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Early Pastoral Economies of the Eurasian Plains

Debates about horse domestication

Eleanor Konik
Written by Eleanor Konik

I write stories & articles inspired by all eras of history & science... so I wind up putting notetaking software like Obsidian & Readwise thru their paces.

6 min read.
primitive horses on a snowy hillside
primitive horses on a snowy hillside

One of my research rabbit holes lately has been the domestication process in the Bronze Age. Now that I’m finished reading The Horse, the Wheel, & Language by David Anthony, I went looking to see what the current state of scholarship on is, because I don’t love getting burned by relying on outdated research in public. Plus, I’m really curious about early pastoral economies and how domestication impacted them.

Thanks to research rabbit, I was able to find:

Taylor, William Timothy Treal, Julia Clark, Jamsranjav Bayarsaikhan, Tumurbaatar Tuvshinjargal, Jessica Thompson Jobe, William Fitzhugh, Richard Kortum, et al. “Early Pastoral Economies and Herding Transitions in Eastern Eurasia.” Scientific Reports 10, no. 1 (December 2020): 1001. 

Comparing and contrasting the two has been really informative!

The Raiding Economy

Taylor et al. mention how the introduction of the horse in North America by Spanish colonists led to the development of “new ethnic groups with economies based on raiding.” It’s clear that North America getting horses is a useful proxy for Early Pastoral Economies, but it occurs to me that I’m not entirely certain what an “economy based on raiding” is in a technical sense. In plain language it seems obvious — these new ethnic groups used the “newfound availability of long-distance high-speed transport” (horses) to steal stuff and then escape quickly, instead of farming or producing goods or serving as middlemen for trade. But how true was that? How viable? For how long did the mounted equivalent of piracy sustain entire cultures?

First, I know that the definition of “ethnic group” is a little fuzzy and is pretty much a social construct, but it’s kind of mind-blowing that a new ethnic group could develop so fast.

Second, this jives with David Anthony’s explanation of how the domestication of horses led to changes in the mechanics of raids in the Bronze Age, since “Horses were valuable and easily stolen, and riding made it easier to steal cattle, too. Riding allowed for quick retreats,” although I have a hard time understanding how horses made retreating any quicker unless they were stealing all the horses from their targets since presumably their targets would also be mounted.

Unless they were raiding across biome lines or something? But that seems like kind of a stretch, especially for early pastoral economies.

Who Herds What When?

Guns, Germs, & Steel might be panned by historians for being wildly oversimplified and starting from the conclusion and working backward, but there’s still something to the notion that “geography is destiny.” More relevantly, animals are impacted by their environment & climate.

Pastoralists herd different types of animals depending on which ones are best suited to the local environment. Camels do well in deserts. Goats do well in mountains. Cattle need lots of water and can graze across a relatively limited range but need fodder when it snows, whereas horses are very mobile but will break ice independently to get to water and grass in the winter.

The Impact of Climate Change on Early Pastoral Economies

David Anthony posits that pastoralists shifted from cattle herding to domesticating the horse due to climate change:

A shift to colder climatic conditions or even a particularly cold series of winters could have made cattle herders think seriously about domesticating horses (i.e. the one that happened between 4200 and 3800 BCE) since horses and cattle both follow the lead of a dominant female, and the herds are sort of structured the same way.

On this, at least, Taylor et al. agree:

The Early and Middle Bronze Age were particularly dry in many areas of central and western Mongolia after 3000 BCE, which may have driven down wild game abundance and made pastoral subsistence more attractive. With comparatively higher rainfall and seasonally productive food and water sources at high altitude, the high mountainous regions of Mongolia would have been the most stable and viable regions for pastoral herding – particularly if mobility was comparatively limited by the lack of mounted horseback riding.

A change in climate leads to major lifestyle impacts for societies. Who knew? Incidentally, one of the things that makes me most frustrated about climate change denial is that it often seems rooted in a “this amount of global warming is totally normal so it’s fine, I don’t think humans are to blame” which is an absolutely insane argument for doing nothing about climate change. Even if climate change has nothing to do with greenhouse gasses or industrialization or whatever, the Little Ice Age led to massive social upheaval in Egypt. Some people think that the climate of the Eurasian steppes getting drier is one of the contributing factors for the westward expansion of the Huns — which was in turn one of the reasons for the Roman issues with the Gothic tribes, which, uh, ultimately had a pretty big contribution to the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

Anyway. Bronze Age horses.

Which Came First: The Horse or the Cart?

The central thesis that Taylor et al. seem to be making is that David Anthony is wrong about whether horseback riding predates using horses to pull carts. Somewhat ironically, I didn’t take any notes from The Horse, The Wheel, and Language about this, because it’s not the part I cared about.

David Anthony posits that horses were hunted, then herded, before they were used for transportation. I noted that he thinks chariots originated in the steppes rather than in Mesopotamia, that horseback riding probably came after domestication, and that a particularly docile male (as opposed to a milk overproducer) was probably key to the domestication process:

From the horse’s perspective, humans were the only way he could get a girl. From the human perspective, he was the only sire they wanted.

Horses were domesticated long after cows, sheep, pigs, and goats, but the real debate is how and (relatively) when people started riding them.

The debate is actually kind of weirdly ironic. Check out this argument:

While many scholars – especially those with experience on horseback – are intuitively attracted to the idea that riding preceded cart or chariot traction, Dietz argues compellingly on the basis of temperament, musculature, and behavior, that controlling early domestic horses as a chariot team would have been markedly easier than mounted riding.

Let me rephrase that: “Scholars who are experienced riders think that riding came before the wheel, but those of us who don’t actually have any personal experience with horses disagree.” What a claim!

It’s the classic “you’re too close to the situation to report objectively” argument except the debate is about something that happened six million years ago.

Anyway, David Anthony at one point says that it’s pretty difficult to train a matched set of horses trained to work together to pull a chariot, which has to be controlled by someone very athletic with their hips while they use weapons with their hands. That seems like a reasonable claim to me, so I can see why the idea of hopping on a horse’s back seems intuitively easier.

On the other hand, oxcarts exist and oxen pulling plows in matched teams is totally a thing and nobody really rides oxen, so I guess it could go either way?

Regardless, the domestication of the horse allowed for the maintenance of larger herds, and the invention of the cart let people exploit the dry, low-elevation areas of the Eastern Steppe, far from water and shelter, because mobile pastoralists could transport lots of supplies in their carts and go farther from resources.

Evidence for Domestication

One of the other things that bothered me about the Taylor et al. paper was this claim:

the emphasis on a single taxon, here as well as at Biluut, suggests these are domestic animals.

The idea is that pastoral herders mostly eat the meat of a single type of animal rather than hunting whatever they can get their hands on, but this seems silly to me. What if they were just very specialized hunters or capable of large-scale hunting like the builders of the wall of Jericho? It’s not like a pit trap would show up in the archaeological record terribly well.

I personally preferred David Anthony’s approach to early pastoral economies:

  1. Domesticated populations, because they are protected, should contain a wider variety of sizes and statues that survive to adulthood
  2. The average size of the domesticated population as a whole should decline because penning, control of movement, and restricted diet should reduce average stature. …but this works best with sheep and cattle, which get corralled — but horses often get hobbled instead, so this doesn’t work as well.

So at the end of the day, I guess that's the side of the debate I come down on. I'm keeping abreast of things, though. Here's the latest article on the topic from Anthony:

Anthony, David. “Librado et al 2021 Origins Spread of Domestic Horses from Ancient DNA.” Nature, January 1, 2021.

Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).

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