Domestication and early
history of the horse
Marsha A. Levine
Before the development of ﬁrearms, the horse was
crucial to warfare and before the invention of the
steam engine, it was the fastest and most reliable form
of land transport. Today its importance has scarcely
diminished in parts of South America, Asia, Africa
and Eastern Europe, and even elsewhere it is of great
economic importance to sport and leisure industries.
Nevertheless, in spite of intensive investigations over
many years, researchers know very little about the
origins of horse domestication and the evolution of
The origins of horse domestication
Throughout the course of the twentieth century a
variety of theories have been developed purporting
to explain where, when and for what purposes the
horse was ﬁrst domesticated. The basic positions can
be summarized as, that it was ﬁrst domesticated:
rduring the Neolithic, Eneolithic or Early Bronze Age
rfor meat, riding or traction;
rin Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Eastern Europe or Western
rpossibly in response to contacts with the Near East;
rat a single locus or at a number of different loci,
more or less simultaneously.
In some situations it is, of course, easy to show
how horses had been used in ancient times. For
example, the horses found in some of the Altai
Early Iron Age kurgan burials (Figure 1.1) – such
as Pazyryk, Bashadar and Ak-Alakha – as a result
of their burial in permafrost, were accompanied by
well-preserved equipment such as bridles, saddles
and harnessing (Rudenko, 1970; Polos’mak, 1994).
Because of Rudenko’s publication The Frozen Tombs
of Siberia, Pazyryk is especially well known, but many
other Early Iron Age sites from the Ukraine and south
Siberia are equally spectacular. Many of the richer
graves contained objects made of gold and silver –
for example, jewellery, vessels, harness ornaments,
weapons and belt buckles. Carpets, wall hangings,
The Domestic Horse: The Origins, Development, and Management of its Behaviour, ed. D. S. Mills & S. M. McDonnell. 5
Cambridge University Press. CCambridge University Press 2005.
6M. A. Levine
Figure 1.1. Map showing
locations of Dereivka, Botai
and Early Iron Age Altai sites:
Ak-Alakha, Bashadar and
Table 1.1. Chronology of the west Eurasian steppe
Approximate Dates (bc) Period
900–300 Early Iron Age
1000–900 Transition to Early Iron
1800/1700–1200/1000 Late Bronze Age
2000/1900?–1800/1700 Middle Bronze Age
3000/2900 (2750?)–2300/1900? Early Bronze Age (EBA)
3500/3400–3000/2900 (2750?) Final Eneolithic –
beginning of EBA
clothing made of felt, furs and even silk from China
have also been recovered (Cahen-Delhaye, 1991). It
is intriguing to note that the jointed snafﬂe bit was in
wide use in central Eurasia during the Early Iron Age
(ﬁrst millennium bc).
At most sites, however, especially those dating from
the period when horses were ﬁrst domesticated for
riding and traction, determining whether an animal
was domesticated is much more difﬁcult, sometimes
impossible. Organic materials such as leather and
wood are only very rarely recoverable from the
archaeological record. In unfavourable soil conditions
even bone is eventually destroyed. Moreover, not only
is it possible to ride a horse without the use of a sad-
dle or bridle, but also, during the early stages of horse
domestication, it is likely that they were usually rid-
den that way.
In recent years two sites have come to the fore
in debates concerning the origins of horse domesti-
cation: Dereivka and Botai. Dereivka, an Eneolithic
Ukrainian settlement site, has been central to the
problem of the origins of horse domestication,
because for the past three decades it has been
regarded as the site with the earliest evidence of horse
husbandry (e.g. B ¨
onyi, 1978; Bibikova, 1986b;
Telegin, 1986; Mallory, 1989; Anthony & Brown,
1991; Gimbutas, 1991). More recently Botai, an Ene-
olithic settlement site from Kazakhstan, has also been
associated with this question (Brown & Anthony,
1998) (Figure 1.1). Because of the enormous num-
bers of horse bones found at Botai, it was inevitable
that this site would be considered in such discussions.
1. Domestication and early history of the horse 7
However, upon further examination such as that
below, it should be clear that the evidence backing
the claims for both sites is deeply ﬂawed.
Types of evidence for the origins of
Two types of evidence are referred to in discussions of
the origins of horse domestication: direct and indirect.
Direct evidence relates to artistic, textual and funerary
evidence, where there is virtually no doubt both that
the horses were caballine and that they were ridden
or used for traction.
Indirect evidence is inferred from characteristics of
bones and artefacts. It includes evidence derived from
analytical methods such as population structure, bio-
geographical distribution and artefact studies. It is
invariably the case that any one pattern manifested
by these types of data could have more than one
explanation. On its own, no one type of data can
provide satisfactory evidence of horse domestication.
