The Archaeology of Horses: The Invaluable Tools in Human Evolution
By: Sydney Cort
The relationship between humans and horses is particularly unique as they served as much more than just companions for people from the paleolithic period to the modern age. Horses transformed the lives of humans as they served as a means of transportation, weapons of war, a sustainable food source, vehicles which facilitated trade and carried goods, and much more. An abundance of horse bones were found in Eurasia that date to roughly 2.5 million years old to 10,000 B.C years old (AIA, 2015). These bones were degraded in a way that suggests that they were butchered and this reflects that during early human times, horses were an important food source (AIA, 2015). Additionally, the value of horses during this period is illustrated as images of them in the form of cave art appear more frequently than any other animal (AIA, 2015). Evidently, the earliest humans viewed these animals as a core part of their lives.
As people began to domesticate the horse, they were used in ritualistic and spiritual funerals as a sign of status. In the excavation of the sixth-century B.C. tomb of a Chinese ruler, Duke Jing of Qi, the remains of upwards of 200 horses were discovered buried with him. Archaeologists believe that this is representative of Duke Jing of Qi’s immense fortune and social status in his society (AIA, 2015).
Horses were symbolic of power and societal ranking as they were exceedingly useful in battle. Soldiers on horseback were given an enormous advantage in battle as they were faster, more protected, and being atop a horse gave them a better vantage point and an advantageous position to fight their enemies that were on foot. Prior to this use of horses, chariotry was used primarily for travel and battle in eastern Europe, but chariots hindered soldiers from fighting in certain areas whereas riding horseback in battle was suitable to almost any terrain. Evidence of this use of horses was found in a tablet dating to 1400 B.C that accounts the training cycle and care instructions for horses used in battle and for riding in modern day Syria and southeastern Turkey (AIA 2015).
Archaeologists are able to track the domestication of horses through analyzing their bones and specifically are focused on the “bit wear” on the bars of the horse’s mouth (in front of the second premolar) where a bit rests when a horse is being ridden (Taylor, 2020). In the image below, bit wear from this ancient horse being ridden is shown. This method of tracking whether a horse was ridden is not entirely accurate as archaeologists have misrecognized wear on the skull and teeth of horses as bit wear in the past. Despite this fact, bit wear is generally a good indicator of whether a horse’s remains come from a domesticated animal (Taylor, 2020). The process of dating remains and determining the role the organism once played in society is complex and archaeologists have become increasingly more accurate with their ability to determine this information from bones.
Archaeological Institute of America, 2015: https://www.archaeology.org/issues/181-features/horses
William Taylor, 2020: https://www.sapiens.org/archaeology/horse-domestication-archaeology/
To Investigate further…
When and where was the horse first domesticated? Are modern domesticated horses all from the same lineage of horses that were first domesticated?