Monday, March 6, 2023

New findings on the origin of the equestrianism: First bioanthropological evidence for Yamnaya horsemanship (Trautmann et al. 2023)

In 2019, I recall there being an abstract available of an upcoming article by Volker Heyd and Martin Trautmann titled “The First Rider: Osteological Evidence for Earliest Horsemanship in a Yamnaya-related burial from Romania.”

Here are some links:

As you may have noticed, the second link is dead. This is what happened in 2019, the upcoming article seemingly being pulled, and then for years we basically did not hear anything. I wondered whether there was an error in the methodology, a case of a misdated sample, or if this article was going to be part of something bigger. Well almost four years later I finally got my answer:

First bioanthropological evidence for Yamnaya horsemanship | Science Advances


The origins of horseback riding remain elusive. Scientific studies show that horses were kept for their milk ~3500 to 3000 BCE, widely accepted as indicating domestication. However, this does not confirm them to be ridden. Equipment used by early riders is rarely preserved, and the reliability of equine dental and mandibular pathologies remains contested. However, horsemanship has two interacting components: the horse as mount and the human as rider. Alterations associated with riding in human skeletons therefore possibly provide the best source of information. Here, we report five Yamnaya individuals well-dated to 3021 to 2501 calibrated BCE from kurgans in Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary, displaying changes in bone morphology and distinct pathologies associated with horseback riding. These are the oldest humans identified as riders so far.

Very interesting!  In my blog entry last year on the domestication of the horse I stated this:

"There is no conclusive evidence of horse riding amongst the eneolithic and early bronze age cultures of the steppes, such as the Sredny Stog or Yamnaya cultures, or steppe adjacent cultures such as the Maykop culture of the North Caucasus. You have proponents, but none of the evidence is any good really."

But that is not the case anymore according to Trautmann, Heyd and the rest of their team as we now have quite a bit of osteological evidence that suggests horses were ridden in the Yamnaya horizon. A massive vindication for David W. Anthony’s theory that horses were used for herd-management and long-distance transport by the Yamnaya!

By the way if you haven’t read my blog article on the domestication of the horse, please do. It covers several topics, such as domestication, earliest horse riding, development of charioteering, development of cavalries etc. My favourite part is that I stumbled upon an interesting connection between the lower Danubian horses and bronze age populations in Western Anatolia.

In general, there were two streams of critiques in regards to David W. Anthony’s theories on equestrianism. The first one was whether domestication of horses actually took place in the late neolithic/early bronze age steppe societies. The significant frequency of horse bones, particularly the increase of them during the eneolithic had been argued by Anthony as a signal that these societies had domesticated the horse and used them as sources of dairy and winter meat. However other authors, such as Marsha Levine had argued that this on its own cannot prove horse domestication and could easily be representative of a specialization of hunting horses during this period [1].

Wilkins et al. 2021 pretty much erased all doubts on whether the Yamnaya people had domesticated horses or not as it had shown the presence of horse milk peptides. At Khvalynsk or the famed Botai site on the other hand we have no such evidence [2].

Credit: Christian Sloan Hall and Survive the Jive

The second one was the evidence of equestrianism. This is hard to prove in general, Anthony went into detail how skeletal evidence of horse riding in horses is hard to prove as vertebrae tend not to survive very well. Anthony pointed towards potential signs of bitwear in Botai, but recent investigations have suggested that the same type of erosion was also present in horse remains that are undoubtedly of wild horses [3]. This was something of a setback to Anthony’s theory of horse riding on the early bronze age steppes, which essentially limited his arguments to the inference of horse riding based on the cultural behaviour of these peoples.

A common proposal for the development of equestrianism was that horses were first used for traction, horse-drawn chariots in particular, which followed by wide-scale usage of horse riding in the iron age. This development seems mostly based on the chronology of human-equid interactions in the ancient Near East.

Librado et al. 2021 in their article on horse domestication focused a lot on the spread of the DOM2 horse breed in the second millennium B.C, primarily with charioteering, followed by horse riding afterwards with an emphasis on the Sintashta culture. However, their own data actually shows the spread of these DOM2 horses in a period that predates both the chariot and the Sintashta culture [3].

However, the rise of such profiles in Holubice, Gordinesti II and Acemhöyük before the earliest evidence for chariots supports horseback riding fuelling the initial dispersal of DOM2 horses outside their core region, in line with Mesopotamian iconography during the late third and early second millennia BC. Therefore, a combination of chariots and equestrianism is likely to have spread the DOM2 diaspora in a range of social contexts from urban states to dispersed decentralized societies.