Indirect evidence must have corroboration from as
many directions as possible.
Some types of indirect evidence are frequently con-
fused with direct evidence. That is, data – whose asso-
ciation with horse husbandry is only inferred – are
treated as if they could only be explained by horse
domestication. Eneolithic bit wear and cheekpieces
are examples of false direct evidence.
The earliest unambiguous direct evidence – that is,
dateable textual and artistic evidence – for horse
domestication probably only dates back to the end
of the third millennium bc (Postgate, 1986; Zarins,
1986; Piggott, 1992; Kuz’mina, 1994a,b, 1996;
Littauer & Crouwel, 1996). Evidence of horses in
graves, accompanied by artefacts unambiguously
associated with riding or traction is even more recent,
dating to probably no later than the beginning of the
second millennium bc (Postgate, 1986; Piggott, 1992;
Kuz’mina, 1994a,b, 1996; Anthony, 1995; Littauer
& Crouwel, 1996). By the middle of the second mil-
lennium bc horses were widely used to pull char-
iots – for example, in the Near East, Greece, and
on the Eurasian steppe (Piggott, 1992; Littauer &
Crouwel, 1996; Renfrew, 1998). There is apparently
no reliable textual or artistic evidence for horse rid-
ing earlier than the end of the second millennium bc
(Renfrew, 1987, 1998; Piggott, 1992). There are
earlier representations of people riding equids in the
Near East. However, because of the extreme difﬁculty
of distinguishing artistic representations of horses
from those of asses, it is impossible to identify the ear-
liest evidence for horse riding itself (Piggott, 1992). It
is highly improbable, however, that traction horses
could have been herded either on foot or from a vehi-
cle. Therefore it seems almost certain, as far as the
horse is concerned, that riding would have preceded
One interpretation of this evidence is that the horse
was ﬁrst domesticated for traction around the end
of the third millennium bc and for riding a little
earlier (Khazanov, 1984; Renfrew, 1987; Kuz’mina,
1994a,b). However, it is almost certain that horse hus-
bandry must have developed well before its earliest
unambiguous manifestations in art and burial ritual.
As Piggott pointed out, these representations are not
merely portrayals of everyday life, they are closely
connected with the delineation of power and prestige
(Piggott, 1992, p. 69). If horse riding, at its inception
and during its early development, did not have high
status, it would have been unlikely to have been rep-
resented in art or burials. It might not, in fact, have
left any direct evidence at all. This evidential ‘invis-
ibility’ seems to suggest that, whatever its practical
value, the horse was of little or no political or social
signiﬁcance until the end of the third millennium bc.
This point of view is, of course, in direct conﬂict with
the picture of horse-powered migration and warfare
during the Eneolithic and Early Bronze Age proposed
by Gimbutas (e.g. 1970; 1991), and supported by
many others (Telegin, 1986; Mallory, 1989; Anthony,
False direct evidence
Four types of evidence, conventionally accepted as
proof of horse domestication, fall into the category
of false direct evidence:
rHorse burials not associated with tack.
Horse-head ‘sceptres’ or ‘maces’ (Figure 1.2)
Horse-head ‘sceptres’ (Telegin, 1986; Gimbutas,
1991) or ‘maces’ are found in Eneolithic burials from
the Volga to the Lower Danube. Only a few have
8M. A. Levine
Figure 1.2. Horse-head ‘sceptres’:
(1) Suvorovo II, Kurgan 1, Burial 7;
(2) Kasimcea; (3) Khutor
Shlyakhovsky, Kurgan 3 Burial 3
(from Rassamakin, 1999, ﬁgure 3.14;
1. Domestication and early history of the horse 9
more than a passing resemblance to horses’ heads and
those are found west of the Dneiper, mainly in the
Balkan and Lower Danube regions (Telegin, 1986;
ausler, 1994a). These sculptures are conventionally
regarded as symbols of the power wielded by the male
occupants of the graves in which they were found
(Anthony, 1991, p. 267). It was, however, the archae-
ologists not the Eneolithic people who described them
as ‘maces’ or ‘sceptres’. Their association with power
is largely based upon the fact that they are made of
exotic stone such as porphyry. The markings carved
on some of the sculptures, which have been described
as depictions of harnessing, are too schematic to be
used as evidence of such (Anthony, 1991). The sculp-
tures are not, in fact, found with any direct or even
indirect evidence of horse husbandry.
