for National Geographic News
People on the steppes of what is now Kazakhstan were the first to achieve both riding and milking horses—new evidence suggests.
This culture had domesticated horses at least 5,500 years ago.
"They were not only eating horses, but were also exploiting them for milk," said archaeologist and lead study author Alan Outram of the University of Exeter in the U.K.
"Here, we have both riding and milking at a very early stage," he said.
This puts horse domestication a thousand years earlier than previously thought, he said.
Researchers have long wondered when horses were first domesticated.
That's because the beasts of burden transformed human society by speeding up transport, making long-distance trading more feasible and opening up new styles of warfare.
Transport, Meat, and Dairy
Earlier research had found circumstantial evidence—including leatherwork tools that could have been used to make harnesses—for horse domestication among the Botai people, who lived in northern Kazakhstan about 3,600 to 3,100 years ago.
In the new research, scientists examined bones and pottery excavated from a village at the Botai site over the past several years.
Now "we've got three very strong, totally independent lines of evidence" for domestication of horses at Botai, said Outram, whose research is published in today's issue of the journal Science.
Several of the horses show wear on their teeth that could only have come from having bits in their mouths. The team dated one worn tooth to around 3500 B.C. The ancient skeletons also had slender leg bones, like all later domesticated horses, as compared to their wild cousins.
Finally, the team scoured bits of broken pottery for pieces from near the rims of jars and found fat from both horses and their milk, Outram said.
"It is really important to be able to identify the fats in the clay pots as not just from horse tissue, but precisely from horse milk," archaeologist David Anthony of Hartwick University in New York, who was not involved in the study, said in an e-mail.
"If you're milking horses, they are not wild!"
The evidence suggests that soon after horses were domesticated, people hit on the idea of milking them—a tradition that continues to this day in Kazakhstan. It's not clear how the idea of milking horses originated, however.
"The new findings may suggest that people are a lot more inventive than we thought," study author Outram said.
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