Domestication of the Horse

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Podcast Transcript

Sometime around 5,500 years ago, an event took place on the Eurasian steppes that fundamentally changed the world. 

We don’t know who did it or exactly when it took place, but it was one of the single greatest moments in all of human history. 

It ushered in revolutions in agriculture, transportation, and warfare, and its impact can still be witnessed around the world today.

Learn more about the domestication of the horse and how it impacted the world on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The story of horses does not begin with their domestication by humans. In fact, the human/horse relationship doesn’t even begin with domestication. 

The modern domesticated horse has the taxonomic name of Equus caballus. It can trace its evolutionary roots back about 50 million years to a small dog-sized creature called an Eohippus that lived in forests. 

If you remember back to my episode on how horses spread in North America, most of the evolution of the horse took place in North America millions of years before humans ever arrived.

During the various ice ages, they migrated from North America into Asia via the Bering Land Bridge, where they took a separate evolutionary path. The North American variant of the horse went extinct about 10,000 to 11,000 years ago, possibly due to overhunting by humans along with changes to the climate.

Over in Eurasia, we know that horses were hunted by humans alongside other large herbivores for at least 30,000 years, as evidenced by cave paintings that show horses. 

This is a very important distinction that makes horses very different from other domesticated animals, such as cats and dogs. The domestication of cats and dogs is believed to have just sort of happened, if you recall my previous episodes on the subject. 

Horses were hunted for food. They wouldn’t have just wandered into camp and become friendly with people sitting around a fire. 

Had such a thing happened, most Paleolithic humans would have probably thought to themselves, “Hey, free meal.”

Horses were far from the first domesticated herbivore that was used as food. 

Sheep, goats, and cattle had been domesticated thousands of years before horses. They were domesticated insofar as they were herded and moved from place to place. They would have been kept in pens, possibly milked and sheared, but otherwise weren’t domesticated in the same way dogs were. 

This at least provides an idea as to what the first people to domesticate horses might have been thinking. They probably viewed domestication as something akin to how they used cattle or sheep. It was simply an easier way to get access to horse meat than constantly having to hunt them. 

All modern domesticated horses are descended from a single group, indicating that there was a single domestication event……somewhere.

For the longest time, there were competing theories as to where horses were first domesticated. 

One of the contenders was the Iberian Peninsula. We know from fossil and archeological evidence that horses have been there for at least 50,000 years. 

Another theory, this one with a bit more evidence, is that horse domestication occurred in central modern-day Kazakhstan, about 1600 kilomete northwest of the Caspian Sea. There archeological digs have found the remains of an ancient people known as the Botai. 

The entire Botai culture revolved around horses. They ate them, milked them, and used their skins. Archeological evidence shows that they were building corrals and pens for horses. 

Non-human remains are almost all horses, and the teeth from horse skulls indicate that they may have used bits. Even pottery from the sites shows evidence of mare’s milk. 

The dates of the artifacts found in the Botai sites go back about 5000 to 5500 years. 

However, it really wasn’t known if the horses they worked with were truly domesticated. They might have been similar to reindeer used by the Sami people in Nordic Countries, which are considered semi-domesticated. 

Later, DNA evidence found that the horses used at the Botai site were not the ancestors of today’s domesticated horses. 

They were, however, related to one of the last truly wild, as opposed to feral, horses in the world, the Przewalski’s horses, which can be found in Mongolia. 

So, if horses weren’t domesticated in Kazakhstan, where were they first domesticated? 

The best answer we have to that question comes from genetic evidence from modern horses as well as ancient horse remains. 

The area where horses were probably first domesticated was located in a region including eastern Ukraine above the Black Sea, Russia north of the Caucuses and around the Volga River, and western Kazakhstan. 

One of the things that the genetic study of early horses has found is that all modern domesticated horses are descended from a single male stallion and about 77 female mares. 

The genetic analysis of ancient horses raises several possibilities. 

One is that perhaps the Botai culture did independently domesticate horses, but their horses just weren’t the ones that caught on. Perhaps there was something about them that made them more difficult to tame or made them less docile. 

The other possibility is that the Przewalski’s horses in Mongolia thought to be the last truly wild horses on Earth, are not, in fact, wild horses. Given their genetic relationship with the Botai horses, they might actually be the descendants of these formerly domesticated horses. 