Horse bones in human burials
Mallory (1981) and Anthony and Brown (2000),
describe cemeteries from the Pontic-Caspian region in
which horse bones are associated with human buri-
als from Eneolithic (Khvalynsk) and Early Bronze
Age (Yamnaya and Catacomb) cultures (Chernykh,
1992; Mallory, 1981, 1989; Y. Y. Rassamakin, pers.
comm.). Domestic animal bones are relatively rare
in graves from these periods and both ovicaprids
and cattle are much more frequently found than
horses (Mallory, 1981). Cattle skulls from these cul-
tures are found in human burials with wagons, but
horses are not. Neither are they associated with rid-
ing tack or harnessing (Mallory, 1981; Piggott, 1992;
Renfrew, 1998). Complete horse skeletons are very
rarely found in these burials. Often only a few or even
only one horse bone will be included (Mallory, 1981;
Anthony & Brown, 2000). The skull, teeth or jaw
are the most frequently represented anatomical ele-
ments, followed by foot bones. However, skull and
foot bones are rarely found together. According to
Mallory (1981), there is no correlation between horse
bones and other symbols of wealth or ranking in these
That Eneolithic and Early Bronze Age peoples went
to the trouble of burying horses attests to their sym-
bolic signiﬁcance, but it cannot be taken as evidence
of domestication. Hares were also found in Yamnaya
and Catacomb culture graves, but no one claims,
on that basis, that they were domesticated (Mallory,
Cheekpieces (Figure 1.3)
Perforated antler tines, found at Dereivka and a few
other Eneolithic or Early Bronze Age sites, have been
widely interpreted as cheekpieces and thus taken as
evidence for Eneolithic horse riding (e.g. Mallory,
1981, 1989; Anthony, 1986, 1991; Telegin, 1986).
This identiﬁcation has been questioned in recent years
on a number of grounds (Levine, 1990; Uerpmann,
1990; Dietz, 1992; H¨
ausler, 1994b; Rassamakin,
1999). That is, these objects have never been found in
place on a horse’s skull; rarely are they even found
in association with horses. There is no contextual
support for the notion that they were bridle cheek-
pieces. Those at Dereivka were found in association
with other bone tools, pottery, and ﬂaked and ground
stone tools (Telegin, 1986). Moreover, their form is
so general that they could have served a variety of
Although bit wear had been described earlier by
onyi (1968) and Clutton-Brock (1974), its use
to investigate the origins of horse riding, has been
pioneered by Anthony and Brown (1991; Brown &
Anthony, 1998). They deﬁne bit wear as: ‘the damage
that occurs on the occlusal...surfaces of the second
premolar teeth . . . , particularly the lower second pre-
molars . . . , when a horse chews the bit’ (Brown &
Anthony, 1998, p. 331). They state that the pattern
of wear that they deﬁne as bit wear is direct evidence
for horse riding or traction.
Useful though it certainly is, their approach has a
number of problems and limitations which they have
rBrown and Anthony (1998) describe two types of
bit-wear evidence: microscopic and macroscopic.
The microscopic evidence is problematic in the
archaeological context, since it is likely to be lost
under most burial conditions. Even at Botai, an
Eneolithic settlement site, where tooth preservation
was very good, Brown and Anthony were not able
to ﬁnd any microscopic wear evidence.
rBit wear would seem, by deﬁnition, to provide direct
evidence for the use of the horse for transport. How-
ever, Anthony and Brown have not demonstrated
that the wear pattern that they describe as bit wear
could not have had other causes (Anthony & Brown,
1991; Brown & Anthony, 1998). Indeed, there is
10 M. A. Levine
Figure 1.3. ‘Cheekpieces’: (1)–(5) Dereivka; (6) Mayaki;
(7) Vulkaneshty (from Rassamakin, 1999, Figure 3.55;
1. Domestication and early history of the horse 11
evidence that such wear can result from abnormal
occlusion (Levine et al., 2002; A. von den Driesch,
pers. comm.). Moreover, the median bevel of the
domestic population is only 0.5 mm greater than the
maximum bevel of their comparative feral sample.
rBrown and Anthony (1998) have recently described
a series of experiments they carried out to prove:
(1) that a metal-bitted horse, which is ridden reg-
ularly, will have bit wear; and (2) that soft bits –
leather, rope and bone – will also cause bit wear.
However, the results of both tests were, in fact,
inconclusive. Most signiﬁcantly, after 150 hours of
riding, none of the soft-bitted horses showed a sig-
Two conclusions can be drawn from this: (1) that
it has not been demonstrated that soft bits can cause
archaeologically visible bit wear; and (2) that it has
not been proved that a bone bit could result in ‘signiﬁ-
cant’ bit wear. Bit-wear studies are useful, but they do
not on their own provide conclusive or direct evidence
of the use of the horse for transport.
