Eurasian steppe chariots and social complexity during the Bronze Age


New paper (behind paywall), Eurasian Steppe Chariots and Social Complexity During the Bronze Age, by Chechushkov and Epimakhov, Journal of World Prehistory (2018).

Interesting excerpts (emphasis mine):

Nowadays, archaeologists distinguish at least three Bronze Age pictorial traditions on the basis of style, and demonstrate some parallels in the material culture. The earliest is the Yamna–Afanasievo tradition, which is characterized by the symbolic depiction of sun-headed men and animals. Another tradition is a record of the Andronovo people (Kuzmina 1994; Novozhenov 2012), who depicted in it their everyday life and the importance of wheeled transport (Novozhenov 2014a, b). Although petroglyphs on open-air natural rock surfaces are obviously hard to date, the occurrence of similar carvings on stone grave stelae within some Andronovo culture cemeteries (such as the Tamgaly Cemetery and the Samara Cemetery in Sary Arka, Kazakhstan) provide a level of chronological control. Finally, the finds of petroglyphs depicting chariots in the burials of the Karasuk culture (c. 1400–800 BC) in southern Siberia and Kazakhstan allow us to distinguish the latest tradition (Novozhenov 2014b).

“Depictions of a chariot on the petroglyphs, the Koksu River valley, Kazakhstan (redrawn after Novozhenov 2012, p. 45, with the author’s permission)”

The site of Sintashta in the steppe zone of the Southern Trans-Urals (the eastern side of the Ural Mountains) was excavated in the 1970s and yielded abundant Bronze Age material, including unparalleled evidence of six vehicles buried in graves, each with two spoked wheels accompanied by cheekpieces and sacrificial horses (Gening 1977; Gening et al. 1992). (…) Chariot remains from the Middle and Late Bronze Age in the southern Urals are quite abundant compared with early chariot remains from other parts of the world, and allow statistical analysis.

In contrast, only two wagons and one sledge were found in the Royal Cemetery of Ur (Woolley 1965), and only ten actual chariots and their parts are known from tombs of the New Kingdom of Egypt (1550–1069 BC) (Littauer and Crouwel 1985; James 1974; Herold 2006), with the rest of the information on the Near Eastern chariots coming in other forms. Two chariots and the wheels of a third were also found in the Lchashen Cemetery in Armenia (Yesayan 1960), dated to 1400–1300 BC (Pogrebova 2003, p. 397), and bronze models of chariots were found in the burial sites of neighboring Transcaucasia (Brileva 2012). Over one hundred chariots have been discovered in Shang period tombs in China, but none dates before 1200 BC (Wu 2013).

Sintashta–Petrovka chariots were functional and used for carrying passengers and, probably, for warfare. Otherwise, one would not expect to see consistency in the measurements and technological solutions (…)

(1) The technological solutions used to construct a wheel and its dimensions are derived from the measurements of the ‘wheel pits’. They allow such analysis because some had the actual imprints of felloes and spokes. (…) Due to the imprints of spokes and felloes left in the soil, it is clear that the Bronze Age people knew of and utilized the spoked wheel.

(2) Wheel track is the distance between the centerlines of two wheels on an axle. It can be estimated on the basis of the distance between the central axes of all known wheel pits, in addition to direct measurement of the eight known cases of wheel imprints.(…) the majority of findings with a mean wheel track of 136 ± 12 cm might represent either a single-driver chariot or a vehicle with two passengers who accessed the vehicle from the rear, since one extreme of this wheel-track provides enough space for a standing person, while another is suitable for a driver and passenger.

(3) The means of traction is the element that connects the vehicle to the yoke of the draft animals (Littauer et al. 2002, p. xvii). It is needed for a vehicle to be pulled by harnessed animals and is constructed as a central draft pole located between the animals, or shafts located on the external sides of the animals, called thills. (…) Using burial chamber size as a proxy, chariots had a maximum estimated length of 327 ± 20 cm, and a maximum estimated width of 205 ± 21 cm. These dimensions suggest a great similarity to six chariots of Tutankhamun that have maximum dimensions of 260 × 236 cm (Crouwel 2013).

Elements of Bronze Age chariots. Image from Chechushkov (2007).

Associated individuals

suggest that this person was a chief, and that the burial context illustrates his significance in the social life of the local community (Logvin and Shevnina 2008, p. 193). However, it also suggests the diverse role of the Sintashta–Petrovka elites, who were likely engaged in a number of different activities, such as warfare, craft production, food production, and a broad social life.

(…) while weapons are not universally present with chariots, they are present much more often than in non-chariot burials: more than 50% of the chariot burials are accompanied by weapons, with a clear predominance of projectile arms.

