The Mercury News

First evidence of horseback riding dates back 5,000 years

- By Christina Larson

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.

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