None of the genuinely direct types of evidence reach
back far enough to be informative about the nature of
human–horse relationships during the Eneolithic and
Early Bronze Age, the period upon which arguments
about the origins of horse domestication focus. It is
therefore necessary to use indirect evidence to recon-
struct relationships that took place probably at least
1000 years before the earliest direct evidence for horse
Inappropriate use of indirect evidence
Much of the indirect evidence, that is, evidence based
upon inference and interpretation, has been unsatis-
factory. Some important problems include:
rconfusion of intensiﬁcation with domestication;
ruse of a single type of evidence as proof of domesti-
rinadequate testing of theories.
As most of these points have been discussed in detail
elsewhere (Levine, 1990, 1993, 1999a), some of the
central issues will only be brieﬂy reviewed here.
Criteria used as evidence (e.g. B ¨
Bibikova, 1986a; Telegin, 1986) that horses from
Dereivka were domesticated include:
rabsence of old horses;
rpresence of a high proportion of male horse skulls;
rpresence of objects identiﬁed as bridle cheekpieces;
rresults of a morphological analysis comparing the
Dereivka horses with other equid material;
rtheir association with other domesticates;
rrelatively high percentage of horse bones and teeth
in the deposit.
These are not good criteria for horse domestica-
tion. In fact, on the basis of archaeological, ethno-
graphic and ethological comparisons, the absence of
old individuals is much more likely to indicate hunting
than herding. Males would outnumber females either
if bachelor groups or stallions protecting their harems
were targeted in the hunt. Morphological studies have
involved very small and disparate samples and pro-
duced contradictory results. The association of horses
with other assumed domesticates is not evidence of
horse domestication. In any case, they were also asso-
ciated with wild animals. In fact, the most important
criterion used was the relatively high proportion of
horse bones and teeth present at the site (e.g. B ¨
1984; Petrenko, 1984; Bibikova, 1986b; Matyushin,
1986; Telegin, 1986; Gimbutas, 1988; Dergachev,
1989; Makarova & Nurumov, 1989; Mallory, 1989;
Anthony, 1991; Anthony & Brown, 1991). However,
throughout the Palaeolithic the archaeological record
shows that horse meat was almost always an impor-
tant component of the human diet.
Uerpmann claims that: ‘Reduction in size on the
one hand and increase in variability on the other are
classic indicators of domestication’ (Uerpmann, 1990,
p. 127). However, horse populations have exhibited
this kind of variability throughout the Pleistocene and
into the post-Pleistocene. Environmental change, geo-
graphical isolation and genetic drift are all connected
with size change.
Additionally any morphological changes brought
about by domestication would almost certainly have
appeared too late to signal its earliest stages. In any
case, there are no indisputable osteological differences
between wild and domesticated horses.
Biogeographical range is also problematic as evi-
dence of early horse domestication. During the Upper
Pleistocene (c. 130 000–10 000 bp; Otte, 1996) wild
caballine horses (the ancestors of both the domestic
horse and the Przewalski’s horse) were found through-
out most of northern Eurasia, ranging from 75◦Nto
12 M. A. Levine
35◦N and from 130◦Eto10
◦W (Eisenmann, 1996).
During the following Holocene period the archaeo-
logical evidence for horses, particularly in Western
and central Europe, is much sparser – fewer remains
were found at fewer sites (Clutton-Brock, 1992). This
has been interpreted as meaning that the horse had
become extinct throughout large parts of its original
range. The natural Holocene range of the horse was
thus taken to comprise Eastern Europe and central
However, horse numbers in western and central
Europe during this period are greatly underestimated
for a variety of reasons. For one thing, relatively few
faunal assemblages, dating to this period, have been
submitted to detailed analysis. Additionally, when
horse remains are identiﬁed outside their expected
geographical range, it is frequently assumed that they
must have been either domesticated or intrusive from
later levels (e.g. Grigson, 1993; Curci & Tagliacozzo,
1995). Such material is frequently excluded from fau-
nal reports (K. Boyle, pers. comm.).
Recent research suggests that the natural distribu-
tion of the Holocene horse was much wider than had
formerly been believed. Neolithic remains from puta-
tively wild horses have, for example, been found in
Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Spain,
Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Hungary and Serbia –
in addition to Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan
(Azzaroli, 1985; Groves, 1986; Zarins, 1986; Cabard,
1987; Clason, 1988; Schibler & Steppan, 1999).
Because the origins of the earliest domestic horses
are not known, it is not certain that all these horses
were, in fact, wild (Uerpmann, 1990; Benecke, 1999).
Moreover, it should not be assumed that the absence
of horses from archaeological assemblages is evidence
that they were not present. They might well have been
available, but not hunted for either logistic or cultural
The belief that the horse became extinct in western
Europe and relatively rare in central Europe underlies
the assumption that its earliest domestication must
have taken place in eastern Europe or central Asia.
However, the fact that wild horses were more com-
mon in those regions does not prove that they were
ﬁrst domesticated there.
