Yamnaya People Were Likely Skilled Horseback Riders, Study Suggests

 According to a report presented on March 3 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting and published in Science Advances, the ancient Yamnaya people may have been the world's earliest horseback riders. The evidence comes from the analysis of five skeletons dating back to 3000 to 2500 B.C., which exhibit signs of physical stress that suggest these individuals frequently rode horses. Therefore, the Yamnaya are the earliest humans identified as probable horseback riders to date.

Scientists have completed the first genetic analysis of Chernobyl's dogs. This pack of roaming dogs lives in the former power plant's industrial areas. T. MOUSSEAU

Around five thousand years ago, the Yamnaya people migrated extensively, spreading Indo-European languages and altering the human gene pool across Europe and Asia. Their travels spanned roughly 4,500 kilometers from modern-day Hungary to Mongolia and are believed to have occurred over just a few centuries, according to archaeologist Volker Heyd of the University of Helsinki. Heyd states that the Yamnaya significantly impacted the history of Eurasia.

Horse domestication became widely established around 3500 B.C. for milk and meat purposes, although there is an ongoing debate over whether the Botai people in modern-day Kazakhstan started riding horses at that time. While the Yamnaya had horses, there was previously a lack of evidence suggesting they rode them. However, the oldest known depictions of horseback riding date back to roughly 2000 B.C. Determining when horseback riding originated is complicated due to the fact that any possible riding gear would have been made of long-decayed natural materials, and complete horse skeletons from that era are rarely discovered by scientists.

Volker Heyd and his colleagues were not specifically searching for evidence of horseback riding when they began their project, called the Yamnaya Impact on Prehistoric Europe. Instead, they aimed to gain a comprehensive understanding of every aspect of the ancient Yamnaya people's lives. While examining over 200 human skeletons from countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary, bioanthropologist Martin Trautmann noticed distinctive traits on one individual's femur and other bones that suggested the person was a horseback rider.

The first depictions of horseback riding date back around 4,000 years, but a new study suggests that some Yamnaya people were riding horses around 1,000 years earlier. This limestone relief from the Horemheb tomb in Egypt, built around 1300 B.C., depicts a possible Yamnaya riding style. BOLOGNA CIVICO ARCHEOLOGICO MUSEO

Although Trautmann was initially surprised by the discovery, he continued to analyze more skeletons and found that several others exhibited similar traits. The team assessed all the skeletons for the presence of six physical signs of horseback riding, which included marks on the pelvis and femur that could have resulted from sitting with spread legs while holding onto a horse, as well as vertebrae damage from falling off a horse.

The team deemed five male Yamnaya individuals as frequent horseback riders due to having four or more signs of horsemanship, while nine other males probably rode horses, but the researchers were less confident because the skeletons each displayed only three markers. The team created a scoring system to account for the severity, preservation, and relative importance of the skeletal traits. Trautmann emphasizes that bones are living tissue that reacts to any environmental stimulus.

According to bioarchaeologist Maria Mednikova of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, who was not involved in the study, it is hypothetically logical that the Yamnaya would have experimented with riding horses considering their close relationship with them. She plans to examine Yamnaya skeletons she has access to for horse-riding traits, as she believes the human skeletal system can provide a wealth of information. 

A Przewalski's horse (shown) resembles the type of horse that Yamnaya may have ridden in appearance, color, and size. THE HELSINKI ZOO

Ursula Brosseder, an archaeologist not involved in the study, warns against interpreting the finding as evidence of full equestrianism in Yamnaya culture, but rather as evidence of humans still exploring the possibilities of domesticated horses. Heyd, on the other hand, has long suspected that the Yamnaya rode horses gave their possession of them and their rapid expansion over a large area. He believes this study provides proof of his suspicions.

M. Trautmann et al. First bioanthropological evidence for Yamnaya horsemanship.


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