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The heavenly horses of the Sintashta

Matt pointed me to the fact that the paper that’s going to come out:

Horse domestication fundamentally transformed long-range mobility and warfare. However, modern domesticates do not descend from the earliest domestic horse lineage associated with archaeological evidence of bridling, milking and corralling at Botai, Central Asia ~3,500 BCE (Before Common Era). Other long-standing candidate regions for horse domestication, such as Iberia and Anatolia, were also recently challenged. Therefore, the genetic, geographic and temporal origins of modern domestic horses remained unknown. Here, we pinpoint the Western Eurasian steppes, especially the lower Volga-Don region, as the homeland of modern domestic horses. Furthermore, we map the population changes accompanying domestication from 273 ancient horse genomes. This reveals that modern domestic horses ultimately replaced almost all other local populations as they rapidly expanded across Eurasia from ~2,000 BCE, synchronously with equestrian material culture, including Sintashta spoke-wheeled chariots. We find that equestrianism involved strong selection for critical locomotor and behavioral adaptations at the GSDMC and ZFPM1 genes. Our results reject the commonly held association between horseback riding and the massive expansion of Yamnaya steppe pastoralists into Europe ~3,000 BCE driving the spread of Indo-European languages. This contrasts with the situation in Asia where Indo-Iranian languages, chariots and horses spread together, following the early second millennium BCE Sintashta culture.

If you have an interest in the domestic horse (I have) you are aware it’s the product of massive demographic radiation from a small founder population. With ancient DNA we now know where it started: with the Sintashta people of the Volga to the Ural steppe 4,000 years ago.

This is not totally surprising, because we know that the Sintashta were highly warlike and they invented the light war-chariot. This technology spread across the whole Old World, from Egypt to China to Ireland. In some cases, I believe that this was mediated directly by the Sintashta, the early Indo-Iranians. Not only were the Mitanni elite of Syria 3,500 years ago speaking an Indo-Aryan/Iranian language, and worshipping Indo-Aryan/Iranian gods but genetically some of them retained their steppe character. The Sintashta also had domestic dogs, but the lineage of these dogs persists only in China today. Not coincidentally, light war-chariots that are clearly copied from the Iranian-style vehicles show up in Shang China in 1200 BC.

The genetic/demographic impact won’t be visible in many areas. Perhaps Indo-Iranian mercenaries arrived in a city-state, and eventually taught the natives how to build, maintain, and utilize war chariots? This seems plausible. To this day we aren’t quite sure where the wagon was invented because it spread almost immediately over much of Western Eurasia 5,500 years ago.

We also have to remember that the “Iranian” zone of domination was far wider in antiquity than in the present. Around 500 BC Scythians were present as far east as Mongolia, as far west as Hungary, and as far south as northern Iran itself. This means that they could easily have spread the chariot within their own cultural-zone and then it was rapidly adopted by adjacent groups to the east, west, and south.

Related: check out my steppe series.

14 thoughts on “The heavenly horses of the Sintashta

  1. btw, can’t really take credit for spotting this abstract, I think that goes to the sharp-eyed poster Arza at Eurogenes (if it was someone else, mea culpa).

  2. To this day we aren’t quite sure where the wagon was invented

    Didn’t the ancient Serbs invent the wagon. Wagon being derived from Serbian “u go”.

  3. There’s still good evidence that Yamnaya and Corded Ware had domesticated horses. So what happened to them? I’d like to see the full paper. Seems odd that Sintashta horses would make it all the way to Ireland and Norway, unless the replacement was very gradual.

  4. Marco, yeah, that certainly seems the case to me (e.g. the horse milking evidence in the past week), and there’s quite a few horses found in some contexts (domesticated or not) before this Sintashta horse explosion and replacement circa 2000 BCE, which they seem to identify and which is associated (per abstract) with strong selection on musculo-skeletal features.

    So it looks like a new breed, and in some areas, which didn’t bother much with horses before (possibly because they weren’t very useful for milk/meat/traction in that region) that’s the first domesticated horse, but in other areas they replace other early domesticated horses which are from earlier PC Steppe? I’m not sure if they have enough data to say how gradual the replacement was, but it doesn’t seem too hard to get from Russia to Ireland; these are just animals which were traded, they didn’t need to move with migrations of peoples.

    If you’re interested in what horses are covered in this paper Arza (commentor at Eurogenes) extracted the sample metadata, and here’s a formatted list:

    There are a fair few horses from Yamnaya and Corded Ware contexts, and even a fair few from pre-3000 BCE EEF contexts and Neolithic/EBA Turkey. (One of these Turkey sites is from Kirklareli-Kanligecit settlement circa 2700-2200 BCE where leopard spotted domesticated horses were thought to have been identifed in some adna work in 2015 – )

    The dates are uncalibrated here (as given in metadata) so probably will be slightly different in finished paper.

    (From past experience it’s possible some of these samples are non-horse equids that they’ve sampled, but it does seem like the number matches up with teh abstract with them all being horses).

