The question is, which nomads? Another question is, which horse?
Surprising answers to both questions have birthed new theories not only about the domestication of the steed, but also about the spread of Indo-European languages.
Not those nomads
Until recently, descendants of goat and sheep herders who formed the Yamnaya culture in the steppes of today’s Ukraine and western Russia about 5,000 years ago were thought to have domesticated the horse. They were believed to have ridden the subdued animal as they spread southeast, bringing the Indo-European group of languages to Anatolia (a vast region mostly in today’s Turkey).
Or not. Two papers published in May have new theories about horse domestication and the spread of Indo-European tongues.
The Yamnaya definitely rode horses into the European sunset. But one paper, published in Science by Peter de Barros Damgaard and colleagues, argues that the Yamnaya hadn’t been the first to tame the horse. Completely different nomads – a smaller group named the Botai, who arose about 500 years earlier east of there, in Kazakhstan – domesticated the horse before the Yamnaya.
But genetic analyses led to startling conclusions about the origin of today’s steeds.
Not that horse
The Eurasian steppe is a vast grassland stretching 8,000 kilometers (about 5,000 miles), from Hungary and Ukraine in the west through Kazakhstan to Mongolia and China in the east. The Botai lived in what is now Kazakhstan, from about 5,700 years to 5,100 years ago.
It is among the Botai that archaeologists located the oldest evidence of horse domestication (found so far, at least): Pottery with traces of mares’ milk, and horse teeth that seem worn down by bits.
Genetic analysis of Botai horse remains and what was thought to be the only surviving wild horse – the so-called wild Przewalski – by the French National Center for Scientific Research and Université Toulouse III–Paul Sabatier, resulted in some unexpected findings.
The first unexpected finding is that the “only wild horse still existing,” the wild Przewalski, is not actually wild. It descended from the Botai horses.
The second unexpected finding is that the Botai did not domesticate the Przewalski, but some other unknown wild horse. This unknown animal is the forefather of the Przewalksi.
The third unexpected finding is that none of today’s horses are descended from either the Przewalksi or its Botai-tamed descendent. We don’t know where today’s horses came from.
The fourth unexpected conclusion is that there are no more wild horses, anywhere. Wild horses are long extinct.
The fifth and final unexpected conclusion is that the horse was domesticated not once but twice. That’s according to Damgaard, the molecular biologist from the Natural History Museum of Denmark who led the project. One domestication event created the race the Botai rode, which is extinct; another created today’s horses, he says.
It is tempting to think the western pastoralists related to Yamnaya also domesticated a different breed of horses, Damgaard adds.
Maybe the Botai did give the Yamnaya the idea of how to train horses. But to be clear, the Botai were not ancestral to, or even related to, the more western Yamnaya, report the researchers.
It is speculative, but likely that when the two groups did encounter each other, they fought.
Hostility with the Botai could explains why, when the Yamnaya-related groups meandered eastward, they didn’t strike roots mid-route, but continued all the way to the Altai Mountains of Southern Siberia – thousands of kilometers in distance, says Damgaard. There, these pastoralists who came from eastern Europe became the forefathers of the culture called the Afanasievo.
This far-flung wandering by the Yamnaya fits with Russian literature, which indicates that Botai descendants were warring with them, Damgaard observes. Why would they clash? “Probably because the descendants of the Botai people didn’t like their hunting territory being overrun,” he speculates.
As for the Botai themselves, following their Bronze Age heyday their homeland central steppe was totally overrun by groups coming in with wheeled vehicles, Damgaard explains. The descendents of the Botai hunter-gatherers retreated into the forest-steppe.
These relocated Botai may even have been the forefathers of the highly nomadic forest groups of Siberia, who left a pattern of burials from Finland to Mongolia from about 2100 B.C.E. to 1900 B.C.E. (known as the Seima-Turbino phenomenon), Damgaard says.
So, the Botai tamed the horse before the Yamnaya. But it seems that, wherever they rode their steeds, neither went south to Anatolia just when Indo-European languages began to arise there. Mass migration isn’t how Indo-European languages were spread southward from their point of origin.
The authors agree that Indo-European Anatolian was brought in from the outside, but the genetic data indicates that the population which adopted it was not genetically impacted by the groups from the steppes. Instead, apparently the local populations in the big cities of the time were multi-lingual and adopted the Indo-European tongue on top of their own.
Long lost in time, the Indo-European languages' point of origin is hypothetical. In theory, related tongues should have a predecessor. Wouldn’t the Indo-European languages – from Greek to Latin to Hittite to Hindi – have had an Ur-tongue?