Population structure analysis
The study of population structure, that is, the age and
sex structure of an archaeozoological assemblage, can
offer useful insights into the nature of ancient rela-
tionships between people and animals. Each pattern
of behaviour or method of exploitation is character-
ized by its own typical, though not necessarily unique,
population structure. These structures can be used as
models to which the archaeological data can be com-
pared. The raw material for this analytical method is
the aged teeth from archaeological deposits. Determi-
nation of an individual’s age at death is based upon
measurements of crown height and assessments of
eruption and wear (Levine, 1982, 1999b).
Population structure of wild horses The anchor for
this method is the population structure of the wild
horse. The natural reproductive unit of the horse is
the family group, composed of a stallion, his mares
and their young up to the age of about two to four
years (Klingel, 1969, 1974; Berger, 1986; Boyd and
Keiper Chapter 4). It may comprise from 2 to 17 indi-
viduals. The average number of mares is around two
to four. The stallion normally starts his own family
group at the age of ﬁve or six years, although he might
not be successful at holding one against attacks from
other males until he is older. The second natural horse
social unit is the bachelor group, composed entirely
of males, too young or too old to belong to a family
group. Its average size is typically two to four horses.
The Attritional Assemblage Model (Figure 1.4a) The
mortality distributions for natural attrition, scaven-
ging, coursing on foot and livestock husbandry, where
meat production is of secondary importance, are all
similar to the Attritional Model. Mortality is low for
adults during their reproductive years, and high for
juveniles and senescent individuals (Caughley, 1966).
The Carnivorous Husbandry Model (Figure 1.4b) A
mortality curve resembling the Carnivorous Hus-
bandry Model might be generated if the slaughter of
individuals at around the age of two to four years
were superimposed upon the pastoral nomadic attri-
tional pattern (Levine, 1999a). A very similar age
distribution was produced from data provided by
Yuri Shavardak, a semi-traditional horse herder from
The Life Assemblage or Catastrophe Model (Figure
1.4c) The Life Assemblage Model is representative
1. Domestication and early history of the horse 13
Figure 1.4. Age structure models. (a) The Attritional
Assemblage Model. (b) The Carnivorous Husbandry Model.
(c) The Life Assemblage or Catastrophe Model. (d) Family
Group Model. (e) Bachelor Group. (f) The Stalking Model.
14 M. A. Levine
Figure 1.5. Archaeological age structures. (a) Pooled Western
European, Upper Pleistocene archaeological assemblages.
(b) Age structure at Botai (Bot) and Dereivka (Der).
either of a living population, a catastrophe assem-
blage, or an assemblage in which all age classes are
represented as they would be in the living popula-
tion because of completely random sampling (Levine,
1983). Herd driving, or any other non-selective hunt-
ing technique, should produce this mortality pattern
or that of the Family Group Variant.
Social group models (variants of the Life Assem-
blage Model) The main difference between the Life
Assemblage Model and the Family Group Model
(Figure 1.4d) is the relatively low proportion in the lat-
ter of individuals three to six years of age, marking the
absence of bachelor males (Levine, 1983). This is the
kind of pattern produced by the Western European,
Upper Pleistocene material previously studied –
particularly when adjusted to compensate for the
probable under-representation of immature animals1
Figure 1.4e illustrates a hypothetical Bachelor
Group age distribution. Its most archaeologically visi-
ble characteristic would be the absence of any individ-
uals younger than about two years of age. Bachelor-
group hunting might, in the archaeological context,
be indistinguishable from the stalking of prime adults
The Stalking Model (Figure 1.4f) Stalking is a
selective hunting technique in which the prey is
approached by stealth and killed. Hunting mainly
prime adults should also produce this distribution
Botai and Dereivka (Figure 1.5b) The age distribu-
tions for both Botai and Dereivka ﬁt hunting mod-
els, but the differences between them strongly sug-
gest that different hunting techniques were used. For
example, although the mortality rates for both Botai
and Dereivka are very similar from the age of eight
years and onwards, the rates for younger horses are
distinctly divergent. At Dereivka mortality is concen-
trated between the ages of ﬁve to eight years, while at
Botai it extends at least back to the age of three years.
The difference is even greater when the distribution is
adjusted. While the horses from Dereivka were proba-
bly stalked, it seems that those from Botai were killed
in herd drives. This conclusion is supported by the
very different sex ratios at the two sites. At Dereivka
the ratio of males to females is 9:1, which is compati-
ble with stalking; while at Botai the ratio is almost 1:1,
which is best explained by a non-selective technique,
such as herd driving (Levine, 1999b).
