The Kazakh Steppe: The Land Where the Horse was Tamed

By Colin Berlyne

Kazakhstan, believed to be the birthplace of the apple and the country from which the first man was sent into space, is now also thought to be the land where man first tamed the wild horse.

Running horse in the colza fieldArchaeologists have discovered new evidence of a horse-herding culture in the steppes of Central Asia where Kazakh ancestral tribes emerged more than 5,500 years ago. This is far earlier than the evidence for the domestication of horses or their use in war in Ancient China, Egypt or the Mesopotamia.

Alan Outram, a British archaeologist from the University of Exeter, told National Geographic Magazine in October 2009 that his research team had discovered evidence that pushed back the earliest signs of the widespread riding and milking of horses by 1,000 to 2,000 years from previous estimates. Outram and his colleagues published their research in the October 2009 issue of the prestigious international journal “Science.”

Outram and his colleagues excavated the remains of horses from the Botai region of northern Kazakhstan. Radiocarbon dating established that these remains were around 5,500 years old – a period far earlier than the Old Kingdom of Egypt or the ancient Sumerian culture of Mesopotamia and even before the Mohenjo-Daro civilization of modern Pakistan.

The teeth of these small steppe horses showed unmistakable evidence of having been subjected to bits – an indication that they were used either for riding or pulling carts. They also found broken pieces of pottery used by the Botai culture that still contained elements of fat from horses and their milk. This was clear evidence that the steppe horses were already being used at this early date to provide both meat and milk – substances which remain prized in Kazakh cuisine and culture today.
The researchers also found that the horse bones they excavated were slender – a sure sign throughout history of domesticated and carefully bred horses, not of wild ones that had not been subjected to controlled and selective breeding.

Outram’s discoveries are also consistent with a wider emerging body of evidence that many of the key developments in human civilization and agriculture took place across the vast steppes of the heartland of Asia, and not just in the river valleys of the Middle East and southern and Eastern Asia, as archaeologists for so long assumed.

Archaeologists have discovered evidence of towns, and therefore of urban civilization, in the territories of modern Kazakhstan far earlier than experts previously assumed. And even before Outram’s work, clear evidence had been uncovered that the horse was domesticated in the Asian steppes at least 3,100 to 3,600 years ago in the Botai region – a period of time parallel with the New Kingdom of Egypt and the Minoan Empire of ancient Crete.

This previous evidence was more circumstantial than the latest findings. The early findings uncovered primitive tools for working leather that suggested, first, that cattle were being domesticated to provide the leather and hides and, second, that the leather was being worked to make harnesses that could only have been used on horses, not cattle.

Western and Kazakh archaeologists had merely hoped to find more confirmation of these first findings in the Botai region. But the Outram team was surprised by the amount of confirmation they actually uncovered and, most of all, by the far earlier dates that their data belonged to.

The new finds also suggest that the traditional practices of the ancient Kazakh tribes — eating the meat of their horses and drinking their milk as well as using them for transportation – go back thousands of years to the dawn of civilization. They also suggest that the spirit of innovation and technology in ancient history did not come only from towns and densely populated river valley cultures on the rims of Africa and Asia, but also from the heart of the “grass ocean” of the steppe.

Though the larger world’s discovery of Kazakhstan’s early domestication of the horse is recent, Kazakh scholars have long argued that their homeland was the origin of the taming of the horse. The location, climatic and environmental demands of steppe life would have logically focused the ingenuity and expertise of its people in this direction as essential skills to their survival. The latest findings confirm these long held local beliefs.

As National Geographic noted when it reported Outram’s discoveries, the domestication of the horse and their subsequent employment as draught animals or beasts of burden “transformed human society by speeding up transport, making long-distance trading more feasible and opening up new styles of warfare.” This development has therefore long been recognized as being one of the most important advances in early human history.

It is striking that the archaeological evidence to solve this age-old mystery was found in Kazakhstan, the same country that today is home to the Baikonur Cosmodrome from which cosmonaut Yury Gagarin was launched to become the first human being in space half a century ago.

The popularity and significance of the horse in Kazakh culture today remains strong. New hippodromes — or racetracks — have opened in Almaty, the nation’s largest city, and in Kazakhstan’s new capital Astana. Equestrian sports centers have sprung up and horse trekking in the nation’s national parks and mountains are popular pastimes.
Kazakhstan has emerged from the mists of history as both the most modern and ancient of nations along the fabled Silk Road. And its long-cherished equestrian culture has now revealed to have provided a giant gallop forward for human progress.

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