    “Champing at the bit” for this one, appropriately enough.

  5. I understand that different populations of horse were domesticated by the Botai, and the Yamnaya, long before 2000BC. Then the population pinpointed by the authors came to replace them all, and its expansion coincided with the expansion of the war chariot. How do they conclude that the Yamnaya expansion was not associated with the horse? I think David Anthony stresses that the mobility afforded by horse riding gives a huge advantage for managing herds, hence the population explosion. The mobility toolkit is supplemented by wagons and oxes. During the expansion, the horse is again crucial for raiding, even if fighting occurs on foot.

  6. It’s possible that genetic selection during the early pre-Sintashta domestication phase had some different correlates than the post-Sintashta phase.

    Pre-Sintashta might have been selection for very manageable meat and milk animals; selection for small mares (its better to keep large herds of female animals, for meat and milk), relatively heavy / “cold-blooded” and slow moving possibly, to draw wagons, with docile personality types that are not hard to herd or manage physically.(And it might not have been readily apparent to people in the Near East why they’d want an animal that didn’t serve much of a unique niche relative to the cows and the smarter and hardier donkeys they already had. Perhaps “What is the point of the ‘Donkey of the Mountain’?”, translating the Sumerian).

    Then perhaps Sintashta (and the previous cultures because it didn’t immediately emerge?) is a shift to selection for stronger, faster stallions, which provide a unique niche in fast riding and as the “engines” of chariots. (Then people in the Near East can see the value in the animal).

  7. @Bran, they say “horseback riding” for Europe and not “the horse” though. I do agree it’s questionable to infer that from genetics though; even if the early horses (pre-Sintashta) had genetic features that indicate that the stallions and mares would have been kind of slow and unable to bear or tolerate riders very well, compared to later animals, people still might have used them for riding a bit (even if they mostly used them for drawing wagons, as pack animals, for meat and milk).

  8. @Matt. Thanks. The wagons seem to have been drawn by oxes. I realize that the main argument for horse riding before Sintashta resides in bit wear, and is contested. David Anthony remarks that horse head maces appeared in the steppe, a sign of symbolic importance of horses which points to equitation much before Sintashta. Not a waterproof argument.

  9. i think the likely model is going to be

    – ‘false dawn’ taming/domestications in a few places

    – then the chariot invented and that horse breed evolves new better characteristics and sweeps away others

    Seems odd that Sintashta horses would make it all the way to Ireland and Norway, unless the replacement was very gradual.

    well, not a perfect analogy, but with dogs and cats recent european lineages overwhelmed most others. so it happens. also, indian cattle eventually spread into africa through cultural transfer

  10. I had not previously heard about horse finds in Anatolia, nor any theories about the origin of the domesticated horse being there. Were there also wild horses in that region up until quite recently? It always astounds me to think of what made it to antiquity, or even the near-present, such as tigers, wisent, and lions in places like Anatolia or the Caucasus.

  11. @Otanes, it seems like horses were patchily about across West Eurasia in the record before steppe expansions, but as I understand it much denser in the steppe zone because they had an ecological advantage over other grasseaters during cold winters when the ground freezes over (think something to do with how their hoof and head structure both allow them to clear frozen ground and graze where cattle and sheep/goats have a harder time).

    The idea of Anatolian domestication is probably more of one where, despite relatively few and rare horses, the strong familiarity of Anatolian pastoralists with domestication might have made it more likely they’d do it. But it seems like the steppe zone because of numbers (and the advantage in having horses overwinter?), was always a stronger bet (and this might have happened at least twice there, re Botai horses).

    However, I do think people in other regions of West and East Eurasia might have known what horses were at least, had a word for them and been familar with what they were, even only as wild creatures.
    The record of them is patchy so they might have gone extinct at some point between arrival of domesticates out of PC (in waves?) and sampled bones. No idea if they had any late survival.

  12. @Razib, kind of interesting to contrast with widespread genetic survival of European pigs. Speculatively maybe the distinction is between an animal that has to serve as a tool and which has to be very precisely trainable in particular ways (horse, at least post-Sintashta), vs an animal that is semi-feral and has to forage (pigs).

    Perhaps there’s an advantage in the local breeds having instincts and physiology that’s more adapted for pigs (the locals are better at finding local forage like acorns or what have you and more tolerant of poisons in local roots and local pathogens they might pick up and whatnot and grow to larger size under local conditions), while for horses (prestige and military animal), its much more imperative that they’re trainable and fast, so if there’s even a small performance difference from integrating local breeds, people will strongly favour the higher performing non-local breed.

  13. Unserious note. Tonight, I saw the 1976 iranian movie «chess of the wind» set in the 1920’s. I was amused to see that a wooden wheelchair is used by the main character, a decadent upper-class woman, throughout the film. The chair is beautifully crafted, visibly not an industrial product, with plain wheels, robust and maniable. The art of the chariot has not been lost in Iran!

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