Palaeopathological analysis provides one of the most
promising approaches for the study of the evolution of
horse husbandry. The results of a recent palaeopathol-
ogy project carried out by the author with Leo Jeffcott
and Katherine Whitwell indicate that the types and
incidences of certain abnormalities of the caudal
1. Domestication and early history of the horse 15
Figure 1.6. Deposition of spurs of new bone on the ventral
and lateral surfaces of the vertebral bodies adjacent to the
intervertebral space. Ak-Alakha 5, kurgan 3, horse 4; thoracic
thoracic vertebrae could be connected with riding
(Levine, 1999b; Levine et al., 2000). Four Early Iron
Age, Scytho-Siberian skeletons from Ak-Alakha 5
(Altai), dated ﬁfth to third century bc, were found
buried with bits between their teeth. Although their
bones were well preserved, burial conditions were
not good enough for the survival of saddles. How-
ever, the context of the burials suggests that they were
riding horses. Most of the anatomical elements from
all four Early Iron Age horses are normal. However,
all of them have similar abnormalities of the caudal
(1) Deposition of spondylotic spurs of new bone on
the ventral and lateral surfaces of the vertebral
bodies adjacent to the intervertebral space (Figure
Figure 1.7. Overriding or impinging dorsal spinous processes.
Ak-Alakha 5, kurgan 3, horse 1; thoracic vertebrae 14–18,
lumbar vertebra 1.
(2) Overriding or impinging dorsal spinous processes
(3) Horizontal ﬁssures through the epiphysis
(4) Periarticular osteophytes: the deposition of new
bone on and above adjacent articular processes
between vertebrae (Figure 1.9).
This work is still in progress, but the initial results
of comparisons of the Early Iron Age horses, which
wore pad saddles, with free-living modern Exmoor
ponies, which were never saddled, and with Medieval
Turkic horses (Ak-Alakha 1, Altai), which wore frame
saddles, strongly suggest that these abnormalities, as
a complex, are associated with the use of pad sad-
dles and, most probably, with riding bareback (Levine
et al., 2000; Levine et al. in press.) (Tables 1.2a–c).
These types of abnormalities are entirely absent
from the sample of vertebrae studied from the
Eneolithic site, Botai (Figure 1.10), supporting the
results of the population structure analysis, which
concluded that the horses from Botai were wild.
Unfortunately the vertebrae from Dereivka had all
been discarded before they could be examined.
Taming and domesticating horses
Despite our ignorance of the origins of horse domesti-
cation, it is nevertheless possible – using archaeolog-
ical, ethnographic and ethological data – to consider
how horse husbandry might have originated.
16 M. A. Levine
Figure 1.8. Horizontal ﬁssure through the epiphysis.
Ak-Alakha 5, kurgan 3, horse 4, thoracic vertebra 14.
According to Juliet Clutton-Brock, ‘A tame animal
differs from a wild one in that it is dependent on man
and will stay close to him of its own free will’ (Clutton-
Brock, 1987, p. 12)). Aboriginal hunter–gatherers and
horticulturists throughout the world are known to
tame all kinds of wild animals to keep as pets. There
is no reason to think that this would not have been the
case at least from the time of the earliest anatomically
modern Homo sapiens and, when the need arose, tam-
ing would probably have been the ﬁrst step towards
domestication (Galton, 1883; Clutton-Brock, 1987;
Serpell, 1989). Wild horses, particularly as foals, can
be captured and tamed and, as such, ridden or har-
nessed and, at the end of their lives, if necessary,
slaughtered and eaten. During historical times both
the North American Plains tribes and the Mongols
used the arkan, lasso or herd drive to capture wild or
Figure 1.9. Periarticular osteophytes: the deposition of new
bone on and above adjacent articular processes between
vertebrae. Ak-Alakha 5, kurgan 3, horse 4; thoracic
feral horses to eat or to tame them (Levine, 1999a).
Horse taming was regarded as a skill most success-
fully carried out by specialists, whose most important
tool was their intimate knowledge of horse behaviour.
On this basis, a possible scenario for the development
of horse domestication may be proposed.
