The Yamnaya – The beauty of archaeology is discovering more than just bones; it’s about learning more about the history of the world that led to what we have now.
As ancient bones are recovered, so are pieces of history.
Recently, human skeletons found to belong to the ancient Yamnaya carried signs that could indicate how they were among the first horseback riders.
On March 3, researchers at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting and in Science Advances revealed five excavated skeletons.
They were found to be dated to 3000 to 2500 BC, showing clear signs of physical stress, hinting that the Yamnaya individuals could have frequently ridden horses.
The discovery points to the Yamnaya being the earliest humans to have been horseback riders.
In 2018, it was believed that the Asian hunting-gathering culture, the Botai, was the first to domesticate horses from around 3700 BC to 3100 BC.
Before that, the Yamnaya were only hypothesized to be the first horseback riders, but with the new evidence, there may be validation to the theory.
Thousands of years ago, the Yamnaya migrated widely, traveling from Asia to Europe.
During their journey, they spread Indo-European languages, altering the human gene pool across the two continents.
The Yamnaya’s journey stretched roughly 2,800 miles from what is known as Hungary to Mongolia.
They are thought to have occurred over only a few centuries.
“In many ways, [the Yamnaya] changed the history of Eurasia,” said Volker Heyd, an archaeologist from the University of Helsinki.
Man and horse through history
According to scientists, horse domestication became more established around 3500 BC, speculating that it was for milk and meat.
Some researchers suggested Botai people from modern-day Kazakhstan as the first horseback riders at the time, but the debate may have ended with the recent discoveries.
The Yamnaya also had horses, and archaeologists speculated people rode them but lacked the evidence to back their theories.
Regardless, the oldest known depiction of horseback riding came from around 2000 BC.
The efforts to determine when horseback riding actually started have been complicated as possible riding gears would have been made with long-decayed natural materials.
Adding to the problem for scientists is finding complete horse skeletons from the past centuries.
Read also: SpaceX takes up more than 50% of satellites in orbit, research found
Finding and assessing the bones
According to Volker Heyd, he and his colleagues weren’t looking for evidence of horsemanship.
Instead, they were working on a project called “The Yamnaya Impact on Prehistoric Europe” to understand aspects of the people’s lives.
They managed to excavate over 200 human skeletons from Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary, among other countries.
While assessing them, bioanthropologist Martin Trautmann noticed an individual’s bones carrying distinct traits on the femur and other areas he’d seen before.
He suspected horseback riding, saying, “It was just kind of a surprise.”
While he would have dismissed it if it was a one-off case, he continued analyzing the skeletons and noticed others had similar traits.
Trautmann, Heyd, and their colleagues assessed the skeletons for six physical horseback riding signs documented in previous research.
The signs were a collection of traits known as horsemanship syndrome.
They include pelvis and femur marks from biomechanical stress of sitting with spread legs while holding onto the horse and healed vertebrae damage from injuries from falling off.
The team then created a scoring system to account for the following skeletal traits:
- Relative importance
“Bones are living tissue,” said Trautmann. “So they have to react to any type of environmental stimulus.”
Trautman, Heyd, and the rest of the team considered five Yamnaya male individuals frequent riders due to having four or more signs of horsemanship.
Nine other Yamnaya males are likely to have ridden horses, but the researchers couldn’t say for sure as they only displayed three markers.
Maria Mednikova, a bioarchaeologist from the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, offered her two cents on the discovery, saying, “Hypothetically speaking, it’s very logical.”
She pointed out how the Yamnaya were very close to horses and speculated that, at some point, they tried riding.
Mednikova plans to inspect the Yamnaya skeletons for horseback riding traits.
“The human skeleton is like a book,” she said. “If you have some knowledge, you can read it.”
Meanwhile, Ursula Brosseder, another archaeologist who wasn’t involved with the research, warned not to interpret the findings as equestrianism as a mastered art in the Yamnaya culture.
She views the paper’s discovery as humans still learning what they could do with horses during early domestication.
Meanwhile, Volker Heyd says he has long suspected the Yamnaya as horseback riders because they had animals and expanded rapidly across a large region.
“Now, we have proof.”
Image source: The New York Times