Earliest cowboys identified by ‘horsemanship syndrome’ in skeletons
Long before the days of the Wild West, Buffalo Bill and Billy the Kid, there were the world’s first cowboys. Scientists now believe the first people to ever ride a horse were cattle ranchers in Eastern Europe 5,000 years ago.
A study has found the earliest evidence of horse riding dates back to the Yamnaya people who mastered horse riding around 3,000 BC.
Thousands of Yamnaya skeletons were found in graves and analysis has shown signs of changes caused by horse riding.
Scientists from the University of Helsinki and Hartwick College in New York focused on the remains of five individuals that had been unearthed from kurgans, or prehistoric burial mounds, in Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary.
A study of their bones proved them to be “the oldest humans identified as riders so far” because they exhibited clear signs of “horsemanship syndrome”, which included changes to the riders’ pelvis, thigh, spine and back.
Yamnaya individuals originated in Ukraine and are known for their equine prowess which is said to have allowed them to spread throughout Europe.
The riding opened up new possibilities in transportation, warfare and supply chains which led to horses becoming one of the most prized possessions for millennia.
Volker Heyd, a study co-author, said that mounting steeds gave the people the ability to greatly enhance their mobility.
“[It] enabled them to keep large herds of cattle and sheep and, as we now know, to guide them on horseback,” he said.
David Anthony, from Hartwick College, added: “It made herding cattle and sheep three times more efficient, it changed the human conception of distance and it was an aid in warfare.”
The new findings show people were riding horses for around 1,000 years before previously thought and also suggest humans had kept horses as livestock for their milk for around 500 years before deciding to learn to ride them.
Skeletons in the study displayed changes to their femur caused by gripping onto the sides of the horse, a well-known morphological change to the human body among horse riders.
There was also some evidence of degeneration to the vertebrae in the spine which may have been the result of the up-and-down movement of horse riding.
One unfortunate early rider suffered injuries not just from riding the horse, but from falling off one, too.
A sacral vertebrae injury, a large, triangular bone above the tailbone, showed signs of damage.
“A forceful fall on the backside is the most likely trauma scenario,” the researchers wrote in the journal Science Advances.
The scientists write that signs of “biomechanical stress” on the skeletons “provide a viable way to further investigate the history of horseback riding and may even provide clues about riding style and equipment”.
The team also said that a position called “chair seat”, which involved no saddle or stirrups, was also employed by early riders despite it being “physically demanding”.
It requires the rider to constantly squeeze their legs together to stay on the back of their steed and is a test of one’s balance and strength as it would also be used when fighting or herding livestock.
“The osteological features described here fit well with this riding style and may have been typical for the earliest period of horsemanship,” the scientists said.
“With the later introduction of shaped and padded supporting saddles and stirrups, other riding styles such as the so-called “split seat”, “dressage seat” and “hunt seat” evolved.
“Together, our findings provide a strong argument that horseback riding was already a common activity for some Yamnaya individuals as early as 3000 BC.
The researchers said they expect these early horses were “probably hard to handle” due to a lack of specialised gear and short breeding history.
The horses of today have thousands of years of breeding which has quashed the tendency to bolt unexpectedly or be rebellious, but the early stallions ridden by Yamnaya people would have had a shorter fuse.
“The military benefit of equestrianism may therefore have been limited, but nevertheless, rapid transport to and away from the site of raids would have been an advantage,” the scientists said.
Martin Trautmann, the lead author, said: “Hopping on a horse’s back may have been one small step for man 5,000 years ago, but a giant leap for mankind.”
The researchers presented their findings at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington.