The world’s first horsemen found near the Black Sea

Tomb of a horseman discovered in Malomirovo, Bulgaria. Photo credit: Michał Podsiadło

Researchers have uncovered evidence of horseback riding by examining the remains of human skeletons found in burial mounds called kurgans that are between 4,500 and 5,000 years old. The earthen burial mounds belonged to the Yamnaya culture. The Yamnayans had migrated from the Pontic-Caspian steppes to find greener pastures in what is now the countries of Romania and Bulgaria as far as Hungary and Serbia.

Yamnayans were mobile cattle and sheep herders who are now believed to have been on horseback.

“Horseback riding seems to have evolved not long after the suspected domestication of horses in the western Eurasian steppes in the fourth millennium BC of Archeology at the University of Helsinki and member of the international team that made the discovery.

These regions west of the Black Sea form a contact zone where mobile groups of herders from the Yamnaya culture first encountered the long-established farming communities of Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic traditions. For decades, the expansion of the steppe peoples into Southeastern Europe in the Early Bronze Age was explained as a violent invasion.

With the advent of ancient DNA research, the differences between these Eastern migrants and members of local societies became even more apparent.

“Our research is now beginning to provide a more differentiated picture of their interactions. For example, as expected, findings on physical violence are virtually non-existent in the skeletal data. We are also beginning to understand the complex exchange processes in material culture and burial customs between newcomers and locals in the 200 years after their first contact,” explains Bianca Preda-Bălănică, another team member from the University of Helsinki.

Horseback riding is a defining moment in human history

The use of animals as a means of transport, particularly the horse, marked a turning point in human history. The significant gains in mobility and distance had profound effects on land use, trade, and warfare. Current research focuses mainly on the horses themselves.

However, riding is an interplay of two components – the mount and its rider – and human remains are available in greater numbers and in a more complete state than early horse remains. Since horseback riding is possible without special equipment, the lack of archaeological evidence regarding the earliest art of horsemanship is not unexpected.

Traces of horsemanship can be found in the skeletons

“We examined over 217 skeletons from 39 sites, of which about 150 found in the burial mounds belong to the Yamnayans. The diagnosis of activity patterns in human skeletons is ambiguous. There are no singular characteristics that indicate a specific activity or behavior. Only in their combination.” As a syndrome, symptoms provide reliable insights to understand habitual past activities,” explains Martin Trautmann, bioanthropologist in Helsinki and lead author of the study published in scientific advances.

The international team decided to use a set of six diagnostic criteria established as indicators of horseback riding activity (the so-called “horsemanship syndrome”):

  1. Muscle attachment points on the pelvis and thigh bone (femur);
  2. changes in the normally round shape of the hip sockets;
  3. Imprint traces from pressure of the acetabular rim on the femoral neck;
  4. diameter and shape of the femoral shaft;
  5. vertebral degeneration from repeated vertical impact;
  6. Trauma that can typically be caused by falls, kicks, or bites from horses.

In addition, to increase diagnostic reliability, the team used a more rigorous filtering method and developed a scoring system that takes into account the diagnostic value, specificity and reliability of each symptom. Overall, of the 156 adults in the total sample, at least 24 (15.4%) can be classified as “possible riders”, while five Yamnaya and two later and two possibly earlier people are considered “very likely riders”. “The relatively high prevalence of these features in the skeletal file, especially in view of the overall limited completeness, shows that these individuals rode regularly,” notes Trautmann.

Whether horseback riding served primarily as a convenience in a mobile pastoral lifestyle to allow for more effective herding of cattle, as a means of quick and long-range raids, or simply as a status symbol requires further research.

The first riders in the world

Overview of the archaeological excavations in Malomirovo, Bulgaria. Photo credit: Michał Podsiadło

Could all of this have happened earlier?

“We have an intriguing burial on the show,” notes David Anthony, professor emeritus at Hartwick College US and also a senior co-author of the study.

“A tomb at Csongrad-Kettöshalomin, Hungary, dated to about 4300 BC cannot support a firm conclusion, but in Neolithic steppe cemeteries of that period horse remains were occasionally placed in human graves with those of cattle and sheep, and stone clubs were carved in the form of Horse heads carved using this method also appear on older collections.”

Who were the Yamnayans?

The Yamnayans were a population and culture that settled at the end of the fourth millennium BC. Developed in the Pontic-Caspian steppes.

Adopting the key innovation of the wheel and cart, they were able to greatly improve their mobility and harness a vast source of energy that would otherwise be unattainable, the sea of ​​steppe grass away from the rivers, allowing them to keep large herds of cattle and sheep.

Embracing a new way of life, these herders, though not the world’s first true nomads, expanded dramatically over the next two centuries, traversing more than 5,000 kilometers between Hungary to the west and, in the form of the so-called Afanasievo culture. Mongolia and western China to the east. After burying their dead in burial pits beneath large mounds called kurgans, the Yamnayans are said to have been the first to spread Proto-Indo-European languages.

More information:
Martin Trautmann et al., First bioanthropological evidence for Yamnaya horsemanship, scientific advances (2023). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.ade2451.

The influence of Yamnaya on prehistoric Europe:…n-prehistoric-europe

Provided by the University of Helsinki

Citation: The world’s first horse riders found near the Black Sea (2023 March 3) retrieved March 6, 2023 from black-sea.html

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