Earliest evidence of horseback riding has been found in Europe

Scientific studies show that horses were kept for their milk ~3500 to 3000 BCE, and horseback riding started around that time.
Nergis Firtina
Grave of a horse rider discovered in Malomirovo, Bulgaria.
Grave of a horse rider discovered in Malomirovo, Bulgaria.

University of Helsinki  

By examining the human corpses unearthed in burial mounds called kurgans that were between 4500 and 5000 years old, the researchers found signs of horse riding. This is crucial for the human development puzzle since the invention of horseback riding significantly altered the pace and range at which we could travel.

The Yamnaya civilization was responsible for the earthen burial mounds. The Yamnayans left the Pontic-Caspian steppes in search of better lands in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Serbia. Yamnayans were nomadic cattle and sheep herders thought to have been mounted, as stated in the press release.

“Horseback-riding seems to have evolved not long after the presumed domestication of horses in the western Eurasian steppes during the fourth millennium BCE. It was already rather common in members of the Yamnaya culture between 3000 and 2500 BCE”, says Volker Heyd, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Helsinki and a member of the international team which made the discovery.

The migratory herder groups from the Yamnaya civilization first came into touch with the long-established farming settlements of the Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic traditions in these areas west of the Black Sea. Steppe people's migration into Southeast Europe during the Early Bronze Age was interpreted as an invasion for a long time.

Earliest evidence of horseback riding has been found in Europe
Horses in fog.

The distinctions between the inhabitants of the local communities and these eastern immigrants became even more evident with the development of ancient DNA studies.

“Our research is now beginning to provide a more nuanced picture of their interactions. For example, findings of physical violence, as were expected, are practically non-existent in the skeletal record so far. We also start understanding the complex exchange processes in material culture and burial customs between newcomers and locals in the 200 years after their first contact”, explains Bianca Preda-Bălănică, another team member from the University of Helsinki. 

The skeletons show signs of horsemanship

“We studied over 217 skeletons from 39 sites, of which about 150 found in the burial mounds belong to the Yamnayans. Diagnosing activity patterns in human skeletons is not unambiguously. There are no singular traits that indicate a certain occupation or behavior. Only in their combination, as a syndrome, symptoms provide reliable insights to understand habitual activities of the past.”, explains Martin Trautmann, Bioanthropologist in Helsinki and the study's lead author.

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The study was published in Science Advances on March 3.

Study abstract:

The origins of horseback riding remain elusive. Scientific studies show that horses were kept for their milk ~3500 to 3000 BCE, widely accepted as indicating domestication. However, this does not confirm them to be ridden. Equipment used by early riders is rarely preserved, and the reliability of equine dental and mandibular pathologies remains contested. However, horsemanship has two interacting components: the horse as mount and the human as a rider. Alterations associated with riding in human skeletons therefore possibly provide the best source of information. Here, we report five Yamnaya individuals well-dated to 3021 to 2501 calibrated BCE from kurgans in Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary, displaying changes in bone morphology and distinct pathologies associated with horseback riding. These are the oldest humans identified as riders so far.

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