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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. If you thought that horses were originating in the Wild West because you watch a lot of, you know, those TV movies, or maybe you thought they originated in Spain because that's where the horses in the West came from, well, think again. It turns out that the world's first ranch hands were tending to their horses more than 5,000 years ago in what is now Kazakhstan. Archeologists have uncovered evidence showing that those early horse farmers used bits and bridles to control their horses, possibly so that they could be ridden. And there's also evidence that the people tending to those horses drank mare's milk.

Well, how did scientists piece all of this together? It's really an impressive piece of detective work. And joining me now to talk about it is Alan Outram. He is senior lecturer in archeology at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. Thanks for joining us so late, Dr. Outram.

Dr. ALAN OUTRAM (Archeology, University of Exeter): Good afternoon.

FLATOW: Good afternoon to you. Your site is in now what is Kazakhstan. Tell us where that is for people who don't know.

Dr. OUTRAM: Well, it's below Russia, and to the side of China, to the West of China and to the east of the Caspian Sea.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And what is there new about what you have discovered?

Dr. OUTRAM: What's new here is that we have pushed back the date the first domestication of the horse by at least a thousand years. Originally, people thought that they were domesticated in the Bronze Age, about 2,000 BC. And now we think it's about 3,500 BC.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Were there wild horses living here?

Dr. OUTRAM: This is a very good area for wild horses, and the people that lived in this area prior to this domestication event would have been very, very familiar with hunting wild horses in large numbers.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Were the wild horses brought from somewhere else, or do you think this is where they might have originated?

Dr. OUTRAM: Well, certainly, for thousands of years, there would have been wild horses living in this region, and people would have been very, very familiar with them, indeed.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And you have evidence that the horses were harnessed and they had bits in their mouths?

Dr. OUTRAM: Yes. It might not have been a bit in the way that we think of it now, exactly the same sort of design. This is a period before metal was commonly used. People were just beginning to understand how to use copper, and very few tools were made out of that. So this was probably a bit made out of something organic, perhaps just a leather strap.

FLATOW: And how do you know that? How do you know that they had these in their mouths?

Dr. OUTRAM: It's from damage that they did to the horses' jaws. The equipment itself, the harnessing itself is probably all rotted away, and what we're left with is tell-tale signs on the bones of the horses. One of the things we find is wear at the front of the first tooth in the cheek row or teeth where the bit rubs up against it. And we find a very specific type of wear pattern at the front of that, a parallel band of wear. It goes quite deep below the enamel, which you just don't see in horses which have not been bitted.

FLATOW: I hear you. Can you tell us what they were harnessed for? Was it for riding or plowing or pulling?

Dr. OUTRAM: Well, I suspect it was for riding in this case, because there is no evidence of any sort of wheeled vehicles, and plowing would have been completely unnecessary in this area because it's not an area that there was any cereal agricultural for a very long time.

FLATOW: So they were riding these horses?

Dr. OUTRAM: I think that's the only sensible idea in this case, yes.

FLATOW: So do you think, then, that they domesticated whole herds of horses and were, like, you know, the cowboys of Old West?

Dr. OUTRAM: Well, yes. And it may actually be - one of the possibilities here is that they had some domestic horses, and they were using those horses to herd other horses, possibly to hunt other horses, which is - it's a bit like being a cowboy, except you're using horses to deal with other horses.

FLATOW: Yeah. So they were not actually breeding them in any way.

Dr. OUTRAM: Yes. They may well have been breeding them, too. I think it's quite possible that they were breeding them. But I think it's also possible that they were still controlling some wild stock. I think a good comparison might be of something that might have been going on, might be the equivalent to what people do with reindeer in northern Scandinavia and Siberia, where they still hunt reindeer, but they also keep some domestic ones and use them for transport and also milk them, too.

FLATOW: So they were probably eating the horse meat.

Dr. OUTRAM: They were certainly eating the horse meat. They ate the horse bones, of which we find very, very large numbers at these sites, very heavily butchered. We see lots of knife marks on the bones.

FLATOW: Do you know if they used horse shoes or anything like that? You say it's in an early metal age, but could they have…

Dr. OUTRAM: I doubt they were shoeing the horses. I mean, they don't have any metal to do it with.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. OUTRAM: If they did, it would have to be with something organic like leather.

FLATOW: Uh-huh. And you also say that there was evidence that the horses' milk was used.

