The first domestication of the horse

Excavations at the French site of Solutré (1896)

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

The domestication of the horse, for the purpose of using it for chariots and equitation, came after a very slow process. The first relationship between horse and human, in prehistoric times, was that between predator and prey. We have an impressive testimony of this in the site of Solutré, 8 miles from the city of Macon, in eastern France. Here, in 1866, was discovered a huge deposit of fossil bones of horses. It is estimated that in this place, between 32,000 and 12,000 years before our era, more than 100,000 horses were hunted and killed. The herds were driven through a narrow valley, where they were attacked by groups of hunters armed with stone-tipped spears.The importance of the horse to prehistoric man is also well attested by rock art, in which – according to a study of American anthropologists Patricia Rice and Ann Paterson – the representation of this animal prevails over that of other species (above the title, a detail of the wall paintings in the Chauvet Cave in France, dating from the upper Paleolithic).

Cave of Chauvet (France)

The debate about when and where the first domestication of the horse took place is still open. Based on archaeological and linguistic data, it is considered likely to have occurred in the steppes of southern Russia, in an area between the current Ukrainian plain, north of the Black Sea, and an area further east, towards the Altaic region. According to the American anthropologist David Anthony, the wear of the lower premolars in the remains of horses found inside the characteristics burial mounds (so called kurgan) in Khvalynsk, northern Kazakhstan, dating to 3500-3000 BC, show that the animals had worn a bit, probably made of bone. The hypothesis that the beginning of equitation  may be dated by means of these findings is denied by other authors, such as Nikolay Bokovenko. According to the Russian scholar, the use of vehicles and chariots was widespread in the nomadic cultures of the euroasiatic steppes during the Bronze Age (between 2300 and 850 BC), but it was only around the beginning of the first millennium BC that horseback riding was mastered, probably by shepherds. It is roughly at this time that the first horse rider was depicted in the form of a centaur. According to other scholars, the only available so far unique dating of domestication is the one that can be traced to written sources and iconography. The oldest of which is a tablet depicting a scene of war, known as the Standard of Ur, dating from around 2500 BC. The artifact, found in one of the royal tombs of Ur in southern Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq, south of Baghdad), depicts some four-wheeled chariots, probably not pulled by horses, but by onagers, or asses.

The Standard of Ur, dating from around 2,500 BC, is the first representation of the use of equides (probably onagres, or asses) for pulling chariots

Bibliography

ANTHONY, David – BROWN, Dorcas R., Eneolithic horse exploitation in the Eurasian steppes: diet, ritual and riding, in “Antiquity”, Volume: 74,  Number 283, 2000, pp.75–86.

BOKOVENKO, Nikolay A., The Origins of Horse riding and the Development of Ancient Central Asian Nomadic Riding Harnesses, in AA. VV., Kurgans, ritual sites, and settlements: Eurasian Bronze and Iron Age, edited by Oxford, Archeopress, 2000, pp. 304-310.

LEBLANC, Michel-Antoine – BOUISSOU, Marie-France – CHEHU, Frédéric, Cheval, qui es-tu ? : L’éthologie du cheval, du comportement naturel à la vie domestique, Paris, Belin, 2004.

RICE, Patricia C. – PATERSON, Ann L., Cave Art and Bones: Exploring the Interrelationships, in American Anthropologist”, New Series, Vol. 87, No. 1 (Mar.), 1985, pp. 94-100.