In search of the homeland of horses

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The authors of the new study state that Przewalski’s horse is not wild animal actually, and raise new questions as to the domestication history of horses.

Where horses were domesticated? Researchers are seeking answer to this question not least because horses have played an important role in human history. They have influenced the way people consumed food, traveled, and conducted hostilities.

Until recently, researchers tended to believe that domestication of horses occurred within the territory of present-day northern part of the Republic of Kazakhstan more than 5,500 years ago. This is where the representatives of Botai culture lived. Having studied their ceramics, researchers have found the traces of fat from the horse milk and meat there. They also found lots of horse bones and teeth with the traces of horse tacks. What is more, archaeologists have discovered traces of animal pens, which also indicates that this is where the first horse breeders lived.

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Furthermore, Ukraine is also considered as one of the possible domestication centers of horses. The skull of a horse that lived more than 5,000 years ago was found in Kirovohrad oblast. As evidenced by the teeth of the skull, horse harness was used.

Paleogeneticist Ludovic Orlando from the Natural History Museum of Denmark and the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) jointly with archaeologist Alan Outram from the University of Exeter (the UK) decided to study the DNA of the ancient horses. They “have read” DNA from the carcasses of twenty horses found in the settlements of Botai culture, as well as DNA of horses from other regions older than 5,000 years. Data received were compared with genomes of ancient and modern horses, inclusive of Przewalski’s horse that are already published. The results that were obtained jointly with workmates from other countries were published in the peer reviewed journal Science and were beyond the expectations.

First, horses that are considered to be the only wild horses survived until today, turned out to be the descendants of horses from Botai culture. In other words, they are feral, rather than wild.

Secondly, it has emerged that any other domestic horses are not descendants of horses from Botai culture. That is to say that horses that lived in pens in the north of Kazakhstan 5,500 years ago have left no descendants that would have survived to this day.

This can have two explanations. The first one lies in the fact that, at the very least, there were two domestication centers of horses, and now we are dealing with horses from that second unknown center.

The second explanation is as follows: horses from the northern Kazakhstan were intercrossing during migrations with a vast number of wild relatives and therefore their genes “dissolved” so much so that they are almost not noticeable.

We shall study the DNA samples aged 4,000 to 5,000 years to understand which of these scenarios actually existed. And now the work in that regard is under way. In the meantime, the question of the homeland of the first domestic horses remains open.