The Mercury News
First evidence of horseback riding dates back 5,000 years
WASHINGTON >> Archaeologists have found the earliest direct evidence for horseback riding — an innovation that would transform history – in 5,000 year old human skeletons in central Europe.
“When you get on a horse and ride it fast, it's a thrill — I'm sure ancient humans felt the same way,” said David Anthony, a co-author of the study and Hartwick College archaeologist. “Horseback riding was the fastest a human could go before the railroads.”
Researchers analyzed more than 200 Bronze Age skeletal remains in museum collections in Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Hungary and the Czech Republic to look for signs of what co-author and University of Helsinki anthropologist Martin Trautmann calls “horse rider syndrome” — six tell-tale markers that indicate a person was likely riding an animal, including wear marks on the hip sockets, thigh bone and pelvis.
“You can read bones like biographies,” said Trautmann, who has previously studied similar wear patterns in skeletons from later periods when horseback riding is well-established in the historical record.
The researchers focused on human skeletons — which are more readily preserved than horse bones in burial sites and museums — and identified five likely riders who lived around 4,500 to 5,000 years ago and belonged to a Bronze Age people called the Yamnaya.
“There is earlier evidence for harnessing and milking of horses, but this is the earliest direct evidence so far for horseback riding,” said University of Exeter archaeologist Alan Outram, who was not involved in the research, but praised the approach.
The study was published Friday in the journal Science Advances.
Domesticating wild horses on the plains of Eurasia was a process, not a single event, the researchers say.
Archaeologists have previously found evidence of people consuming horse milk in dental remains and indications of horses controlled by harnesses and bits dating back more than 5,000 years, but that does not necessarily indicate the horses were ridden.
The Yamnaya culture originated in what's now part of Ukraine and western Russia, an area called the Pontic Caspian steppe.