As a working hypothesis, the author would like to
suggest that horse taming probably ﬁrst arose as a by-
product of horse hunting for meat. Orphaned foals,
captured between the ages of perhaps two months
and one year, or possibly somewhat older – when
they were no longer dependent upon their mother’s
milk – would sometimes have been adopted and raised
as pets. Eventually, and perhaps repeatedly, the dis-
covery was made that these pets could be put to
work. This knowledge could have been acquired and
lost many times from the Pleistocene onwards. But it
1. Domestication and early history of the horse 17
Table 1.2a. Description of thoracic vertebrae 11–19 abnormalities: Early Iron Age horses
Ak-Alakha 5 (Altai)
Horse number 1 2 3 4
Age (years) 16+10–15 101
Sex Male Male Male Male (possible gelding)
Number of thoracic vertebrae 18 19 18 18
(1) Osteophytes/spondylosis on
the ventral and lateral
surfaces of the vertebral
bodies adjacent to the
T11 to 18 Increasing from T11
to T14 (11 & 12
caudal; 13 & 14
T14, 17, 18 strongly
T13 to 15 most strongly
developed, but extends
(2) Impinging or overriding
Unclear because of
(3) Horizontal ﬁssure through
T13 and 15,
T13 and 14, (most
T14, caudal; T18,
T13 and 14, (most
developed on T14),
(4) Periarticular changes T16–17 small
T17, 18 small
from T14 to T17, then
aAt T16–T17 and, to a lesser extent at T15–T16, these changes were pronounced and extended dorsally to involve the adjacent
vertebral arches and lower regions of the spinous processes. This had not, however, resulted in the fusion of the vertebrae.
Table 1.2b. Description of thoracic 11 to 19
abnormalities: modern Exmoor ponies
Horse number 97/2 97/7
Age (years) 12 27
Sex Female Female
Number of thoracic
on the ventral and
lateral surfaces of the
adjacent to the
Not present Sightly developed,
(2) Impinging or overriding
Not present Not present
(3) Horizontal ﬁssure
Not present Not present
(4) Periarticular changes Not present T11–18 small
was, apparently, only during the Holocene – possibly
between the Neolithic and the Early Bronze Age – that
it began to inﬂuence human social developments.
Initially the difﬁculties involved in keeping cap-
tured wild horses alive would have set limits to
their impact – as work animals – on human society.
Furthermore, considering the problems encountered
by modern collectors trying to breed Przewalski’s
horses, it seems likely that horse-keeping would have
had to have been relatively advanced before con-
trolled breeding over successive generations, and thus
domestication, would have been possible. As Boyd
and Houpt point out: ‘Failure to consider the typical
social organization of the species can result in prob-
lems such as pacing, excessive rates of aggression,
impotence and infanticide’ (Boyd & Houpt, 1994,
p. 222). Thus, in order to breed wild horses success-
fully in captivity, their environmental, nutritional and
social requirements must be met. Again quoting Boyd
and Houpt (1994, p. 226):
In zoos, juvenile male Przewalski’s horses should be left in their
natal bands for at least a year so that they can observe mat-
ing behaviour. They should be placed in bachelor herds when
removed from the natural band, and not given harems until they
are at least four or ﬁve years of age. The ﬁrst mares placed with
the stallion should be younger than he and the harem size should
be kept small until the stallion gains age and experience.
The cognitive and logistical difﬁculties involved in
creating such an environment at the time of the earliest
horse domestication should not be underestimated.
Although it is not possible to know for sure that the
ancestor of the domestic horse would have been more
amenable to captive breeding than the Przewalski’s
18 M. A. Levine
Table 1.2c. Description of thoracic 11 to 19 abnormalities: Medieval Turkic horses
Ak-Alakha 1 (Altai)
Horse number 1 2
Age (years) 11 years 10.5 years
Sex male male
Number of thoracic vertebrae 18 18
(1) Osteophytes/spondylosis on the ventral and
lateral surfaces of the vertebral bodies
adjacent to the intervertebral space
T14, small ventral spondylotic spur Not present
(2) Impinging or overriding spinous processes Spines crowded together and T13–16 have
been touching, no signiﬁcant overriding
(3) Horizontal ﬁssure through epiphysis Not present Not present
(4) Periarticular changes Slight erosion and pitting of articular facets
between T14 & 15, T15 & 16, T17 &
Some fairly insigniﬁcant bony
thickening on the processes
between T13 & T14, T14 &
Figure 1.10. Botai caudal thoracic vertebrae.
horse, it seems unlikely. That capturing wild horses
and stealing tamed or domesticated ones was regarded
by the Plains tribes as preferable to breeding them
supports the scenario proposed here. If it is correct,
it seems likely that there would have been a relatively
long period of time when new horses would have been
recruited from wild populations. This could have been
carried out by trapping, driving and chasing, as docu-
mented for the Mongols and North American Plains
tribes (Levine, 1999a).
Consideration of the ethological and ethnographic
evidence further suggests a scenario in which the ini-
tial taming and perhaps the earliest breeding of the
domestic horse progenitors could have been conﬁned
to the ‘horse whisperers’ of the ancient world (Levine,
1999a). That the breeding of domestic horses today is
so straightforward seems likely to be the consequence
of the selective breeding of particularly amenable
beasts some thousands of years ago. As Hemmer
(1990, pp. 187–8) points out, behavioural change is
an inherent part of the process of domestication:
The environmental appreciation of the domestic animal is
innately reduced when compared to that of wild animals. This
is expressed in a lower intensity or even disappearance of par-
ticular patterns of behaviour ...Asingular intensiﬁcation of
sexual activity contrasts with the general attenuation of other
Such behavioural changes, in fact, probably do
have a genetic basis (Hemmer, 1990; Hausberger and
Richard-Yris Chapter 3). Given the complexity of
both horse and human behaviour, as described above,
it seems rather unlikely that these kinds of changes
would have taken place many times in many places.
