World’s 1st horseback riders swept across Europe roughly 5,000 years ago

Archaeologists accidentally discovered the world’s earliest horseback riders while studying skeletons found beneath 5,000-year-old burial mounds in Europe and Asia, a new study finds.

The ancient riders were part of the so-called Yamnaya culture, groups of semi-nomadic people who swept across Europe and western Asia, bringing the precursor to the Indo-European language family with them. The findings strengthen the hypothesis that the horse played an integral part in the expansion of this group, and therefore, in the spread of the Indo-European language.

The new analysis came from 217 human skeletons from the Pontic-Caspian steppe, a geographical area that runs roughly from Bulgaria to Kazakhstan. For decades, researchers have debated when horses were domesticated. In Kazakhstan, 5,000-year-old horse skeletons show wear on their teeth that could have been from bridles, while others have found possible fenced enclosures. In the same time period, horse milk peptides have been detected in the dental plaque of people from Russia. Importantly, the geographical explosion of the Yamnaya culture — which expanded across 3,000 miles (4,500 kilometers) over a mere century or two — suggests horses may have assisted as transportation animals.

A map of the Yamnaya and Afanasievo distribution in Eurasia about 5,000 years ago. (Image credit: Trautmann et al., Sci. Adv. 9, eade2451 (2023))

But there was no direct evidence that the Yamnaya culture regularly domesticated horses. 

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