Scientists find signs of horse riding in ancient human remains
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Some people are just wild about horses, right? And the close relationship between humans and horses goes way back in history, though exactly when it first occurred to someone that it would be a cool idea to climb on the back of a horse is not clear. But as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, scientists have new evidence that people started riding horses as early as 5,000 years ago.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: People living on the steps of Eurasia, where wild horses roamed, probably first started keeping these animals for their meat and milk, just like they were raising cattle and sheep.
DAVID ANTHONY: Very soon, though, I think after they began to keep domesticated horses, they probably began to ride them. Or at least that is my opinion.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's David Anthony, an emeritus professor of anthropology with Hartwick College in New York. He says horses are special, unlike cows or sheep.
ANTHONY: They are essentially a transportation technology.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Horses were the fastest form of land transportation until steam trains. Horses had a huge impact on history. They changed people's concept of distance and affected everything from trade to warfare. Anthony says horses lived with humans before the invention of the wheel. And there's been a lot of debate.
ANTHONY: When did people begin to ride horses? And when did people begin to attach horses to wheeled vehicles like chariots?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Some scientists have looked for clues in the teeth of ancient horses because if a horse wears a harness with a bit, that can wear down its teeth in a distinctive way. Alan Outram at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom says that kind of evidence has been found in the teeth of horses that lived over 5,000 years ago. But Outram says this dental evidence only goes so far.
ALAN OUTRAM: The problem with that is what you've demonstrated is harnessing. You haven't specifically demonstrated riding.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Now, a team led by researchers from the University of Helsinki has taken a different approach. They looked at human remains to search for signs of the physical stress caused by horseback riding, especially bareback riding. They checked the bones of 24 individuals from archaeological sites in southeastern Europe, looking for a half-dozen telltale changes in the backbone, pelvis and leg bones. In the journal Science Advances, they say nine of these people likely rode horses, suggesting that around 5,000 years ago, horseback riding was common. Outram wasn't part of this research team, but he thinks their findings look good.
OUTRAM: What's fair to say is that it is, at the moment, the earliest evidence that could indicate horse riding.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Early domesticated horses were probably skittish and difficult to ride, maybe OK for helping to herd a large group of sheep, but not likely to rush into battle. David Anthony has thought a lot about what possessed the first people to try to get on the back of a large, potentially dangerous animal.
ANTHONY: It's scary, but it's also thrilling. Those two things are very close together.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He thinks the first people to ride horses were probably adolescents, like maybe 12-year-olds who would egg each other on every time a horse threw them off.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.