However, once controlled breeding was established
and the horse domesticated, it is likely that its value
as a work animal would have been appreciated and its
1. Domestication and early history of the horse 19
population could have increased quite rapidly (Berger,
This leads to a hypothesis that horse domesti-
cation would have taken a relatively long time to
develop and might well have depended upon chance
genetic changes that would have predisposed some
horses to breed in captivity. Another possibility is
that the human understanding of horse behaviour
might have developed to such a degree that horses
ﬁnally would have been able to reproduce in captiv-
ity. Perhaps the most likely scenario is that the human
and equine parts of the equation would have evolved
Mitochondrial DNA and the origins of
At ﬁrst glance the above scenario might appear to con-
ﬂict with the most recent evidence from mitochondrial
DNA (mtDNA) research. All three recent investiga-
tions of horse mtDNA have revealed that, in contrast
to cattle and goats, the domestic horse is characterized
by high genetic diversity (Jansen et al., 2002; Hall
Chapter 2). Lister et al. (1998) explains this with a
model that envisages: ‘domestic horses having arisen
from wild stock distributed over a moderately exten-
sive geographical region, large enough to have con-
tained within it considerable pre-existing haplotype
diversity’ (Lister et al., 1998, p. 276). Vil`
aet al. (2001)
propose two hypotheses: (1) the ‘selective breeding
of a limited wild stock from a few foci of domestica-
tion’; and (2) ‘a large number of founders recruited
over an extended time period from throughout the
extensive Eurasian range of the horse’ (Vil`
2001, p. 474). They ﬁnally reject the ﬁrst explanation
and choose a modiﬁed version of the second: ‘initially,
wild horses were captured over a large geographic
area and used for nutrition and transport’ (Vil`
2001, p. 477).
The study by Jansen et al. (2002), with its much
larger sample of 652 horses, expands upon these
results. The analysis revealed that at least 77 success-
fully breeding mares were recruited from the wild.
Moreover, several of the phylogenetic clusters cor-
respond to breeds or geographic areas. This study
conﬁrms that the Przewalski’s horse mtDNA types
are closely related and are not found in any other
breed and that this animal is very unlikely to be
ancestral to the domestic horse. Jansen et al. (2002)
also examine both the ‘restricted origin’ and ‘multiple
founder’ hypotheses. They conclude that the present
mtDNA diversity could not have originated from a
single wild population. However, they point out that
this ﬁnding does not necessarily support the ‘multiple
founder’ hypothesis. Taking archaeological, etholog-
ical, ethnographic and genetic evidence into account,
at present the most likely scenario for the origin of
horse domestication is one in which the knowledge
of horse-breeding and the concomitant spread of the
horse diffused from an origin, localized both spatially
and temporally. The overall data seem to suggest that,
as the knowledge of horse-breeding spread, additional
horses from wild populations were incorporated into
the domestic herds, thus forming the regional mtDNA
clusters. It must be said, however, that this ﬁeld of
study is only at a very early stage. Further research –
archaeological, palaeopathological and genetic – hold
great promise for our understanding of the origins
of horse domestication and the evolution of horse
I would like to thank Yuriy Rassamakin and Yakov
Gershkovich for help with the archaeological chronol-
ogy and Katie Boyle and Peter Forster for com-
ments about the text. I am grateful to Dora Kemp
who helped to prepare the illustrations for this chap-
ter. I would like to thank the McDonald Institute
for Archaeological Research for allowing me to use
ﬁgures 3.14 and 3.55 from Rassamakin (1999). I
would like to express my gratitude to all my CIS col-
laborators who made this work possible. I acknowl-
edge the following organizations for funding the
research discussed here: the McDonald Institute for
Archaeological Research, the Natural Environmental
Research Council, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the
British Academy and the Leakey Foundation. I am
grateful to the University of Cambridge and the British
Academy for providing travel expenses to enable me
to attend the Havemeyer Workshop.
1Ahypothetical adjustment factor has been applied to com-
pensate for the probable under-representation of immature
animals (for details see Levine, 1983). To obtain the average
adjusted frequency of teeth for each age class from birth to
the age of ﬁve years, the frequency of teeth in each age class
(from 0 to 5 years) is multiplied by 1/0.23 +0.17(age). ‘Age’
refers to average age; for example, 0.5 is used for 0–1 years.
20 M. A. Levine
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