Thus the seeds were planted for finding evidence of horse riding in the steppes in a period predating the onset of the Sintashta-Petrovka-Potopovka-Srubnaya cultural sphere, which I think can just be grouped together under a bronze age steppe chariot complex umbrella.

Credit: Yakov Petrov

Osteological evidence for horse riding had already appeared in several examples of the late third millennium B.C Bell Beaker culture, from Poland and Hungary respectively. However no such reports had been made about Yamnaya skeletons, until now of course.I will not dwell too much on the actual content of the article itself, as it is not too long or too complicated so I think you should read it for yourself.

Osteological evidence in itself however is not the strongest form of evidence however. Don’t get me wrong it is a strong indication but you can argue that such osteological could appear through other forms of activities. Even the act of riding itself does not necessitate horsemanship as you can pretty effectively ride on bovines actually. Check out this baller casually pulling up on a cow:

Another particular weakness of the article is that they did not employ any control groups such as Neolithic European agricultural populations away from the steppes, Mesolithic foragers or perhaps even proximate steppe populations such as Khvalynsk. The inclusion of such data could have really strengthened their case. Or maybe it would have debunked it?

One particular detail argued by Trautmann et al. that definitely strengthens their case however is that the osteological evidence most closely follows that of the “chair seat”, which you can see here below:

The chair seat is what one would sit in if there were no saddles utilized. Speaking from (very limited) personal experience, this is not exactly a very relaxing position and would lead to quite some pressure on the hips and femurs over time.

One sample they used that is particularly interesting is an eneolithic sample from Hungary, dating to 4400-4200 BC and thus being chronologically contemporary to the Tiszapolgar culture. The Tiszapolgar population in general is a continuation of the neolithic Tisza culture which itself is a derivative of the Hungarian Linear-band Keramik culture, so part of the Early European farmer population basically. 

“We also briefly discuss two 1750 to 1540 and 1611 to 1446 calibrated BCE Middle Bronze Age individuals from two Medgidia mounds in Romania and the cases of a 3331 to 2927 calBCE “pre-Yamnaya” individual of Blejoi in Romania and a 4442 to 4243 calBCE Copper Age individual of Csongrád-Kettőshalom in Hungary (individual nos. 064, 116, 118, 213, 215, 153, 161, 032, and 209 in Tables 1 and 2). These individuals display ≥4 of 6 (diagnostic threshold of >50%) skeletal traits indicative of the so-called “horsemanship syndrome” (26) with a high level of diagnostic certainty.”

“Special attention is deserved by the case of the individual of Csongrád-Kettőshalom in Hungary (fig. S12). Displaying five traits, this 25 to 35 years old scores as high as our five Yamnaya individuals and thus meets our requirements to qualify as a rider with a sufficiently high probability. However, his Copper Age date in the second half of the fifth millennium BCE and his geographical isolation call for caution because we lack comparably assessed skeletons of this period and his special cultural context.”

Here is the burial description from the supplementary files:

"In the western periphery of Csongrád – a town situated at the right bank of the river Tisza - , on

the top of a natural loess ridge running in a north-south direction, in 1963, during the rescue

excavation relating to sand mining of K. Nagy a Prehistoric solitary burial came to light (166, 167). According to the original excavation documentation, Grave 1 is oriented SE-NW, with the skull slightly supported, facing east. It was excavated at the northernmost point of the sand mound, but no traces of an earthen barrow above the grave could be identified. The outline of the grave pit was not observed, however the shape of its bottom (in a depth of -1.78 m) was indicated by red ochre sprinkle. The deceased was laid in a supine position, with characteristic raised legs at the knees; the flexed arms were laid parallel to the body with the hands resting on the thighs (Fig. S12/a). A 13.2 cm long obsidian blade with trapezoid profile turned up between the upper right arm and the rib cage; 5 beads made of coiled copper plate, lots of little cylindrical spondylus(?) and stone beads and 5 bigger cylindrical stone beads were found around the head and shoulders and around the raised legs (Fig. S12/b). A discrete clump of red ochre was more pronounced near the left pelvis (163, 168, 169). The absolute age, determined on the basis of radiocarbon dating of the human bone, is (Poz-41865) 5470 ±40 BP = 4442-4243 calBCE at 2σ (95.4% probability) (168). This dating corresponds well with the age of the local ECA (Tiszapolgár) communities."

If you are familiar with David W. Anthony’s and Nadedzha Kotova works a bell should start ringing when you read about a grave that combines red ochre, knee-raised supine burial positions and obsidian blades, as these are all hallmark signs of the late eneolithic culture of the Steppes. Khvalynsk, Sredny Stog, the North Caucasian “Proto-Pit” peoples all had these features in their burials. Before this article came out and I quickly pieced this blog together I was working on a blog entry quite relevant to this era, so be on the outlook when it releases!

