For some, the idea of getting on a horse is terrifying.
So think about our ancestors who first set foot on land some 5,000 years ago.
Researchers say they’ve identified the oldest horsemen by looking for small changes in the skeletal structure of ancient human remains.
The team, from the University of Helsinki and Hartwick College in New York, analyzed more than 200 Yamnaya individuals dating back to 3,000 BC. – the beginning of the Bronze Age.
This group, originally from the area around Ukraine and western Russia, spread across Europe and was considered so successful because of the recent domestication of horses.
Researchers say they’ve identified the oldest horsemen by looking for small changes in the skeletal structure of ancient human remains
This group, originally from the area around Ukraine and western Russia, spread across Europe and was considered so successful due to the recent domestication of horses
This allowed carts full of food, weapons and other provisions to be transported over long distances and cattle to be herded more effectively.
But now experts have been able to find the earliest evidence that individuals actually boarded their stallions.
The team identified five individuals who had the most “reliable” evidence that they were riders.
Their skeletal remains had been excavated from kurgans – prehistoric burial mounds – in Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary.
Close analysis of their bones revealed that they all had at least four of the six skeletal features that suggested it was “horsemanship syndrome.”
Examples include stress responses to the pelvis and femur – most likely a result of gripping the side of the horse using the lower body and thigh muscles.
Some individuals also had “stress-induced vertebral degeneration” – signs of vertical impact loading that riders typically experience.
One poor rider also had injuries to his sacral vertebrae – a large, triangular bone just above the tailbone.
“A forceful fall onto the back is the most likely trauma scenario,” the researchers wrote in the journal Science Advances.
Biomechanical stress markers on human skeletons provide a viable way to further investigate the history of horse riding and may even provide clues to riding style and equipment.
‘Later depictions of Bronze Age horsemen usually show a position called ‘chair seat’. This style is mainly used when riding without a padded saddle or stirrups to avoid discomfort for horse and rider.
“It is physically demanding, requiring constant pressure from the legs to cling to the back of the mount and it requires constant balance, but does not preclude activities such as fighting or handling herd animals.
‘The osteological features described here fit well with this riding style and may have been typical of the earliest period of riding.
With the later introduction of molded and padded support saddles and stirrups, other riding styles evolved such as the so-called “split seat”, “dressage saddle” and “hunting saddle”.
“Together, our findings make a strong case that horseback riding was a common pastime for some Yamnaya individuals as early as 3000 BC.”
Their skeletal remains had been excavated from kurgans – prehistoric burial mounds – in Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary
The skeletal remains found in the cemeteries date back to 3000 BC – the beginning of the Bronze Age
The researchers said they expect these early horses were “probably difficult to handle” due to a lack of specialized equipment and a short breeding history.
“A greater fear response in early Yamnaya horses likely made them even more likely to ‘unwind’ from violent or loud actions,” they added.
“The military advantage of the equestrian sport may have been limited, but rapid transport to and from the side of raids would have been an advantage.”
Lead author Martin Trautmann said, “Jumping on the back of a horse may have been one small step for man 5,000 years ago, but one giant leap for mankind.”
Their findings suggest that the Yamnaya people may have been ancient cowboys – the first people to herd cattle on horseback.
Volker Heyd, one of the authors of the study from the University of Helsinki, said: ‘These people were able to significantly improve their mobility (and it) enabled them to keep large herds of cattle and sheep and, as we now know, to accompany them on horseback.’
David Anthony of Hartwick College, who also worked on the research, said: ‘It made herding cattle and sheep three times more efficient, it changed the human perception of distance and it was an aid to warfare.’
The researchers presented their findings at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington.