We can see from the fantastic cave paintings that have been discovered at 350 sites across Europe that horses were an important part of life for prehistoric man.
The best known of these cave painting sites is at Lascaux in France.
The cave paintings are thought to be about 16,000 years old and contain pictures of 900 different animals that have been identified. Of all the animals drawn on the cave walls, horses are by far the most, with 364 images.
It is interesting that there aren't any images of reindeer even though they would have been the main source of food for the artist. This might suggest that the paintings were of animals that meant something more than just as a source of food. For instance the bull may have represented strength, the cat for hunting skill, birds for their ability to fly and the horse for its beauty and speed. These cave paintings may represent the beginnings of Animism and Totemism which formed the foundations of early religions and spiritual beliefs.
It is generally accepted that "animism" refers to the belief that non-human entities, such as animals and plants, as well as inanimate objects like rocks, mountains or rivers can have souls. Often these entities are worshipped and must be placated by offerings in order to gain favour.
A totem is any supposed entity that watches over or assists a group of people, such as a family, clan, or tribe. The totem is usually an animal or other naturalistic figure that spiritually represents the tribe.
It is thought that the domestication of the horse only happened after early humans had settled into an agricultural lifestyle and had already domesticated sheep, goats and cattle. For a time people still only kept horses as a source of meat, milk and hides for housing and clothes. Riding horses was still a very long time off. Evidence has been found in the Ukraine of domestication of horses dating back 6000 years. Then 4000 years ago it seems that the people from this area changed from a settled farming life and once again became nomads, constantly moving from place to place. It is not known why this occurred however wars may be one explanation.
Although these people had reverted to the nomadic way of life they no longer just relied on hunting but took their domesticated cattle, sheep and horses with them. This would mean that their movements would be based on the availability of pasture for their herds. These nomads, having tamed their horses, may well have used them as pack animals when moving camp.
About the same time horses came to the Middle East possibly brought by northern herdsmen who traded them for other goods. It was such a strange animal to the people of Mesopotamia (land around the Tigris and Euphrates River system, roughly where modern day Iraq is located) that they called it ‘the ass of the mountains'. There is evidence from this time that horses were used to pull sledges and small carts. They used a noseband that went under the chin and was held in place by a strap that went behind the horse's ears.
Around 3700 years ago there was a major improvement to the chariots people used to carry messages and as a platform for archers in battles. Instead of a solid timber wheel and a fixed axle, the chariot became lighter with spoked wheels and a rotating axle. At about the same time the bit that goes in a horse's mouth was also invented. Originally it was made of rope or leather but eventually it was made out of metal. The horse could now replace the onager (ass) as the best animal to pull the lighter more manoeuvrable chariots. The horse now became a highly effective military weapon.
The First Riders
No one knows where, when or who was the first person to actually ride a horse. It may have been a farm boy jumping up on the most docile of his tamed herd, but we will never know. What we do know is that oxen and onagers (asses) were used as cart animals and both were ridden long before horses. Where oxen, asses and other animals could be subdued using a ring through their nose, even the quietest horse would never tolerate this treatment.
The first horse rider must have been very brave because few men would have been tempted to get on top of such an unpredictable creature. Little Eohippus (the earliest known horse) had evolved, over 55 million years, into the most temperamental of all domesticated animals. At the first sign of danger the horse will flee at a thundering gallop. If they are cornered and feel threatened they can lash out with their hooves and teeth. So the art of riding such sensitive creatures would have been a long and painful experience.
It has been said "wherever man has left his footprint in the long ascent from barbarism to civilization we will find the hoofprint of the horse beside him." It is believed that the first real horse riders came from the steppes (vast grass plains) of Europe and Asia. These grass plains stretched from Hungary in the west almost to the Yellow Sea in China to the east. What the horsemen called themselves we don't know as they did not write therefore we only have second hand accounts mainly from the Greeks and Chinese. They referred to them as Scythians, Samatians, Yueh-Chin and Hsiung-nu, to name but a few.
The best known of these are the Scythians who dominated an area from the Urals to the Black Sea, which is were the Ukraine is located today.
The Scyths first appeared around 3000 years ago, however it is unclear whether they came out of northern Iran or from the Volga Hills in Russia. Our knowledge of these people and the great empire they created comes from Herodotus (a Greek Historian) and their burial mounds (Kurgans) that are dotted over present day Ukraine and southern Russia. They were described by ancient observes at the time as ‘a passionate people - bearded men with dark, deep-set eyes, weather-cured faces and long, wind-snarled hair.' Many ethnic groups today, such as the Scottish elite, Anglo-Saxons, Celts and Hungarians, to name a few have claimed Scythian ancestry.
