Who were the earliest humans to look at horses and consider trying to ride them?
Archaeologists are now one step closer to answering that question. A new analysis of 5,000-year-old human skeletal remains has revealed the earliest known direct evidence of horseback riding.
In a recent study published in the journal Science Advances, researchers examined skeletons belonging to a Bronze Age group called the Yamnaya, who lived across the Eurasian steppe between roughly 3000 and 2500 B.C.E.
Studying skeletons to learn about horseback riding may seem like a roundabout approach. But the researchers say that examining riding equipment for clues is difficult, as such items are rarely preserved.
“You can read bones like biographies,” says Martin Trautmann, an anthropologist at the University of Helsinki and co-author of the study, to Christina Larson of the Associated Press (AP).
The researchers created a set of six criteria that together could indicate whether someone rode horses. Wear marks on specific bones—including the hip sockets, thigh bones and pelvis—reveal what Trautman calls “horse rider syndrome.”
“There are no singular traits that indicate a certain occupation or behavior,” says Trautmann in a statement. “Only in their combination, as a syndrome, symptoms provide reliable insights to understand habitual activities of the past.”
The researchers examined skeletal remains from archaeological sites in southeastern Europe. Using the six criteria, they classified five Yamnaya skeletons as “highly probable riders.”
In earlier studies of dental remains, researchers found that humans drank horse milk and used bits and bridles more than 5,000 years ago. Still, learning that a horse was bridled doesn’t necessarily show that someone had the knowledge to climb on its back and ride it.
“When you get on a horse and ride it fast, it’s a thrill—I’m sure ancient humans felt the same way,” David Anthony, co-author of the study and an archaeologist at Hartwick College, tells the AP.
The team doesn’t think that the Yamnaya used the horses for combat. According to Trautman, the community’s horses were smaller than today’s, with broad barrel-like chests and short, stocky legs.
“They probably were not suitable to be ridden into anything like a violent confrontation,” Anthony tells NPR’s Nell Greenfieldboyce. Evidence of horses being used in warfare and conquest does not appear until many years later.
Scientists still can’t say for certain when the first humans looked at a horse and decided that it was destined for a saddle. Evidence of riders older than the Yamnaya people may be waiting to be discovered.
Even so, learning more about when our ancestors began using horses for transportation is critical. “Horseback riding was the fastest a human could go before the railroads,” Anthony tells the AP. In other words, those who first saddled up gained access to a world of possibilities.
Katherine Kanne, an archaeologist at University College Dublin who wasn’t involved with the study, always assumed that humans were riding horses earlier than researchers thought.
“A lot of us suspected this for a long time,” she tells Scientific American’s Meghan Bartels, “and for it to come true is really exciting to see—and gratifying for sure.”