The Archaeology of Horses: The Invaluable Tools in Human Evolution

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:  

William Taylor, 2020: 


To Investigate further… 

The Archaeology of Tattoos:  An Investigation of the Oldest known Tattoos 

The Archaeology of Tattoos:  An Investigation of the Oldest known Tattoos 

Figure 1. A drawn depiction of the tattoos of the ancient Egyptian mummy Amulet 

Figure 2. The joint tattoos of Otzi the iceman used to remedy arthrosis in the wrist

        In modern times and throughout ancient history, tattoos have held important significances and functions which are integral in an individual and culture’s self-expression. In shaming those for creatively expressing themselves in a physical manner through unique attire, makeup, or tattoos, one is discouraging the individualism which shapes has and will continue to shape cultures and makes humans unique from one another. 

        Tattoos have held more than just symbolic and decorative roles throughout history. The oldest evidence of tattoos was discovered on the remarkably well preserved remains of Otzi the Iceman who lived between 3370 and 3100 BC (Krutak, 2015). These tattoos were especially striking as they were clearly used in a curative manner. They were strategically placed on areas of his body that were associated with painful arthrosis of the joints (Krutak, 2015). This subverts the stereotype that ancient humans were technologically inferior to humans today and were distinctly aware of the curative abilities of acupuncture-like treatment. This therapeutic use of tattooing techniques has been discovered in multiple other preserved bodies of ancient humans such as the chief of Pazyryk (Krutak, 2015). Additionally, the process of being tattooed at a young age was customary in ancient Egypt. Recent research provides evidence that traumatic experiences like tattooing performed early in life stimulates hormone release in the pituitary gland. This promotes the rapid growth and development of children into stronger, healthier, and overall larger adults (Krutak, 2015). Evidently, the society of the ancient Egyptians understood the surprising and powerful effects of tattooing just as the society that Otzi belonged to did. 

        Tattooing in a more americanized and modern sense for religious, symbolic, and artistic endeavors existed in a similar manner around 7000 years ago. For example, ancient Egyptians received intricate net-like tattoos on their stomach during pregnancy that were intended to function as a protective barrier for women while they carry their children (Mark, 2017). The nets would expand while their babies grew and were thought to be a safeguard for the baby. Also, these same women were often decorated with religiously significant tattoos such as the deity Bes to serve as a protector during the women’s pregnancy and labor process (Mark, 2017). The symbolic use of religious figures and netting in the form of permanent markings conveys the importance which tattoos held in ancient Egyptian culture and especially in women of this culture. These intricate tattoos were also hypothesized to function as a means of demonstrating one’s distinctive physical appearance and sexual identity. 

        Through the exploration of the history of tattoos, it is made clear that past cultures were not vastly different from our modern societies. The practice of tattooing in communities like Otzi’s and the ancient Egyptians illustrates the technological sophistication of past cultures, despite ethnocentric views that are often held today. The decorative role of tattoos also demonstrates that since the beginning of human life, people have always strived to express their identities in this permanent, deeply symbolic, therapeutic, or simply ornamental manner. 


References and Links for Further Investigation: 

Johnson, Lauren. “8 Oldest Tattoos in the World.”, May 6, 2022.

Krutak, Lars. “The Cultural Heritage of Tattooing: A Brief History.” Karger. Karger               Publishers , March 26, 2015.  

Magazine, Smithsonian. “Infrared Reveals Egyptian Mummies’ Hidden Tattoos.”        Smithsonian Institution, December 5, 2019.                               

Mark, Joshua J.. “Tattoos in Ancient Egypt.” World History Encyclopedia. Last                     modified  January 09, 2017.         ancient-egypt/.