External Project Partners

  • Dr. Sandra Olsen, Institute for Biodiversity, University of Kansas
  • Dr. Emily Lena Jones, University of New Mexico
  • Dr. Julia Clark, American Center for Mongolian Studies
  • Caroline Gabe, University of New Mexico
  • Dr. Thomas Higham, Oxford University
  • Dr. Katerina Douka, Oxford University
  • Jason Nez, Diné Archaeologist
  • Dr. J. Bayarsaikhan, National Museum of Mongolia
  • T. Tuvshinjargal, National Museum of Mongolia

Horses and Human Societies

Investigating the relationship between humans, horses, and the environment through archaeological science
Mongolian horse herder collecting milk, Bayankhongor province Zoom Image
Mongolian horse herder collecting milk, Bayankhongor province

From the Great Plains of North America to the great steppes of Central Asia, the domestication of the horse (Equus caballus) transformed human societies around the world. In steppe environments, horses are a key livestock animal and a valuable source of meat and dairy products, with a hardy constitution that is well-adapted to surviving difficult winters on low-quality grasses. As a riding mount, the speed and mobility offered by horses changed the nature of travel, exchange, and communication in human societies. In the Old World, cavalry became the foundation of military power, and equestrian nations filled the Great Plains and high Pampas of North and South America after Spanish arrival brought horses to the New World.

<p>Mongolian horse herder</p> Zoom Image

Mongolian horse herder

Despite the obvious importance of horses in shaping our modern world, the broader questions of  when, why, and how horses were taken up by human groups, as either livestock or transportation, often remain unanswered. By applying scientific techniques from archaeozoology, radiocarbon dating, and proteomics to ancient faunal remains from archaeological sites, Horses and Human Societies seeks to characterize the adoption of domestic horses by ancient societies, placing this process in environmental and ecological context using empirical datasets.

20<sup>th</sup> century Navajo rock art carving, northwestern Arizona Zoom Image
20th century Navajo rock art carving, northwestern Arizona

Our project has made key strides toward understanding how horses were used based on their osteological remains, which are often the only materials available to understand early horse cultures. In 2017, we plan to continue fieldwork in northern and western Mongolia, combining scientific study of faunal remains (morphology, 3D scanning, isotopic studies, and mass spectrometry of collagen sequences or ZooMS) with archaeobotanical and paleoclimate studies to understand if and how early and middle Bronze Age cultures in Mongolia used domestic horses and other livestock, and assess how innovations in horse transport may have interacted with environmental processes to shape the trajectory of mobile herding lifeways in eastern Eurasia.

3D model of horse skull from northern Mongolia, showing deformation caused by a bridle and linked to early horseback riding (Taylor et al. in press) Zoom Image
3D model of horse skull from northern Mongolia, showing deformation caused by a bridle and linked to early horseback riding (Taylor et al. in press) [less]

Another project component seeks to understand the spread of domestic horses into new landscapes, typified by the introduction of horses into North America following the arrival of Spanish colonists in the 16th century. While the development of horsemanship among native groups in the region is documented in part by historical records, few scientific efforts have sought to characterize this process directly using archaeological data. By doing so, we hope to understand not only when horses were adopted by indigenous groups, but also how and why this process transpired. Specifically, by identifying horse remains from protohistoric archaeological collections with mass spectrometry of collagen sequences (ZooMS), directly radiocarbon dating these materials, and comparing results with paleoclimate data, artifacts, and historical records, our project seeks to evaluate the impacts of social and environmental processes in the development of mounted hunter/pastoralist nations of the Great Plains and American Southwest.

Related publications:

Taylor W, Tuvshinjargal T (In press). Horseback riding, asymmetry, and anthropogenic changes to the equine skull: evidence for mounted riding in Mongolia’s Late Bronze Age. In Proceedings of the 6th Animal Paleopathology Working Group, International Council for Archaeozoology, Budapest, Hungary, edited by L. Bartosiewicz and E. Gal. Oxford, Oxbow Books.

Taylor, William. In press. A Bayesian chronology for early domestic horse use in the Eastern Steppe. Journal of Archaeological Science (2017)

Taylor, William. In press. Horse demography and use in Bronze Age Mongolia, Quaternary International (2016), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2015.09.085

Taylor, William, Tuvshinjargal Tumurbaatar, and Bayarsaikhan Jamsranjav. 2016. Reconstructing Equine Bridles in the Mongolian Bronze Age. Journal of Ethnobiology 36(3):554-570

Taylor, William, Bayarsaikhan Jamsranjav, and Tuvshinjargal Tumuurbaatar. 2015. Equine Cranial Morphology and the Archaeological Identification of Riding and Chariotry: Applications to Mongolia’s late Bronze Age. Antiquity 89(346): 854-871.

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