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Burial Pit May Contain Horseback-Riding “Sheriff Of The Bronze Age”

horse skeleton in pit
South Ural State University

Russian and Kazakh archeologists have unearthed human and horse remains that challenge the generally accepted date for humans riding horses into battle, pushing the date back to the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE.

A Horse is More Than a Horse

In many modern societies, horses are more of a novelty than a necessity. They are used for sport, recreation and occasionally, for assisting with work. There was a time, however, when mastery of horsemanship could have a dramatic impact on culture. In addition to helping build cities, grow food, and dramatically improve transportation times, horses also played a significant role in warfare. Greek king Alexander The Great, for example, famously used a mounted cavalry in the fourth century B.C. to attack enemies from their flanks, rather than head-on, to win battle after battle. 

Skulls Provide Clues

It has been generally agreed that people first rode horses into battle (rather than merely pulling warriors in chariots) around 900 BCE. Thanks to carbon dating, the recent discovery of a stallion, a mare, and a human in a burial pit in an archaeological dig known as Novoilinovsky-2 in Kazakhstan has shaken up this theory. Not only does the burial pit, which was used by the ancient Andronovo culture date from around 1890-1774 BCE, but there was evidence on the skulls of the horses indicating that they were indeed ridden, rather than just raised for meat or used to pull chariots, as was common in that culture.

The shape of the horses’ skulls and marks on the cheekbones indicate that the animals were harnessed and fitted with bridles, consistent with riding. The researchers also figured out that at the time of death, the stallion was about twenty years old, while the mare was about eighteen. 

Howdy Sheriff

In addition to postulating that these horses were used for combat riding, the researchers also have a theory about the human that was buried with them.

“It is likely that militarized elite, whose power was based on the physical control of fellow tribesmen and neighbors with the help of riding and fighting skills, was buried in the Novoilinovsky-2 burial ground,” said Igor Chechushkov from South Ural State University who carried out the carbon dating of the remains. “The rider has a significant advantage over the infantryman. There may be another explanation: These elite fulfilled the function of mediating conflicts within the collective, and therefore had power and high social status. Metaphorically, this kind of elite can be called Sheriffs of the Bronze Age,” explained.

The findings were reported in a paper with the snappy title, “Early evidence for horse utilization in the Eurasian steppes and the case of the Novoil’ inovskiy 2 Cemetery in Kazakhstan in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.