The domestication of horses was a major moment in human history. Suddenly, it allowed us to travel vast distances, farm larger areas, and resolutely crush enemies in battle. However, much of what we thought we knew about the domestication of the horse is wrong, a surprising new study has revealed. Even what we thought were the last remaining wild horses on the steppes of central Asia have turned out to be feral animals.
It has long been believed that the first people to tame the wild ancestor of the horse was the Botai people from the grasslands of northern Kazakhstan, with multiple groups domesticating the animals from different stocks. Once nomadic hunter-gatherers, it seems that as soon as the wild horses were brought under rein around 5,500 years ago, their entire culture and way of life shifted towards the animals.
Communities stopped moving and settled down, keeping up to 150 horses, used for meat and milk. Ancient corrals have even been unearthed, including leather thongs that were likely used as bridles, as well the seemingly ritualistic burial of horse heads.
It was thought that the wild horse species that is native to Mongolia, Przewalski’s horse (Equus ferus przewalskii), was a remnant sub-population of the original animals that the Botai were capturing from the wild and domesticating in Kazakhstan (Equus ferus ferus, the now extinct tarpan). A new genetic study, however, has thrown all this into doubt.
Published in the journal Science, the researchers analyzed the genetics of the horse bones excavated from Botai settlements, and then compared the results with the genetics of ancient horse remains found across Europe, modern domestic horses, and Przewalski’s horse. From this, they then built a new family tree of the horse, and the results shocked everyone involved.