NYTimes on Horse Domestication
- Also: The new President of Dartmuth is an MD with a PhD in Medical
anthro (or, I suppose a PhD in anthro with an MD) <g>
March 6, 2009
Earlier Date Suggested for Horse Domestication
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
It's a long way from Kazakhstan to Kentucky, but the journey to the
Derby may have started among a pastoral people on the Kazakh steppes who
appear to have been the first to domesticate, bridle and perhaps ride
horses - around 3500 B.C., a millennium earlier than previously thought.
Archaeologists say the discovery may revise thinking about the
development of some preagricultural Eurasian societies and put an
earlier date to their dispersal into Europe and elsewhere. These
migrations are believed to have been associated with horse domestication
and the spread of Indo-European languages.
At the least, on the first Saturday in May the winning thoroughbred
should perhaps be toasted not with a julep but a taste of koumiss, the
fermented mare's milk favored by equestrians in Central Asia. It's an
acquired taste, so keep bourbon at the ready.
Evidence for the earlier date for equine domestication is described
Friday in the journal Science by an international team of
archaeologists. The report's lead author is Alan K. Outram of the
University of Exeter in England.
The archaeologists wrote of uncovering ample horse bones and artifacts
from which they derived "three independent lines of evidence
demonstrating domestication" of horses by the semi-sedentary Botai
culture, which occupied sites in northern Kazakhstan for six centuries,
beginning at about 3600 B.C.
The shape and size of the skeletons from four sites was analyzed and
compared with bones of wild horses in the region from the same time,
with domestic horses from centuries later in the Bronze Age and with
Mongolian domestic horses. The researchers said the Botai animals were
"appreciably more slender" than robust wild horses and more similar to
Dr. Outram said in an interview that it was not clear from the research
if the breeding of the tamed Botai horses had by then led to the origin
of a genetically distinct new species. But their physical attributes
were strikingly different, he added, and this made the animals more
useful to the people as meat, sources of milk and beasts of burden and
The second pieces of evidence were the marks on the horses' teeth and
damage to skeletal tissue in the mouths. The researchers said this was
caused by the wear of mouthpieces, bits, inserted for harnessing with a
bridle or similar restraint to control working animals.
Other archaeologists, digging at other sites, have detected similar
traces of what they said was bit wear, but this has been disputed as
support for domestication. Dr. Outram said that some of the damage to
the Botai teeth and jaw bones could only have been caused by bit wear.
Botai pottery yielded the third strands of evidence. Embedded in the
clay pots were residues of carcass fat and fatty acids that "very
likely" came from mare's milk, the researchers said. This "confirms that
at least some of the mares of Botai were domesticated," they concluded.
Just when and where domestication of horses first occurred have long
puzzled archaeologists. Most of their investigations have concentrated
on the steppes of Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan, where wild horses were
abundant for thousands of years, and burials included the skeletons of
prized stallions and early chariots.
In his authoritative book, "The Horse, the Wheel and Languages," David
W. Anthony, an archaeologist at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N. Y., said
in 2007 that some of the best evidence put the beginning of horse
domestication in the region at about 2500 B.C. He could not be reached
for comment on the new findings.
Earlier excavations at Botai sites, conducted by Victor Zaibert of
Kokshetau University in Kazakhstan, uncovered piles of horse bones and
settlement remains of a people who hunted and herded wild horses for
their meat. Dr. Zaibert and Sandra Olsen of the Carnegie Museum of
Natural History in Pittsburgh also found traces of bit wear that first
raised the possibility that some Botai horses had been harnessed for
work and riding.
Both Dr. Zaibert and Dr. Olsen are members of the current excavation
team that may have fixed the early time and place for the beginning of
the horse-human relationship - a relationship that, as Dr. Outram said,
has had "immense social and economic significance, advancing
communications, transport, food production and warfare."
Ann Popplestone AAB, BA, MA
CALS TLC Metro CCC
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