Dr. OUTRAM: That's correct. Now this comes from evidence that is in the pottery that the people had, unglazed pottery. And when you have unglazed pottery, some of the food soaks into the pottery. And in this case, what we looked at were fats that had gone inside the matrix of the ceramic and had been preserved there very, very well. It's quite surprising, but fat, when it's absorbed into the pottery matrix, is preserved for many thousands of years. And using the particular techniques we did, we were able to tell something about the species they came from and also the type of product. And in this case, we were able to identify these fats as being equine, and we could see two different types that were present. We could see that there both meat fats and milk fats.

FLATOW: Is there any DNA evidence in there?

Dr. OUTRAM: There is, actually - not from the work that we've done, but there have been genetic studies of ancient horses. And they've indicated that it's quite a complex picture, that it's possible that there was more than one site that horses were domesticated, or indeed that horses were domesticated in one place but then were bred with wild stock in various other places, introducing new lineages in.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So what do you - what would you still like to find out that you don't know about this place?

Dr. OUTRAM: Well, I'd like to know whether this really was the earliest still, because it's possible - particularly as they can come fairly developed (unintelligible), which encompasses riding the horses and milking them - that there may be something that's even earlier yet. So I want to concentrate on this site even more and look - try to look for the earliest phases of this settlement and see if it's true at the earliest phases of this settlement. If it is, then I think, actually, it's probably - I've got to look for another place yet again which is earlier.

FLATOW: Yeah. You're talking about horses that date back, what, 5,000 years?

Dr. OUTRAM: That's right.

FLATOW: Would they be the same size that we have today? Would they look the same?

Dr. OUTRAM: They would look like a medium-size sort of horse that - no particular amazing characteristics. I don't think we're talking about the same sort of breed variation that we have today, where you've got racehorses or shire horses for pulling plows and that sort of thing. These are relatively medium-sized horses.

FLATOW: Let me see if I can get a phone call or two in here.

KAREN (Caller): (unintelligible)

FLATOW: Karen in Culver, Oregon. Hi, Karen. Shut your radio off, please.

KAREN: Hello?

FLATOW: Yes, Karen, you must turn your radio down.

KAREN: Wait a minute. I'll just step outside the door.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KAREN: Okay, go ahead. Are you talking to me?

FLATOW: Yes, I'm - you're on the radio.

KAREN: No, I'm not.

FLATOW: Yes, you are. You're not going to be in a second.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, let's go to Matt(ph) in Muncie, Indiana. I've never had anybody argue with me about whether they were on the radio before. Okay Matt in Muncie, hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

MATT (Caller): Hi, good to be here.

FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

MATT: I'm wondering if maybe because of the history and the current horse farming in Kazakhstan if that kind of helped your team to know to look for both eating of horse meat and also drinking mare's milk since both of those are still practiced in Kazakhstan today?

Mr. ALAN OUTRAM: Yes, absolutely, you're quite right. We wouldn't have probably thought about looking for some of this evidence if it wasn't that these practices still went on. And indeed it was very important to our study that they were because we were able to do lots of modern sampling.

Our chemical method for identifying the horse milk relied on us being able to get lots of horse milk samples from traditionally farmed animals. So we did lots of wandering around local villages in Kazakhstan, asking for samples of milk to do tests on.

FLATOW: Thanks.

MATT: Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. 1-800-989-8255, a quick question from Second Life. Is it likely that people were raising these horses to sell to other people?

Mr. OUTRAM: Well, it's perfectly possible that they were trading them. And, of course, having horses to ride would have meant that they would have had trade links. So they would have had better transport and be able to reach people further away. So possibly not sell in the market sense, but possibly exchange, barter, for other things.

FLATOW: Yeah. How far back do you think you can push the time when the first horses were used?

Mr. OUTRAM: I wouldn't be surprised if it could be pushed back into another 1,000 years, but that's speculation.

FLATOW: And would they be in the same area, or would you look someplace else?

Mr. OUTRAM: I think they would be in what's called the Eurasian Steppe, the plains of Eurasia that stretch from, say, the Ukraine and Eastern Europe through to Mongolia, somewhere in that region.

FLATOW: And you're going to go back looking there?

Mr. OUTRAM: I certainly am, yes.

FLATOW: Well, we wish you good luck.

Mr. OUTRAM: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Thank you for taking time to talk with us.

Alan Outram is a senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Exeter in the U.K.

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