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Domestication, Breed Diversification and Early History of the Horse
Marsha A Levine 
McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research
Cambridge, UK


            Before the development of firearms, the horse was crucial to warfare and before the invention of the steam engine, it was the fastest and most reliable form of land transport.  Today its importance in the undeveloped and developing world, including Eastern Europe, has scarcely diminished and even in the developed world it is of great economic importance to sport and leisure industries. Nevertheless, in spite of intensive investigations over many years, researchers know very little about the origins and evolution of horse husbandry.

The Origins of Horse Domestication

Throughout the course of the 20th century a variety of theories have been developed purporting to explain where, when and for what purposes the horse was first domesticated.  The basic positions can be summarized as that it was first domesticated:

·        during the Neolithic, Eneolithic or Early Bronze Age;

·        for meat, riding or traction;

·        in the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Eastern Europe, Western Europe or the Near East;

·        at a single locus or at a number of different loci, more or less simultaneously.

In some situations it is, of course, very easy to show how horses had been used in ancient times.  For example, the horses found in some of the south Siberian Iron Age kurgans - such as Pazyryk, Bashadar and Ak-Alakha - were accompanied by well-preserved equipment such as bridles, saddles and harnessing (Polos'mak, 1994; Rudenko, 1970).  However, at most sites, especially those dating from the period when horses were first domesticated for riding and traction, the situation is more complicated.  Organic materials such as leather and wood are only very rarely recoverable from the archaeological record.  In unfavourable soil conditions even bone is eventually destroyed.  Moreover, not only is it possible to ride a horse without the use of a saddle or bridle, but also, during the early stages of horse domestication, it is likely that they were usually ridden that way.

Types of Evidence for the Origins of Horse Domestication

There are two kinds of evidence for early horse husbandry: direct and indirect.  Direct evidence relates to artistic, textual and funerary evidence (burials where horses were interred with riding tack, harnessing, wagons or chariots), in which there is virtually no doubt both that the horses were caballine and that they were ridden or used for traction.  That is, the possibility that a wild horse would be buried with a chariot is almost certainly low enough to be dismissed as insignificant (but, of course, not impossible). 

Indirect evidence is inferred from characteristics of bones and artifacts.  It includes evidence derived from analytical methods such as population structure profiling, osteometrical analysis, biogeographical distribution, relative proportions in archaeological deposits, bit wear analysis, palaeopathology, and artifact analysis.  It is invariably the case that any one pattern manifested by these types of data could have more than one explanation.

There is no direct evidence for the origins of horse domestication and it is doubtful that there ever will be.  Moreover, on its own no one type of indirect data can provide satisfactory evidence of horse domestication.  Indirect evidence must have corroboration from as many directions as possible.  The confusing of direct and indirect evidence has resulted in mistaken interpretations of the archaeological data.  These issues have been discussed in detail elsewhere (Levine, 1999b), so they will only be briefly mentioned here.  Some types of indirect and unsatisfactory evidence often used as proof of horse domestication are:

·        The presence of so-called horse-head sceptres and other ritual objects apparently associated with horses at Eneolithic sites.

·        The presence of horse burials not associated with tack.

·        The presence of objects described as cheekpieces or hobbles.

·        Beveling of the lower 2nd premolar, described as bit wear.

·        Confusing the intensification of horse exploitation with domestication.

·        Size change.

·        Morphological variability.

·        The discovery of horses outside their apparent geographical distribution.

·        Misinterpretations of population structure.

·        A relatively high percentage of horse bones and teeth in a deposit.

·        The apparent increase in the proportion of horses at a site or group of sites by comparison with earlier periods.

·        The association of horses with other apparently domesticated taxa.

Dereivka, a Ukrainian settlement site (circa 4500-3500 BC), has been central to the problem of the origins of horse domestication, because for the past three decades it has been regarded as the site with the earliest evidence of horse husbandry (e.g. Anthony and Brown, 1991; Bibikova, 1986; Bökönyi, 1978; Gimbutas, 1991; Mallory, 1989; Telegin, 1986).  More recently another Eneolithic settlement site, Botai, from Kazakhstan has also been associated with the origins of horse domestication (Brown and Anthony, 1998). However, upon further examination, it is clear that the evidence backing these claims is deeply flawed.  Careful consideration of the data from both Botai and Dereivka strongly suggests that the vast majority, if not the totality, of the horses from both of those sites were wild (Levine, 1999a; Levine, 1999b).  Because of the relatively high proportions of horses dying during their most productive years, their mortality distributions, based upon tooth ageing, are characteristic of hunted animals. 

Investigations of bone pathology have also been very informative about this question (Levine, 1999b; Levine et al, 2000).  Comparisons of Early Iron Age, Scytho-Siberian horses from burials in the Ukraine and the Altai (1st millennium BC), free-living modern Exmoor Ponies and Medieval Turkic horses from the Altai strongly suggest that certain abnormalities of the caudal thoracic vertebrae are associated with the use of pad saddles and, most probably, with riding bareback.  These abnormalities are entirely absent from Botai, where the preservation of vertebrae is very good.  Unfortunately the vertebrae from Dereivka had all been discarded before they could be studied.

