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Horse Domestication Theory Disproved

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A DNA study has blown a hole through the long-held belief that peoples from the area, which is now Kazakhstan, travelled widely taking their knowledge of horse breeding and their language to Europe and southern Asia.

A Turning Point for Human Civilisation

The domestication of horses was a major turning point in human history. Horses enabled people to travel much longer distances, spreading their culture over a wider area. The "Steppe Hypothesis" credited people living on the steppe around the Black and Caspian Seas with taking their knowledge of horse breeding to many other regions. However, a new genetic study suggests that this may not have happened.

The Botai People and Their Horses

Archaeologists explored the realms of the Botai people who lived in what is now Kazakhstan between about 3,500 and 3,000 B.C. The horse was clearly fundamental to the Botai's way of life as archaeologists discovered hundreds of thousands of equine bones. The Botai appear to have been the earliest group of people to tame and breed horses. It has long been thought that they discovered the possibilities of using horses when they were visited by horse herders travelling across the steppe. Some scientists, however, believed that the Botai taught themselves to work with horses.

It was time to put the two conflicting theories to the test in a new study using DNA. Researchers analysed the genomes of 74 ancient humans. It became clear that the Botai and the horse herders from the steppe didn't share many genetic similarities. The Botai were most closely related to a group of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, not people of the western steppes. They must have learned about horses on their own and not from visiting herders.

Ancient Horse DNA

A study of ancient horse DNA published this year has revealed that the Botai’s horses aren’t related to modern-day domestic horses at all. Their horses were not the ancestors of the horses we ride today as previously thought.

The DNA shows the Botai's horses are more closely related to modern 'wild' Przewalski's horses. This means we may need to reassess our understanding that the Przewalski's horses are 'wild' because the study shows that they could actually be the descendants of the domesticated Botai's horses.

Where Did Our Horses Come From?

There are now big questions surrounding whose horses eventually evolved into our modern-day domestic animals. There is no evidence that the Botai mixed with other peoples, so who did? The DNA study suggests that the people from the steppe, who were thought to have travelled west to the Botai, did not do this. Neither did they travel east, deeper into Asia. It was previously thought that they had, because Western Eurasian ancestry had been identified in South Asian populations but it is now known that this is the result of migrations which took place later in history.

Advances in science are helping us to understand much more about human history and how our relationship with horses developed. But there are still many questions which remain unanswered.


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