Remembering that while other nations were still relying on foot soldiers and chariots the Scythians came riding at a gallop, shooting thousands of arrows. One of their favourite moves was to send their arrows high so they would rain down on their enemies, then race forward but just before they made contact, they would wheel around and shoot a fresh flight of arrows over the rumps of their horses (shooting arrows over the rump while retreating was called the ‘Parthian Shot'). They would shriek and thunder away to regroup for the next assault. This tactic would usually leave their enemy in total disarray.
Their mounted tactics required an incredible level of horsemanship and riding skill, which could only be gained from generations of experience and a life spent on horseback. Even their clothing was adapted to riding. They wore trousers rather than robes as well as pliable boots without heels. Their saddles were no more than two pads without stirrups (stirrups did not appear until hundreds of years later).
The Scythian's horses have been well documented from the Kurgans which not only contain human skeletons but also grave goods and skeletons of their horses.
From this evidence we know that there were two types of horses, the Turanian warhorse (which is similar to the present day Akhal Teke) and a horse that is almost identical to the present day Yabou or Mongolian pony. The Turanian horse was taller and finer with long muscular legs while the smaller horse was coarser and far more common.In the burial mounds of Scythian kings and warriors they have consistently found that, out of all the horse sacrifices, there would only be one Turanian horse buried with many Yabous. This indicates their rarity and the value placed on them.
The Scyths were also different from other nomadic tribes that came after them, in that some of their most celebrated warriors were women. Herodotus, the Greek historian, wrote “no Scythian woman may marry until she has killed a man of the enemy”. It is also believed that these ‘woman warriors' were the inspiration for the Greek depiction of Amazons.
It would be wrong to suggest that the Scythians were the first to ride horses, as we don't know who the first riders were. However, they were certainly skilled and created a huge empire based on their ferocious fighting ability on horseback.
At this time we know that the Egyptians and Assyrians were riding horses, however they still used a ‘donkey seat', which made them so unsteady that they had to be led by aides who held onto the reins while the rider used his bow.
What we do know is that once we started to ride horses the history of man was changed forever. On a horse we could see further, travel faster and make our ambitions possible.
Update: News Articles
Early Horsemen of the Steppes used Corrals
First published here: 30 January 2011
Original story from Scientific America
It has long been known that horses formed the foundations for the ancient people of Kazakhstan, known as the Botai. Back in 2005, archaeologist Sandra Olsen of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and her team surveyed the Krasnyi Yar site using magnetic imaging to map soil irregularities. After mapping 24,300 square metres of the settlement, the researchers identified 54 pit houses and dozens of mounds where vertical posts once stood. Many of these post mounds were circular and could have been corrals. The soil samples confirmed that the main elements found in horse manure were present in high concentrations.
Of the 300,000 animal bone fragments found 99% are from horses. These bones included skulls and backbones, which Copper Age hunters would not have transported if the horses had been hunted in the wild. Previously researchers also found microscopic wear on seven horse premolars caused by a bit. This data plus the soil studies would indicate that horses were corralled or stabled.
Later research in 2009 found pottery containing mares milk (you wouldn’t milk a wild horse), and horse bones that showed telltale signs of being bred after domestication meaning the Botai were users of domesticated horses by about 3,500 BC (5,500 BP), which is close to 1,000 years earlier than previously thought.
It has always been difficult to research the earliest forms of domestication because the materials used, such as leather, iron and timber disappear over time. However, the evidence so far would suggest that the Botai may have ridden horses, hunted on horseback, used them to pull sledges, bred them for food (meat, milk and blood) as well as for clothing and shelters (skins and bones).
The burial mounds (Kurgans) in the Ukraine where horse sacrifices have been found, are still earlier than the Botai finds, however it is unclear whether these sacrifices were of domesticated horses.
Mares’ milk can be differentiated from the milk of other mammals, such as sheep or cattle, by analysing the lipids in the milk.
The word ‘steppes’ is used to describe a large area of flat un-forested grassland in south-eastern Europe or Siberia. In the US this type of geography and vegetation would be called a prairie, in South America it would be called the pampas and Australians would call it the plains.
Riders in traditional dress still play a kissing game (Kyz kuu) called “Chase the Girl”, one of many traditional games (the girl in the photograph below looks as though she knows how to use a whip!)
