’s weight — would help substantiate the case, says CU bioarchaeologist Lauren Hosek. What the group found “is really interesting,” she says. “But there’s a lot more to do when the stakes are as high as the earliest riding.”

Correction, February 3, 4:45 p.m.: An earlier version of this story misrepresented the number of Yamnaya skeletons in the study.

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