Evidence for world’s first horse riders found in eastern Europe, dating back nearly 5,000 years

Using horses to get around was a critical juncture for development of human society.

Human skeletons found in 4,500-5,000-year-old burial mounds in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Serbia show the six distinct signs that the people were horse riders.

Using horses was a critical juncture for development of human society.

The earthen burial mounds, called kurgans, belonged to the Yamnayan culture – migrants from the Pontic-Caspian steppes which stretch across from what is now Romania, Moldova and Ukraine in the west to western Kazakhstan and the lower Volga regions of Russia in the east.

Yamnaya were cattle and sheep herders. The latest discovery suggest they may have tended to their livestock on horseback.

“Horseback-riding seems to have evolved not long after the presumed domestication of horses in the western Eurasian steppes during the fourth millennium BCE,” says Volker Heyd, University of Helsinki archaeology professor and member of the international team which made the discovery. “It was already rather common in members of the Yamnaya culture between 3000 and 2500 BCE.”

The regions west of the Black Sea where the Yamnaya burial mounds were found were areas where the mobile herdspeople first encountered the settled farmer communities which occupied the areas in the late Stone Age (Neolithic) and Copper Age (Calcolithic).

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The early Bronze Age expansion of steppe peoples into southeastern Europe was thought to be a violent invasion.

“Our research is now beginning to provide a more nuanced picture of their interactions,” explains University of Helsinki postdoctoral researcher Bianca Preda-Bălănică.

“For example, findings of physical violence as were expected are practically non-existent in the skeletal record so far. We also start understanding the complex exchange processes in material culture and burial customs between newcomers and locals in the 200 years after their first contact.”

Current research into the advent of horse riding has mostly focused on the horses themselves.

But using horses for transport had a big impact on human society. With increased mobility came changes to land use, trade and warfare. It also has an impact on the individual human riders as well.

“We studied over 217 skeletons from 39 sites of which about 150 found in the burial mounds belong to the Yamnayans,” says postdoc Martin Trautmann, a bioanthropologist in Helsinki. “Diagnosing activity patterns in human skeletons is not unambiguous. There are no singular traits that indicate a certain occupation or behaviour. Only in their combination, as a syndrome, provides reliable insights to understand habitual activities of the past.”

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The six indicators of “horsemanship syndrome” used in the study are:

  • Muscle attachment sites on pelvis and thigh bone (femur);
  • Changes in the normally round shape of the hip sockets;
  • Imprint marks caused by pressure on the femur;
  • The diameter and form of the femur shaft;
  • Vertebral degeneration caused by repeated vertical impact;
  • Physical signs attributable to falls, kicks or bites from horses.

Of the 156 adults studied, at least 24 were classified as “possible riders”, while five Yamnaya and two later as well as two possibly earlier individuals qualify as “highly probable riders”. “The rather high prevalence of these traits in the skeleton record, especially with respect to the overall limited completeness, show that these people were horse riding regularly”, Trautmann states.

But it’s possible horse riding goes back even further.

“We have one intriguing burial in the series” says David Anthony, emeritus Professor of Hartwick College USA.

“A grave dated about 4300 BCE at Csongrad-Kettöshalom in Hungary, long suspected from its pose and artifacts to have been an immigrant from the steppes, surprisingly showed four of the six riding pathologies, possibly indicating riding a millennium earlier than Yamnaya. An isolated case cannot support a firm conclusion, but in Neolithic cemeteries of this era in the steppes, horse remains were occasionally placed in human graves with those of cattle and sheep, and stone maces were carved into the shape of horse heads. Clearly, we need to apply this method to even older collections.”

The research is published in Science Advances.

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