Hun Princess Graveyard Secret
First published here: 15 February 2011
Sourced from Mongolia Today – online magazine
A Hunnu princess’s graveyard, discovered in Mankhan located in Khovd province (western Mongolia), has given up some wonderful secrets to the excited archaeologists.
Professor Navaan, who headed the expedition said, “We were really lucky. The graveyard was not plundered. Though the wooden cover was demolished, the coffin chamber was well preserved “.
The Hun princess who lay undisturbed for about 2,000 years was barely 20 years old when she died. The wooden walls of the coffin were held together by leather strips, which were amazingly well preserved. The side-walls of the coffin were ornamented with four flower petals and remnants of the green silk wrapping could still be seen.
Inside the coffin they discovered golden earrings, a hair comb, bronze decorations, wooden plates covered with gold and other personal belongings of the Hun princess. The larger box, which enclosed the coffin, contained a bronze jar with engravings of various animals, metal bridles, details of horse equipment as well as a large chariot wheel.
Five horse skulls had been placed on the northern side of the burial, with one horse’s head turned towards the coffin. Archaeologists believe that the separate horse’s head belonged to her best-loved horse, and was meant to stay with her on her journey after death.
The burial chamber was about 16 metres deep, which indicated that she was an important noblewoman.
Comment: We included this story because of our interest in the discoveries that are being made to expand our understanding of our relationship with horses. It was also a bit sad that she died so young along with her horses.
Riding Accident May Have Killed Pharaoh
First published here: 20 March 2011
Original story from The Guardian
‘Boys will be boys’…and the boy-king Tutankhamun may not have been an exception when it came to participating in risky sports.
Researchers led by Ashraf Selim from the teaching hospital at Cairo University, in Egypt, have undertaken CT scans to build a 3D image of the 3,300-year-old body using 1,900 images. The scans revealed that the king was 5' 11" (about 1.8metres) tall and probably 19 years old when he died.
The scans also revealed that Tutankhamun had a high-impact fracture just above his left knee. His kneecap was badly twisted to the outside of the leg and the wound was open to the outside and exposed to infection. The presence of embalming fluid means that the fracture and wound happened before he died rather than during excavation of the mummy.
Frank Ruhli, a paleoanthropologist from the University of Zurich’s Institute of Anatomy said, “In my view, this is a deadly fracture. It is a major bone – the injury probably involving the rupture of a major blood vessel, and it is open to outside air, meaning it was likely to become infected. It’s a common injury amongst horse riders and, without antibiotics and surgery, he may have been dead with blood infection within a few days.”
Speculation about how and why Tutankhamun died has been raging since he was discovered in 1922 and first inspected in 1925. The first X-rays, taken in 1968, found signs of damage to his skull, which fueled speculation that he had been murdered. However, the fracture to his leg is more likely to have been the cause of his death.
The type of fracture is most commonly seen in jockeys, so we may speculate that the boy king died due to a sporting accident.
Archaeologists Find the Ancient Olympic Hippodrome
First published here: 30 January 2011
Archaeologists have been excavating Olympia, site of the ancient Olympic Games, for well over a 100 years, but the location of the Hippodrome has remained a mystery.
The Hippodrome was the place where the Greeks competed with their horses and chariots in death-defying races. Many assumed that nothing had survived the flooding by the Alfeios River, as the area has been covered in a deep layer of silt since ancient times.
Using modern geophysical methods, however, they systematically searched the area for the first time. Geomagnetic and georadar techniques were able to map soil disturbance such as watercourses, ditches, and walls and the data they retrieved showed a rectangular structure about 1200 metres in length. The researchers believe that this is the ancient racecourse which ran parallel to the stadium. The actual starting gates, with boxes for up to 24 teams of horses, are believed to be under a huge mound of earth which had been left after excavation of a temple.
The area east of the sanctuary of Olympia had not been investigated before, even though ancient texts identified it as the site of the Hippodrome.
Aerial view of Olympia. Lines show extent of the Hippodrome
Comment: The word Hippodrome comes from two Greek words, ‘hippo’ meaning horse and ‘drome’ meaning a place for running and racing. The naming of many of the ancestral horses-like animals used the word ‘hippus’ to identify them as part of the horse family (such as Eohippus, Orohippus and Mesohippus). You might be wondering then about the Hippopotamus; although they are a distant relation in the ‘ungulate’ (hoofed) family tree, they are not horses – this fact did not stop people from calling them ‘horse of the river’ or ‘river horses’ (‘hippo’ meaning horse and ‘potamus’ meaning river).