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May 08 2012

Domestic horses spread from Ukraine

New research on horse genomes indicates the domestic verison may have originated in the Russian Ukraine and spread from there, with lots of interbreeidng with wild horses along the way:

(BBC) — Dr Vera Warmuth from the Department of Zoology at Cambridge said: “It shows that horse domestication originated in the western part of the Steppes and that the spread of domestication involved lots of integration of wild horses.

“The theory explains why evidence from mitochondrial DNA – which contains genes inherited solely from the mother – suggests horses were domesticated many times, in different places.

In fact, it appears that wild mares were used to re-stock herds of existing domesticated horses, perhaps because they did not breed easily in captivity. This is the case with Przewalski’s horse, which is the closest wild relative of modern horses.

I bet they spread alright. If riding horses didn’t spread by interbreeding, I’d wager they spread fast enough by marauder on horseback running down opposing defenders brave enough to bear the brunt of the first cavalry charges!

Well, I don’t know if that happened often or not. But the first horse-riding culture would surely have had a big advantage over competitors in many ways including warfare. In fact I’m not sure but it seems I remember the common root of Indo-European language spoken throughout most of Eurasia and the New World also originated near the same epicenter. Maybe that culture had a big leg up and their language spread with their horses. It’s fascinating to speculate anyway.

14 comments

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  1. 1
    CJO

    Cool, thanks.

    The initial military advantage of being mounted would have been primarily just mobility and stamina. Horse archery maybe. But nobody was using the earliest domesticated horses for anything like a cavalry charge. Too small and fragile (and probably too valuable to risk en masse that way), and you need stirrups to really pull it off. (While it’s false that no societies practiced fighting hand to hand from horseback before stirrups, the massed cavalry charge with lances was not done until then.)

    Also, this is cool because it largely coheres with Mediterranean mythic prehistory about the barbarians of the steppes north of the Euxine Sea and their close association with mounted terror. Centaurs, Amazons, etc. I would guess that the domesticates were also in cenral Anatolia pretty early too. The name of the region of modern inland Turkey, Cappadocia, comes from the Persian for “land of beautiful horses”. Probably some of that wild breeding stock for vigor.

    Your conjecture re: Proto-Indo-European expansion being tied to horse domestication is one of the theories. Kurgan Hypothesis Wiki

  2. 2
    Trebuchet

    Sorry for this, but when I saw the post title I read “horse spread from the Ukraine” as something that comes in a can.

  3. 3
    Didaktylos

    It is an interesting fact that in Indo-European culture, a name bearing an element meaning “horse” is an indication of a claim to membership of the warrior nobility.

  4. 4
    Stephen "DarkSyde" Andrew

    LoL, I add an “s’ to horse :)

  5. 5
    paul

    I’m not sure but it seems I remember the common root of Indo-European language spoken throughout most of Eurasia and the New World also originated near the same epicenter. Maybe that culture had a big leg up and their language spread with their horses. It’s fascinating to speculate anyway.

    Indeed, J. P. Mallory’s take on the spread of the Indo-European languages has the proto-Indo-European language containing root words for all sorts of things related to horsemanship and wheels, which turn up in Greek, Latin, Hindi, and I think Hittite. He claims that it is not unusual to find an archeological site with remains from one culture, a “uniform destruction horizon” (aka, layer of ashes) on top of which one finds the remains of horses, wheels, and styles of pottery and whatnot associated with a different culture believed to be Indo-European speaking.

    Colin Renfew disagrees, of course.

  6. 6
    Tsu Dho Nimh

    More important to their diffusion than cavalry charges would be overall mobility and added cargo capacity.

    Usaing horses for following migrating herds so the hunters arrived well-rested, carrying or pulling the domestic paraphernalia (travois pulling) for the frequent camp moving required by nomads would be far more common benefits than the occasional skirmish.

  7. 7
    Trebuchet

    LoL, I add an “s’ to horse :)

    Glad to hear it; when I looked at the post title just now I wondered if I had misread it that badly.

    I also wonder if those early domesticated horses were a little smarter than the modern variety, which seem an exceptionally dumb critter. That’s probably a common impact of domestication; modern dogs don’t seem too bright compared to wolves and domestic turkeys are notorious for their lack of intelligence.

  8. 8
    I'm_not

    Any excuse…

  9. 9
    dust

    I was under the impression horses were first used for meat and possibly milk, then muscle power under harness. Riding came later and the bridle and saddle technologies took time to evolve. Once mounted though, a human could be quite a military asset when on the horse.

  10. 10
    Stephen "DarkSyde" Andrew

    Imagine the first city-state defenders that faced down the first cavalary charge they ever saw. It would probably be a quite rout. But yeah, there were surely all kinds of advantages for a culture than just that.

    CJO I never thought about the origin of the Centaur myth, but now that you mention it, that is an exceptionally good idea.

  11. 11
    Aliasalpha

    Imagine the first city-state defenders that faced down the first cavalary charge they ever saw. It would probably be a quite rout.

    Especially if the defenders had never seen horses of any type before, that’d add a component of ‘what the fuck is that thing??’ to the existing ‘ow I’v been stabbed, you dick!’

  12. 12
    jakc

    So what you’re saying is that horses started as a commie plot …

  13. 13
    Nick Gotts

    Riding came later and the bridle and saddle technologies took time to evolve. Once mounted though, a human could be quite a military asset when on the horse. – dust

    The use of horses in warfare, as CJO says, would initially have been for speed both on and off the battlefield, not in a charge straight at the enemy. Chariots, AFAIK, were never used in that way – much too easily overturned. Mary Renault suggests the origin of the centaur myth in horse riding in The Bull From The Sea, the second and final part of her re-telling of the Theseus myth. Medieval knights rode very large horses, the ancestors of modern “shire” horses, but even with both horse and man armoured, they were very vulnerable to archers in a head-on charge (Agincourt in 1415 was a re-reun of the disaster of the 1396 battle of Nicopolis against the Ottomans). The real masters of horse warfare were the Mongols: every man had two to four horses, ridden and rested in turn to keep up the army’s speed of travel; archers and light lancers were both used; flags were used to signal manouvres in battle; and sometimes the spare horses would have dummies tied on their backs to provide decoy targets, or branches would be draged behind the horse to raise a dust cloud, both techniques giving the impression of a much larger force than was actually the case.

  14. 14
    grumpyoldfart

    What a a waste of time that video was. Why even bother linking to such boring twaddle?

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