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Prehistoric "cowboys": the world's first horsemen identified at the gates of Europe


After examining more than 200 human remains, a team of researchers discovered several individuals whose bones bear the trace of a life spent on horseback, at the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC.

Textbooks teach that the domestication of the horse dates back to the end of the Neolithic period, around 3500 to 3000 years before our era.

This phenomenon, which accompanies the control of nature by human beings, arose from the Pontic steppes, at the western end of the great Eurasian plain.

As for the ancestors of our current horses, they were tamed at the beginning of the Bronze Age, around 2200 years before our era, shortly before the appearance of the first chariots.

But when do the first horsemen date?

The hypotheses gallop in number, little substantiated.

Until the publication in early March of a decisive study: horse riding has existed since at least the first half of the third millennium.

About twenty Finnish, Romanian, Bulgarian, Polish and American scientists have studied, between 2019 and 2022, the remains of 217 individuals, mostly men from steppe cultures.

Their bones, dated from the fifth to the second millennium BC, were discovered in 39 different sites.

At least 150 of these deceased belonged to the Yamna culture, a semi-nomadic Pontic group that had migrated, around 3000 BC.

AD, from the borders of the Caucasus to the gates of Europe.

Did members of this culture, known for the kurgans it left in Russia and Ukraine, ride horses?

The researchers made the bones speak.

And these five millennium bones responded.

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Of the hundreds of vestiges examined, twenty have traces and deformations that are typically found in an experienced rider, announce the researchers in their study published on March 3 in the scientific journal Science



Of these twenty promising individuals, nine belong to the Yamna culture.

Finally, the five human remains with deformations characterized with the most certainty are also Yamna.

They correspond to people buried in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, who died - according to their carbon 14 dating - between 3021 and 2501 BC.

Steppe Patrollers

These five individuals who died in Eastern Europe, at the time of the rise of the first Mesopotamian city-states, would be the first scientifically attested horsemen.

Their identification is based on a set of six osteological indices, that is to say relating to the bones, such as traces of stress on the pelvis and the femurs, a deformation of the acetabulum or even a degeneration of the spine.

The multiplication of such indices increases the probability that the individual examined has had sustained physical activity related to horseback riding during his life.

These characteristic bone markers of equestrian life are well known to archaeo-anthropologists;

the same approach made it possible to recognize a horseman among one of the individuals buried in the sarcophagi discovered under Notre-Dame de Paris.

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"Biomechanical stress markers on human skeletons provide a viable way to further study the history of riding, and may even provide clues to rider styles and equipment," say the researchers

in their study.

Scientists have estimated that the stress traces observed correspond to the most primitive technique of horse riding.

Evidenced by depictions of horsemen from the Sumerian Bronze Age, this demanding practice saw the rider clinging to his horse - without saddle or stirrups.

Despite the discomfort and the difficulty that this implied, the researchers do not entirely rule out the trail of a warlike function of these first horsemen, even if their usefulness was undoubtedly relative.

“Having a means of rapid transport to project oneself and then withdraw from a raid zone must have been useful, even if the combat took place on foot,


the signatories of the study, whose work was notably financed. by the European Research Council.

Riders were mostly employed to patrol large areas and control larger herds of cattle”

cattle and sheep, they add.

In short, as summed up for Agence France Presse Martin Trautmann of the University of Helsinki, one of the signatories of the study,

"these were cowboys, not warriors"


The pastoral development of the Yamna society thus seems to have been accompanied, in the Great West of the Pontic steppes, by generations of horsemen.

Source: lefigaro

All news articles on 2023-03-12

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