Archaeologists don’t know for sure when or where the horse was first domesticated. It has been often assumed that horses were first domesticated about 4000 BCE somewhere in the Asian Steppes. The earliest archaeological evidence of horses being used for milk and for riding comes from the Botai culture of Kazakhstan.
In the residues in Botai pottery archaeologists have found the distinctive traces of mare’s milk which dates to 3000 to 3500 BCE. This is evidence that domesticated horses were being milked. In Kazakhstan today mare’s milk is still being drunk, often in the form of koumiss, a mildly alcoholic drink made from fermented mare’s milk.
Further evidence of the domestication of horses comes from graves. Wealthy individuals were often buried with their horses. These horses have wear marks on their teeth showing that they had been bridled. In addition, the skeletons of these horses are different than those of wild horses: the domesticated horses have more musculature.
Prior to domestication, the Botai hunted wild horses—Equus ferus—with bows, arrows, and spears. Modern domesticated horses descended from this species. Interestingly enough, the horse family Equidae and the genus Equus originally evolved in North America. The ancestral horse then migrated to Asia and later went extinct in North America.
The skeleton of Equus ferus is shown above.
An Equus ferus tarpan is shown above.
An extinct American horse from the LaBrea Tar Pits is shown above.
The horse was not the first animal domesticated by humans: that honor belongs to the dog which was probably domesticated by about 30,000 BCE. The donkey was domesticated by 5000 BCE in Egypt.
The impact of the domestication of the horse on the people of Eurasia was immense. First, it enabled them to cover long distances. Second, it increased the amount that they could carry. These two things set the stage for long-distance trade. This trade meant that not only goods, but also technologies, ideas, and even languages were diffused over vast areas. Some archaeologists feel that the Indo-European languages, currently spoken by about 60% of the people in the world, were disseminated along these horse trading routes.
The horse seems to originate not in the traditional hearths for agriculture and settlement-based civilizations, but among the nomadic peoples of the Asian steppes. When the horse finally reached the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, its most immediate impact was not about drinking mare’s milk or even riding the animal: instead it changed the nature of warfare. By 2000 BCE, the nomadic people of Central Asia had developed the chariot: a light, fast, open, two-wheeled cart pulled by two horses hitched side-by-side. As a military vehicle this was a major advance in the warfare of the time.
About 1600 BCE, the “Chariot Age” began among the Hurrian people of the highland kingdom of Mitanni. These were people who lived in the mountainous regions of modern-day Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Iraq. They were closely associated with horses and their name for their country was Ishuwa, which means “horse land.” The Hurrian warriors rode in light, fast chariots; they were armed with bows and arrows as well as thrusting spears and hand weapons. These elite warriors were soon in demand as mercenaries for the emerging kingdoms and city states of Mesopotamia.
One of the interesting pieces of information about horses at this time comes from a Hittite text, written sometime during the 15th century BCE, known as the Kikkuli Text. Written on clay tablets in cuneiform text, the tablets describe Kikkuli as a master horse trainer of the land of Mitanni. He describes how to exercise and feed war horses. These war horses pulled the Mitanni chariots that enabled the Hittites to create their large empire.
It was not long before this new technology—the horse-drawn chariot and its armored warrior—spread to India, to China, to North Africa, and to Greece. In the 16th century BCE, the Hyksos invaded Egypt using the chariot and were successful in defeating the Egyptians. By 1200 BCE, the chariot had reached China.