The Horse

21 Jan

The story of horse domestication is unique. While they have been used by humans long enough for them to have already been a widespread touchstone by recorded history, their spread is recent enough to have created identifiable changes in human culture. Not ubiquitous like the dog, nor isolated, horses have created distinct and lasting changes in any society they touch.

We think that the earliest horses were tamed in on the steppes of Central Asia, near the Ural Range of Kazakhstan. We know that during the Ice Age wild horses were hunted for their meat, but at some point that started to change. One site, Krasni Yar, suggests that horses were kept domestically for meat and milk as early as 5000 BC. The earliest evidence of horses as riding animals comes around 3500 BC from two sites named Botai and Kozhai 1. There the scientists found distinct evidence of bit wearing on preserved teeth.  The Botai culture probably used their domesticated horses to hunt other wild ones for meat.

Although these early beginnings in central Europe and Kazakhstan were likely sporadic, they spread extremely quickly. By 2000 BC we have drawings of chariots all the way in Mesopotamia. Powered by expanding trade and warfare, their spread only increased in pace. Within four hundred years they could be found all the way from Greece and Egypt to the northern plains of ancient China.

The introduction of horses had tremendous effects on warfare. Traditionally, an horseless army will be easy prey to one who has mastered mounted combat. The Roman Empire was constantly beset by mounted Huns, Vandals, and Scythians. The Mongol Horde used its extreme mobility to conquer vast swathes of Asia. Pizarro conquered the Incas with 30 mounted warriors and on the plains of North America horses went from totally nonexistent to a cultural and military necessity within a handful of generations.

Furthermore, at least a few introductions became linked with local mythology.The centaurs, the half-man half-horse people of Greek myth, may have been based on southward influxes of Central Asian horsemen. The nomads, seen mounted, would have appeared to be strange hybrids of man and beast. A similar situation happened four and half thousand years later when the horse made its triumphant return to the Americas. Cortez’s misidentification as Quetzalcoatl may have been compounded by the horses he brought with him. “The horse and its rider were all one animal,” as Stuart Chase quotes.

Many aspects of horse domestication are still murky to us. Prehistorical evidence is rare and mostly based on genetic evidence, cultural depictions, and a few valuable physical artifacts. However, the more we study the more we find that no other animal has had such a contentious story as that of the domestic horse.

Sources: Stuart Chase, Mexico: A Study of Two Americas, Chapter IV,,, Wikipedia

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Posted by on January 21, 2012 in History, Natural History


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