horse herders

In the windy, flat, open grasslands of the Western Steppe, in a region that’s now part of northern Kazakhstan, an isolated group of primitive humans led simple lives. The Botai, living 5,000 years ago in the Copper Age, descended from hunter-gatherers and lived in huts. They sculpted tools. They hunted animals for food, bone, and skins and gathered fruits according to the season. And they herded, raised, bred, corralled, and milked horses.

Since 2008, the Botai have been recognized as one of the first groups of people to domesticate and manage horses—despite their relatively primitive lifestyle, even for their time. Still hunter-gatherers, they were surrounded by more advanced populations that were already moving on to rudimentary farming. But an archaeological dig on ancient Botai land revealed mare milk residue on pottery, horse teeth that looked as if a bit had been used, and traces suggesting horse manure had been used in roofing materials. Archaeologists also found fencing materials, special horse burial traditions, and leather-making tools, presumably for working with horse skin and hair.

The Botai must have had help, or at least some kind of inspiration, to make such a major step in animal husbandry, researchers believe. Surely they got the idea from more advanced populations that migrated through the areas. The Yamnaya people, originating in modern-day Europe, were accomplished herders who traveled long distances across the Western Steppes. They likely shared their culture (and language) with local populations during their adventures. And this, probably, is how the Botai learned to herd horses. At least, that was the theory—known as the “Steppe Hypothesis.”

Now we know that might not be the way things happened. An international group of researchers recently completed a genetics study that seems to contradict the Steppe Hypothesis. Their in-depth analyses of ancient DNA showed no trace of interactions between the Botai and the Yamnaya back when the Botai were handling equids. In other words, it appears that the Botai might have figured out horse husbandry all by themselves.

“Horses can be corralled, milked, and used for transport, and so at the start of the Botai period it appears that hunters turned into specialist horse herders,” because they could control the number and location of animals to hunt, said Alan K. Outram, BA, MSc, PhD, MCIfA, FSA, professor of archaeological science and editor-in-chief of Science and Technology of Archaeological Research in the University of Exeter Department of Archaeology, in the U.K.

“The Botai did this on their own without outside influence from peoples like the Yamnaya,” he said.

In essence, they probably followed what scientists call the “prey path”—they wanted better control over their prey (in this case, horses) so they started herding them to make them more easily accessible. Over time they found other uses for them, such as providing milk and possibly work and transportation.

To challenge the Steppe Hypothesis, Outram and colleagues—a team of more than 50 scientists from around the globe—analyzed 74 ancient whole-genome sequences of DNA from humans in the Steppe representing various populations.

They found significant genetic differences between the Botai and Yamnaya people—enough to conclude that these populations likely never intermixed, Outram said. And in the context of ancient times, that means they probably didn’t cross paths at all.

That doesn’t mean they were the only ones to figure out horse husbandry, though, he added. Even if they appear to be the first horse herders, it’s possible—and even likely—that other populations also developed similar systems on their own. In fact, the team’s complementary studies suggest that our modern-day domestic horses didn’t come from the Botai horses but from another domesticated group. More research is needed in all these areas, said the researchers.

Whether the Botai rode horses is a different area of study, said Outram. Horse husbandry doesn’t mean equitation—even if some of the horses’ teeth had bitlike scrapes on them.

“Definitions of domestication vary, but when animals come under human husbandry in a way that is likely to affect their breeding or natural selection (whether through deliberate selective breeding or accidental effects of husbandry and control) they become domestic,” he said. “Thus, we currently suspect the Botai phenomenon is best explained as ‘horse herding’ rather than implying the whole raft of things associated with equestrianism.”

The research group was able to carry out such a complex study only because of technological advances allowing them to combine modern research tools.

“It is only ancient genomics well-contextualized with archaeological setting that can tell the whole story,” Outram said.

Eske Willerslev, PhD, of the Centre for GeoGenetics in the Natural History Museum, Denmark’s Centre for GeoGenetics, part of the University of Copenhagen, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, the U.K., and the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge; and Richard Durbin, PhD, of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the Department of Genetics at the University of Cambridge, contributed to the project as human genetics authors. Ludovic Orlando, PhD, head of Paleomix Group and curator of cryobank at the Natural History Museum in Copenhagen contributed as the senior horse genetics author.

The study, “The first horse herders and the impact of early Bronze Age steppe expansions into Asia,” was published in Science.