As long as there have been humans, horses haven’t been far behind. Whether they’re sketched on the stone walls of the Caves of Lascaux or romping across the screens of old westerns, it’s easy to forget there was a time before horses were a part of the human story.

That is unless you’re an archaeologist or anthropologist. These scientists are far more aware of the time when horse domestication began. Nailing down the earliest evidence of humans domesticating and riding horses is a difficult task. But this gap in knowledge may be closing, thanks to a new report published Friday in the journal Science Advances detailing skeletal evidence of horsemanship from 4,500 to 5,000 years ago.

“Some segments of the society were fully nomadic…maybe even the earliest nomads in the world…so it would make perfect sense to see them also riding on horseback.”

Martin Trautmann is the first author of the paper and a postdoctoral researcher of forensic anthropology and archaeology at the University of Helsinki, Finland. He tells Inverse that he didn’t originally set out to find evidence of horsemanship with this work.

“It was plausible to have horsemanship in Yamnaya contexts,” Trautmann says, referring to the cultural origin of most of the remains. “But I really did not expect to find it because I thought it should have been found before if it was visible.”

Here’s What You Need to Know First

Developing horsemanship was extremely important for ancient humans, senior author on the paper and archaeologist at the University of Helsinki, Volker Heyd, tells Inverse. For the Yamnaya people, horses would’ve allowed them to traverse the Asian steppe and trade goods with neighboring communities.

“Some segments of the society were fully nomadic…maybe even the earliest nomads in the world,” Heyd says. “So it would make perfect sense to see them also riding on horseback.”

What the Researchers Found

Researchers have been searching for signs of early horsemanship for decades, but finding such evidence can be difficult thanks to few horse skeletal remains and the degradable nature of riding materials like leather-made leads.

By studying morphological changes from the remains of 24 individuals from present-day Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary, the researchers identified several types of bone stress that are tell-tale signs of prolonged horseback riding. Previous research has dated horse domestication to about 5,500 years ago and horse-drawn chariots to about 4,000 years ago, but this new discovery could be the earliest evidence of horsemanship to bridge these two eras.

Without any skeletal evidence of the horses themselves, Trautmann, Heyd, and colleagues studied the human remains using a combination of osteological macroscopic examinations (e.g. looking up close at the bones) as well as high-resolution photos, x-ray analysis, and computed tomography to look for signs of wear and tear.

In particular, they looked for evidence of:

  • Stress reactions on the pelvis and femur that reflect contracting their muscles to hold onto the horse’s back
  • Vertebrae degeneration from the vertical stress of sitting in an upright position while riding a horse
  • Evidence of traumatic injury, like falling on their back off a horse. They also looked for evidence of kicks or bites.

In total, the researchers looked for six morphological traits that would’ve suggested horsemanship. While only one individual displayed all six traits, five displayed five out of six traits, and nine displayed at least four traits.

While there is no set definition of which traits truly represent horsemanship, the researchers determined that this number of traits in one were likely connected to horse riding as opposed to other explanations, like fatigue fractures.

What’s Next

This discovery of early horsemanship is just the beginning of the much larger project to study these steppe communities, Heyd and Trautmann say. Other aspects of interest include the stature of Yamnaya individuals and the paleoclimatology of the region.

Apart from fighting against the natural degradation of archaeological materials, Heyd says that this work also faces conservation and global political challenges as well that he hopes they can overcome.

“Hundreds, if not thousands, of Yamnaya skeletons would also be available from Ukraine and Russia,” Heyd says. “The current political situation with the invasion into Ukraine by Russia… is making it basically impossible to look into more skeletons.”

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