One of the events that had to have happened early after domestication was the discovery that horses could be ridden and could be used to pull carts. 

In fact, this would have radically changed the perception and value of horses from something beyond mere cattle that could be used for food. 

Horses allowed humans to travel further and faster than they could on foot. In fact, from the domestication of horses until the 19th century, the fastest anyone could travel on land was the speed of a horse. 

What isn’t known, and may never be known, is if riding horses by sitting on them or driving horses by having them pull a cart or chariot came first. 

You would think that riding would have come first because there is very little to it. Just climb on the back of a horse, even if it just means putting a child up there. 

However, there isn’t much in the way of archeology to support this. We have very ancient images and artifacts consisting of ancient chariots and carts.  Things that would support riding, such as bridals and blankets, wouldn’t survive well to be later found by archeologists. 

If horse domestication took place between the Black Sea and the North Caspian Sea, it was the ideal location to have horses spread to other cultures, given its central location between Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. 

For about the first thousand years, horse technology, and it really was a technology, didn’t spread very far. 

The group that is often credited with the explosion in horses is the Sintashta culture, which inhabited the steppes around 2100 to 1800 BC.

The Sintashta had developed chariots with spoked wheels and, by all accounts, had developed a mastery over horses. They were nomadic and used horses to conquer many peoples who lived on the steppes. In the process of doing so, they brought horses with them, possibly replacing any previous domestication efforts using other species of horse, like the Botai. 

Their efforts, either purposely or inadvertently, brought horses to a wide number of people in and around the steppes during the bronze age. 

These people soon discovered that these animals were not to be prized for their meat, like a goat or a cow, but rather for what they could do.  Horses could pull wheeled carts with far more goods than could ever be carried by hand. They could pull a plow to help cultivate more crops. They could allow you to travel swiftly as well as give a significant advantage in battle. 

As horses spread, they began to be selectively bred. The colors of the coats of horses underwent a wide diversification. The sizes of the horses began to increase as horses were bred for strength and speed. 

To this extent, horses are very similar to dogs insofar as different breeds, which sometimes look dramatically different from each other, are all actually a single species. 

Horses became prized assets, often the greatest source of wealth in a community, and horses also found their way into the mythology of many cultures. 

Oxen had been domesticated about the same time or a little earlier than horses. When cultures with domesticated oxen came across horses, they often found them to be superior. Horses are faster, more agile, versatile, and are easier to train. They could be used in the field as well as in combat and could travel much longer distances. 

The spread of horses across both Europe and Asia is often credited with the rise of civilizations and empires of both continents. Without horses, much of what we know about the ancient world wouldn’t have been possible. 

Many have wondered if the people of Eurasia just got lucky. If a species of easy-to-domesticate draft animals hadn’t been there, then history would look very different today. 

It also raises the question, why didn’t other parts of the world domesticate something equivalent to the horse? In particular, sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas. 

In Africa, there is one animal in particular that would seem to be a great candidate as a horse substitute: the zebra. Zebras are members of the genus Equus, along with horses. They have hooves and a main and look very much like horses, especially if you are willing to ignore their stripes. 

Yet, zebras were never domesticated. The fact they weren’t domesticated wasn’t for a lack of trying. 

Zebras are simply different creatures. They can be very aggressive and tend to panic. They aren’t as strong as horses, are challenging to breed in captivity, and do not have a hierarchical social structure like horses, which can be taken advantage of to tame horses. 

Likewise, in South America, llamas and alpacas were domesticated, but they had nowhere near the size and strength of a horse. They couldn’t carry the same burdens or travel as fast. 

If you want to engage in an alternate history, you can imagine what might have happened if North American horses hadn’t gone extinct 10,000 years ago.

It isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine native people in North America domesticating horses thousands of years ago. If they had been able to harness the speed and power of horses, the historical trajectory of the world might have been radically different. 

I have covered the origins of many different inventions and discoveries in previous episodes, and I’ve also covered the domestication of various animals, from cats and dogs to chickens. 

However, there is a very strong case to be made that the domestication of horses was the single most important step in human history. It would be right up there with the wheel and the discovery of fire. 

While we might not use or even see horses as much anymore, none of what we have today would probably exist if it wasn’t for the domestication of the horse.