Man started riding horses 5,000 years ago. The history of these first horsemen is written on their bones, found in burial mounds called ‘kurgan’ dating back to 3000 BC and located in different locations in Eastern Europe: they were nomadic shepherds of the Yamnaya culture, who migrated from the Eurasian steppes to find greener pastures in the current countries of Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Serbia. The discovery, published in the journal Science Advances and led by the Finnish University of Helsinki, also sheds light on the first encounters and cultural exchanges between the newcomers and the farming communities that had settled in those areas.
The use of animals, especially horses, for transportation marked a turning point in human history. The researchers led by Martin Trautmann studied over 217 skeletons from 39 sites: of these, about 150 belonged to the Yamnaya, which were analyzed in search of distinctive marks left on the pelvic bones, femur and vertebrae by the activity of the equitation.
The grave of a Yamnaya knight discovered in Malomirovo, Bulgaria (source: Michał Podsiadło)
The results show that at least 9 individuals were riders with a very high probability, and 24 others with a good probability. “Horse riding appears to have evolved not long after the presumed domestication of horses on the western Eurasian steppes during the 4th millennium BC,” comments Volker Heyd, one of the study’s authors. “It was already quite common in members of the Yamnaya culture between 3000 and 2500 BC.”
But the date of the advent of horse riding could be pushed even further back in time: “A grave in Hungary dated to around 4300 BC shows four of the six distinguishing marks associated with horse riding,” says David Anthony of the American Hartwick College , co-author of the study: “perhaps this individual already rode a millennium before the Yamnaya”.
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