The Earliest direct Evidence for Horse Domestication

The earliest unambiguous dateable textual and artistic evidence for horse domestication probably only dates back to the end of the third millennium BC.  Evidence of horses in graves, accompanied by artifacts unambiguously associated with riding or traction is even more recent, dating, so far, only to the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC (Kuz'mina, 1994; Littauer and Crouwel, 1996; Piggott, 1992; Postgate, 1986; Renfrew, 1987; Zarins, 1986).  The horses from the Sintashta chariot burials (on the south Ural steppe), dated to circa 2000 BC, are the earliest known domestic horses (Zdanovich and Zdanovich in press).  However, shortly thereafter the expansion of the domestic horse throughout Europe was little short of explosive.  By the middle of the 2nd millennium BC horses were being used to pull chariots – from as far afield as Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, the Eurasian steppe; and in China by the 14th century BC (Linduff in press; Littauer and Crouwel, 1996; Piggott, 1992; Shaw, 2001). 

There is apparently no reliable textual or artistic evidence for horse riding earlier than the end of the 2nd millennium BC (Levine, 1999b; Piggott, 1992; Renfrew, 1987). There are earlier representations of people riding equids in the Near East. However, because of the extreme difficulty of distinguishing artistic representations of Equus caballus from those of other Near Eastern equids, it is impossible to identify the earliest evidence for horse riding itself (Postgate, 1992). 

That horses were buried in considerable numbers in elaborate, high prestige graves at Sintashta (Gening, Zdanovich, and Gening, 1992) suggests that by this period (the Middle Bronze Age) they played an important role in society and, almost certainly had been domesticated for a considerable period of time.  Currently we lack the evidence to say what that period of time actually was.  Nevertheless, ethnographic and ethological data allow us to put forward a hypothesis to explain how the earliest domestication might have come about.

Taming and Domesticating Horses

According to J. Clutton-Brock, "A tame animal differs from a wild one in that it is dependent on man and will stay close to him of its own free will" (Clutton-Brock, 1987, p.12)).  Aboriginal hunter-gatherers and horticulturists throughout the world are known to tame all kinds of wild animals to keep as pets.  There is no reason to think that this would not have been the case at least from time of the earliest anatomically modern Homo sapiens and, when the need arose, taming would probably have been the first step towards domestication (Clutton-Brock, 1987; Galton 1883; Serpell, 1989).  Wild horses, particularly as foals, can be captured and tamed and, as such, ridden or harnessed and, at the end of their lives, if necessary, slaughtered and eaten.  During historical times both the North American Plains tribes and the Mongols used the arkan, lasso or herd drive to capture wild or feral horses to eat or to tame them (Levine, 1999a).  Horses taming was regarded as a skill most successfully carried out by specialists, whose most important tool was their intimate knowledge of horse behaviour. On this basis I would like to propose a possible scenario for the development of horse husbandry. 

As a working hypothesis, I would like to suggest that horse taming probably first arose as a bi-product of horse hunting for meat.  Orphaned foals, captured between the ages of perhaps 2 months and 1 year, or possibly somewhat later, would sometimes have been adopted and raised as pets.  Eventually, and perhaps repeatedly, the discovery was made that these pets could be put to work.  This knowledge could have been acquired and lost many times from the Pleistocene onwards.  But it was, apparently, only during the Holocene - possibly between the Neolithic and the Early Bronze Age - that it began to influence human social developments. 

Initially the difficulties involved in keeping captured wild horses alive would have set limits to their impact - as work animals - on human society.  Furthermore, considering the problems encountered by modern collectors trying to breed Przewalski’s horses, it seems likely that horse-keeping would have had to have been relatively advanced before controlled breeding, and thus domestication, would have been possible: “Failure to consider the typical social organization of the species can result in problems such as pacing, excessive rates of aggression, impotence and infanticide” (Boyd and Houpt, 1994, p. 222).  In order to breed wild horses successfully in captivity, their environmental, nutritional and social requirements must be met:

“...In zoos, juvenile male Przewalski’s horses should be left in their natal bands for at least a year so that they can observe mating behaviour.  They should be placed in bachelor herds when removed from the natural band, and not given harems until they are at least four or five years of age.  The first mares placed with the stallion should be younger than he and the harem size should be kept small until the stallion gains age and experience.” (Boyd and Houpt, 1994, p 226)

            That capturing wild horses and stealing tamed or domesticated ones was regarded by the Plains tribes as preferable to breeding them supports the scenario proposed here.  If it is correct, it seems likely that there would have been a relatively long period of time when new horses would have been recruited from wild populations.  This could have been carried out by trapping, driving and chasing, as documented for the Mongols and North American Plains tribes (Levine, 1999a).  

Table 1 - A Rough Chronology of the Pontic Steppe


Dates (BC)


900 - 300

Iron Age

1500 - 900

Late Bronze Age

2000 - 1500

Middle Bronze Age

3000 - 2000

Early Bronze Age

4500/4000 - 3000


6000 - 4500/4000


This leads me to hypothesise that horse domestication would have taken a relatively long time to develop and might well have depended upon chance genetic changes that would have predisposed some horses to breed in captivity.  Horse domestication could thus, in a sense, have been initiated by the horses themselves.  Another possibility is that the human understanding of horse behaviour might have developed to such a degree that horses finally would have been able to reproduce in captivity.  Perhaps the most likely scenario is that the human and equine parts of the equation would have evolved together. 


The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, the Natural Environmental Research Council, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the British Academy and the Leakey Foundation provided funding for this research.  The University of Cambridge and the British Academy provided travel support.


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