Normally the Tiszapolgar community had crouched burials rather than supine burials. Here are two typical cases of male and female Tiszapolgar burials [5]:

Speaking of familiarity with Kotova’s works, it seems this site was mentioned in her book on the Sredny Stog culture [6]:

“CHONGRAD Kurgan was investigated in 1962 in Eastern Hungary (Телегин, Нечитайло, Потехина, Панченко 2001). At a pit bottom an organic mat was traced, which was powdered with ochre. The skeleton lay flexed on the back with the head to the west and was painted with ochre (fig.113: 4). Its scull was trepanned with a hole on the back of head. Inventory included an obsidian blade and beads from copper, sandstone and Spondylus shells (fig.113: 5-27). “

“The majority of burials, which located on the territory to the west from the South Bug (Gonova Mogila, Decea Muresului, Kainary, Kasimcha, Kulevcha, Reka Devna, Suvorovo, Falciu, Lugoch), most likely were left by the population of the western variant of Sredniy Stog culture. This is supported by multiplicity and 68 diversity of metal tools and absence of such adornments as deer teeth, bone beads and blades from boar fangs. Materials of the Dzhurdzhuleshty burial mound are more similar to the burials of the eastern variant in such adornments as deer teeth, stone beads, sea shells with holes and presence of polished stone axes and bone tubules. They also find some analogies in the materials of the burials in Karataevo, Veselaya Roscha and Staronizhesteblievskaja. The burial from Chongrad in eastern Hungary, where beads from limestone were found, is also more similar to the monuments of the eastern variant.

“The pendants from deer teeth of the Nalchik cemetery are similar to the adornments of Karataevo burials. It is interesting, that during the Early Eneolithic in steppe Dnieper-Don interfluve the stone beads are known only in the cemeteries of the second period of Azov-Dnieper culture (5200-4700 DC), the first and the second periods of the eastern variant of Sredniy Stog culture (Staronizhesteblievskaja, Giurgiulesti, Chongrad). So, the adornments of Nalchik are typical to ones from the oldest Eneolithic monuments of steppe, which were synchronous with the Tripolye A and B I. “

Thus according to Kotova, the burial at Chongrad is part of the Eastern Sredny Stog culture. In her book there also is a drawing of the burial, and to me it looks like the same individual.

In David W. Anthony’s book The Horse, The Wheel and Language, this site is mentioned as well [7]:

"A second and seemingly smaller migration stream branched off from the first and ran westward to the Transylvanian plateau and then down the copper-rich Mureș River valley into eastern Hungary. These migrants left cemeteries at Decea Mureșulu in the Mureș valley and at Csongrad in the plains of eastern Hungary. At Decea Mureșului, near important copper deposits, there were fifteen to twenty graves, posed on the back with the knees probably originally raised but fallen to the left or right,colored with red ochre, with Unio shell beads, long flint blades (up to 22 cm long), copper awls, a copper rod "torque," and two four-knobbed mace heads made of black polished stone (see figure 11.10). The migrants arrived at the end of the Tiszapolgar and the beginning of the Bodrogkeresztur periods, about 4000-3900 BCE, but seemed not to disrupt the local cultural traditions. Hoards of large golden and copper ornaments of Old European types were hidden at Hencida and Mojgrad in eastern Hungary, probably indicating unsettled conditions, but otherwise there was a lot of cultural continuity between Tiszapolgar and Bodrogkeresztur. This was no massive folk migration but a series of long-distance movements by small groups, exactly the kind of movement expected among horseback riders."

 Golden rings from a wealthy Tiszapolgar woman’s burial, apparently over 160 rings were found in her grave

It might be that this sample mentioned in David Anthony’s latest article on the Khvalynsk cemetery might be the same individual [8]:

“ A migrant from the steppes buried in Hungary at Csongrad-Kettëshalom Bastanya, contemporary with Khvalynsk, had Y-haplogroup Q1b, and autosomal DNA similar to Khvalynsk. This steppe male was part of a diaspora of steppe males into the Danube valley that occurred about 4400–4200 BCE.”

“Autosomally similar to Khvalynsk” is probably a bit of a reach, Anthony in this article is more or less creating the position that Sredny Stog was a quasi-Khvalynsk population as Sredny Stog being a Khvalynsk derivative does not work anymore. But from what we can tell Sredny Stog peoples predominantly were Yamnaya-like, and Khvalynsk definitely deviates from that genetic profile.

