The origin of the modern domestic horse

How did the domestication of horses spread into Europe? Was it through horse-mounted warriors arriving from the Central Asian steppes about 5,000 years ago, speaking in various Indo-European languages? That has always been the supposition. Now, however, a fascinating paper just published by Nature has redefined the way in which horses and Indo-European languages spread from Asia into Europe.

It is believed that the Indo-European languages were spread in Europe by the massive expansion of Yamnaya steppe pastoralists around 5,000 years ago and that this was aided by their domestication of horses. It was thought that these people spread west from Central Asia, bringing the new languages with them. There was also a strong suggestion that the horses they used were the same as those discovered at sites at Botai in Northern Kazakhstan, which were likely the first horses to be domesticated by humans, also around 5,000 years ago.

However, the new research, based on the study of genomes from more than 270 ancient horses from across Europe has led to a very different conclusion. The paper’s authors argue that modern domesticated breeds of horses do not descend from those at Botai, nor from others known to have existed in Anatolia and Iberia. Instead, they pinpoint the Western Eurasian steppes, particularly the lower Volga-Don region, as the homeland of modern domestic horses. This region lies just to the north of the Caspian Sea and is now known as Kalymkia. The spread of these horses began around 2000 BC, well after Indo-European languages had been introduced into Europe – although in India itself it seems that the Indo-European languages spread at the same time as horses in the early second Millenium. These horses are also associated with the Trans-Ural Sintasha culture, which first developed war chariots. By 1000BC almost all horses in Europe were genetically linked to the horses domesticated in the Lower Volga region.

The implication of this study is that the Indo-Europeans did not spread through Europe as a result of horse-mounted warfare, but as a result of a possible collapse in the original population. It was nearly a thousand years before domestic horses arrived.

A Sintasha chariot

These kinds of genetic studies are transforming the way in which we understand ancient societies and the movement of people and livestock. Was there a later move of Indo-Europeans back east, as possibly shown by the remarkable mummified remains of tall, light-skinned people found in recent years in the Tarim Basin in the Taklamakan Desert in Western China? This and other connected questions will surely be answered before long.

Further information about the genetic make-up of the Tarim Basin mummies can be found in a separate Nature article, which can be found here.

Gold of the Great Steppe in Cambridge

The new exhibition, Gold of the Great Steppe, that has just opened at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge is not to be missed. The golden grave goods found in Saka-Scythian burial kurgans in East Kazakhstan within the last few years are remarkable. Dating from the 8th-6th centuries BCE, they come from a number of sites in and around the Tarbagatai Mountains in the east of this vast country, including Eleke Sazy, Shilikti, Urzhar and Berel. They were excavated by Profefssor Zainolla Samashev, a noted expert on Kazakh petroglyphs, and Professor Abdesh Toleubayev, the leading achaeologist in East Kazakhstan and head of the department of Archaeology, Ethnography and Museology of Al-Farabi Kazakh National University.

A sheet gold plaque of a running deer, adorned with turquoise

The exhibition focuses on one burial in particular, in which were found two bodies, at Eleke Sazy in the northern foothills of the Tarbagatai range. It was excavated in 2018. In this small area there are around 300 kurgans arranged in independent groups and chains. The burial of the young woman, aged around 14, had been disturbed and robbed in antiquity, but alongside her lay another body that had been hidden by a rockfall. That was of a young man aged about 18. His richly adorned body had lain undisturbed and was only the second such complete burial to have been found in this region in the modern era.

The region of East Kazakhstan (right) where the graves were located, close to the border with China.

The Eleke Sazy kurgan is a hemispherical structure, surrounded by a ditch and double ring of stones. The main structure is 33.25m across.

The kurgan at Eleke Sazy.

Amongst the grave goods were dozens of arrow heads, suggesting that the young man was a skilled archer. He also carried a beautiful bronze dagger in a gold shealth adorned with precious stones. The carved stone handle had been ritually broken at the time of the burial.

Gold dagger sheath from Eleke Sazy

Hundreds of other stunning golden objects were found in the tomb, as can be seen below:

This part of east Kazakhstan is quite literally full of kurgans, most of which were looted many years ago. Indeed, Thomas Atkinson also noted the large number of monuments in the area. He and Lucy crossed the Tarbagatai Mountains twice on their journeys to and from the Djungar Alatau Mountains, that lie just to the south, on the other side of Lake Ala Kool. He gives numberous descriptions of the kurgans he came across and painted one particularly large one he found close to the old border checkpoint of Chuguchak – now known as Tacheng. An engraving of that picture was reproduced in his book Oriental and Western Siberia (1858).

Engraving of Atkinson’s painting of a large kurgan in the Tarbagatai Mountains of East Kazakhstan

The exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which is free to enter, runs until 30th January. Get along and see it. You won’t regret it.

Lucy Atkinson’s superb book is republished

I am delighted to report that Lucy Atkinson’s book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes and their Inhabitants, first published in 1863, has now been republished by Signal Books of Oxford. The first edition, published by John Murray, was issued in a small edition of just 900 copies and soon became a rarity. It was republished in 1972 by Cass, but that edition is also scarce.

The new edition includes a new 66-page introduction by myself and Marianne Simpson, who is a direct descendant of Lucy’s brother, Matthew Finley. This is the first attempt at a biography of Lucy and contains many previously unknown details about this remarkable woman. For example, it reveals that her uncle, Joseph Sherrard, after whom she received her middle name, was also a distinguished maritime traveller, having first visited Australia before 1800 and having sailed in the Royal Navy with Captain Bligh and other important explorers of the southern seas.

The new introduction also asserts that Lucy’s book is one of the earliest serious travel books written by a woman. Most travel accounts in the nineteenth century were written by women who were usually travelling in the company of their husband or a family member and on their way to a particular destination. They seldom spent time in the saddle or setting up camp in remote places, as was the case with Lucy. Only a handful of similar accounts exist and Lucy’s book stands up well against the best of them. And certainly few of them travelled 40,000 miles or travelled for five or six years like Lucy.

The introduction also explains, for the first time, the background to Thomas Atkinson’s bigamous marriage to Lucy. It seems very likely she knew about his previous marriage and certainly never held it against him, signing her book, published two years after his death, as ‘Mrs Atkinson’. Divorce at the time was impossible except by a private Act of Parliament. However, the existence of the first marriage is probably the reason that his two books of travel, in which Lucy and their child Alatau are not mentioned, were so disjointed. There is evidence that Thomas was required to remove all references to Lucy and Alatau in order not to humiliate Rebecca, his first wife.

Lucy’s achievements as an explorer place her amongst the best. There are many men celebrated as explorers who didn’t go through half of what she experienced over the course of six years and 40,000 miles of travel. Her book is a classic, full of warmth and wonderful descriptions of the people she met and amongst whom she always left a wonderful impression.

The only known picture of Lucy, from an drawing by Thomas Atkinson.

Recollections of Tartar Steppes and their Inhabitants, by Lucy Atkinson, with a new introduction by Nick Fielding and Marianne Simpson.

ISBN: 978-1-909930-97-1; 332pp;

£12.99 from Signal Books