The first signs of horsemanship found in 5,000-year-old human remains End-shutdown

A tomb in Malomirovo, Bulgaria, containing a human skeleton with evidence of horsemanship.

Michal Podsiadlo

The earliest evidence of horsemanship has been found in 5,000-year-old human skeletons from southeastern Europe.

Bones of nine men from graves in Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania show riding marks in wear patterns on the spine, legs, and pelvis.

The adoption of horsemanship is considered one of the key developments in history, as it helped people raise livestock, promoted trade and migration, and ultimately transformed warfare.

“Suddenly people had the ability to move five times faster and carry 10 times more than they could before, that’s revolutionary,” he says. martin trautman at the University of Helsinki in Finland.

It has long been suspected that the first people to domesticate horses were the Yamnaya, cattle herders originating from the Eurasian steppe north of the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains. They then colonized most of Europe in what some archaeologists see as a murderous rampage.

Traces of mare’s milk have been found in fragments of their pots. Although this shows that people kept horses, it is possible they first did so for milk and meat, so it is unclear when they began riding the animals.

Trautmann’s team analyzed the remains of 217 human skeletons that had previously been found in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Serbia for signs of wear on their bones that could indicate horsemanship. They date from between 3,000 and 7,000 years ago. “Bones are living tissue and if you do certain activities throughout your life, the attached muscles and ligaments put pressure on the bones,” says a member of the team. Volker Heydthat is, at the University of Helsinki.

Several features have previously been proposed as hallmarks of horsemanship, as they are sometimes present in modern people who spend a lot of time riding horses. They include wear and tear on the upper and lower surfaces of the vertebrae of the spine, caused by the up and down movement experienced in a horse.

Another potential sign is a thicker, rougher area where the thigh muscles meet the thigh bones, showing heavy use of the thighs, which could be due to the need to grip the horse with the legs. “There is additional bone growth to enlarge the area where the ligament meets the bone, so it disperses the force better,” says Trautmann.

The team evaluated all the skeletons looking for six of those seals. Five individuals showed the strongest evidence of horseback riding, having five or more of the signs. Four other skeletons showed four of the signs. All nine were male, dating to 4,500 to 5,000 years ago.

but william taylor at the University of Colorado Boulder says that other types of horsemanship evidence, such as remains of bridles, do not appear in the archaeological record for this region until about 1,000 years later. “It approaches this region of the steppes as a homeland, but we are almost a millennium away.”

The wear patterns on the bones are not conclusive evidence of horseback riding, as they could have been caused by other activities, such as riding a cattle cart, he says. “We don’t have the kind of data I’d like to see to allow human skeletons to track horsemanship versus other activities.”


  • archeology/
  • ancient humans

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