If this is the same individual as featured in Rauthmann’s article and that of Kotova, then this is seriously major news! Let me repeat it in all-caps and bolded, MAJOR NEWS! I do not understand why the authors more or less neglected this aspect of their article as it is by far the most interesting one.

Perhaps they are suffering from the “Yamnaya-disease”, which is a phenomenon that arose with the publication of Haak et al. 2015 and lead to a major academic emphasis on the Yamnaya as “The Proto-Indo-Europeans”, despite the fact that authors such as Anthony repeatedly stated that Yamnaya could only represent the late stage of Proto-Indo-European, with the early Proto-Indo-European stage coming from the Sredny Stog-Khvalynsk community on the steppes, or that there has yet to be any direct evidence that the Corded Ware population descends from Yamnaya rather than being a close relative of it.

A finding of osteological evidence of horse riding in a 5th millennium B.C individual of the Sredny Stog culture would be an even bigger vindication of Anthony’s theories than the finding that such osteological evidence also exists in the Yamnaya culture. Thus I find it fitting to close off this blog post with a quote from Anthony:

“Were the people of the Sredni Stog culture horse riders? Without bit wear or some other pathology associated with riding we cannot be certain. Objects from Dereivka tentatively identified as antler cheekpieces for bits could have had other functions. One way to approach this question is to ask if the steppe societies of the Late Eneolithic behaved like horseback riders. It looks to me like they did. Increased mobility (implied by smaller cemeteries), more long-distance trade, increased prestige and power for prominent individuals, status weapons appearing in graves, and heightened warfare against settled agricultural communities are all things we would expect to occur after horseback riding started, and we see them most clearly in cemeteries of the Suvorovo-Novodanilovka type.”


  1. Levine, Marsha. (1990). Dereivka and the problem of horse domestication. Antiquity. 64. 727-740. 10.1017/S0003598X00078832

  2. Wilkin, S., Ventresca Miller, A., Fernandes, R. et al. Dairying enabled Early Bronze Age Yamnaya steppe expansions. Nature 598, 629–633 (2021).

  3. Taylor, W.T.T., Barrón-Ortiz, C.I. Rethinking the evidence for early horse domestication at Botai. Sci Rep 11, 7440 (2021).

  4. Librado, P., Khan, N., Fages, A. et al. The origins and spread of domestic horses from the Western Eurasian steppes. Nature 598, 634–640 (2021).

  5. Raczky, Pál & Siklósi, Zsuzsanna. (2013). Raczky, Pál & Siklósi, Zsuzsanna: Reconsideration of the Copper Age chronology of the eastern Carpathian Basin: a Bayesian approach. Antiquity 87/336 (2013) 555-573. Antiquity. 87. 555-573. 

  6. Kotova, Nadezhda. (2008). Early Eneolithic in Pontic Steppe.

  7. Anthony, David W. (2007)  - The Horse, The Wheel and Language  

  8. Anthony, David & Khokhlov, A. & Agapov, S. & Agapov, D. & Schulting, Rick & Olalde, Iñigo & Reich, D.. (2022). The Eneolithic cemetery at Khvalynsk on the Volga River. Praehistorische Zeitschrift. 97. 10.1515/pz-2022-2034. 


  1. Great stuff. I know many have been waiting for the state of the aDNA field to more meaningfully grapple with David Anthony's work, and this looks like an encouraging step in the right direction.

    Regarding Khvalynsk, I believe Anthony has now modified his original idea to include the fact that there was a cline along the Volga Don Steppe from Khvalynsk to The North Caucasus, calling this the "Khvalynsk cultural sphere" or somesuch, and pointing to some group on this cline as the more direct ancestors of Sredny Stog and Yamnaya.

    1. Thank you!

      About Anthony and such, calling it "Khvalynsk cultural sphere" still puts the cultural emphasis on Khvalynsk as a progenitor or at least as a representative type of this population. Sredny Stog and Khvalynsk are pretty much contemporary to one another and one is a fisherman's society with a bit of livestock and the other is fully agropastoral. Khvalynsk is also a dead end. The cultural similarities between Khvalynk, Sredny Stog, North Caucasian Proto-Pit types etc. is just because they were all part of a wider cultural network across the western steppes. Due to his research in the region Anthony has a vested interest in an PIE origin around Samara/Khvalynsk, it is not for nothing that in his Khvalynsk article he talked about the differences between Dnieper-Donets populations and Sredny Stog and then highlighted the similarities between Sredny Stog and Khvalynsk with no mentions of the cultures inbetween, but hey maybe it slipped it his mind right?

  2. NIce post. obviously the chap from Csongrad is an easterner however it is interesting the earliest evidence for riding is from people in the Carpathian basin