The creation, utilization, and maintenance of the chariots would have required a number of important skills, and some degree of standardization in manufacturing chariots might be related to a very small number of chariot makers. This means that the Sintashta–Petrovka craftsmen were ‘attached specialists’ and made their products following the orders and desires of those who were interested in the competitive use of chariots. Hence, the social group interested in producing and maintaining chariots sponsored all of those processes. While the nature of this social group is unclear, it is reasonable to hypothesize that it could be a group of military elites characterized by aggrandizing behavior. These people shared military identities and values, but also belonged to bigger collectives, presumably diverse kin groups. The competition between these collectives for resources, power, and prestige created the chariot complex.


Analyzing horse-headed knobs, Kovalevskaya demonstrates the evolution of horse tack from a simple muzzle to a bridle with bits during the 5th and 4th millennia BC (Kovalevskaya 2014). Her analysis correlates well with a study of pathologies in horse teeth conducted by Brown and Anthony, who suggest the appearance of bits and horseback riding at Botai and Tersek (Anthony et al. 2006). Cheekpieces became the next necessary and logical step in the evolution of means of horse control. Their appearance together with the wheeled vehicles is not a coincidence, but the development of preceding tools. After the year 2000 BC, cheekpieces often occur together with sacrificed horses—13 out of 15 Sintashta burials with cheekpieces also contain horse bones (Epimakhov and Berseneva 2012)—showing evolution in the role of horses.

The whole paper offers an interesting summary of cultural and population events in the Pontic-Caspian steppes since the Early Yamna period. Also, horse-headed knobs!

NOTE. You can find similar information in other (free) papers from Chechushkov in his account in


Corded Ware—Uralic (I): Differences and similarities with Yamna


This is the first of four posts on the Corded Ware—Uralic identification:

I was reading The Bronze Age Landscape in the Russian Steppes: The Samara Valley Project (2016), and I was really surprised to find the following excerpt by David W. Anthony:

The Samara Valley links the central steppes with the western steppes and is a north-south ecotone between the pastoral steppes to the south and the forest-steppe zone to the north [see figure below]. The economic contrast between pastoral steppe subsistence, with its associated social organizations, and forest-zone hunting and fishing economies probably explains the shifting but persistent linguistic border between forest-zone Uralic languages to the north (today largely displaced by Russian) and a sequence of steppe languages to the south, recently Turkic, before that Iranian, and before that probably an eastern dialect of Proto-Indo-European (Anthony 2007). The Samara Valley represents several kinds of borders, linguistic, cultural, and ecological, and it is centrally located in the Eurasian steppes, making it a critical place to examine the development of Eurasian steppe pastoralism.

Language map of the middle Volga-Ural region. After “Geographical Distribution of the Uralic Languages” by Finno-Ugrian Society, Helsinki, 1993.

Khokhlov (translated by Anthony) further insists on the racial and ethnic divide between both populations, Abashevo to the north, and Poltavka to the south, during the formation of the Abashevo – Sintashta-Potapovka community that gave rise to Proto-Indo-Iranians:

Among all cranial series in the Volga-Ural region, the Potapovka population represents the clearest example of race mixing and probably ethnic mixing as well. The cultural advancements seen in this period might perhaps have been the result of the mixing of heterogeneous groups. Such a craniometric observation is to some extent consistent with the view of some archaeologists that the Sintashta monuments represent a combination of various cultures (principally Abashevo and Poltavka, but with other influences) and therefore do not correspond to the basic concept of an archaeological culture (Kuzmina 2003:76). Under this option, the Potapovka-Sintashta burial rite may be considered, first, a combination of traits to guarantee the afterlife of a selected part of a heterogeneous population. Second, it reflected a kind of social “caste” rather than a single population. In our view, the decisive element in shaping the ethnic structure of the Potapovka-Sintashta monuments was their extensive mobility over a fairly large geographic area. They obtained knowledge of various cultures from the populations with whom they interacted.

Late Middle Bronze Age cultures with the Proto-Indo-Iranian Sintashta-Potapovka-Filatovka group (shaded). After Anthony (2007 Figure 15.5), from Anthony (2016).

Interesting is also this excerpt about the predominant population in the Abashevo – Sintashta-Potapovka admixture (which supports what Chetan said recently, although this does not seemed backed by Y-DNA haplogroups found in the richest burials), coupled with the sign of incoming “Uraloid” peoples from the east, found in both Sintashta and eastern Abashevo:

The socially dominant anthropological component was Europeoid, possibly the descendants of Yamnaya. The association of craniofacial types with archaeological cultures in this period is difficult, primarily because of the small amount of published anthropological material of the cultures of steppe and forest belt (Balanbash, Vol’sko-Lbishche) and the eastern and southern steppes (Botai-Tersek). The crania associated with late MBA western Abashevo groups in the Don-Volga forest zone were different from eastern Abashevo in the Urals, where the expression of the Old Uraloid craniological complex was increased. Old Uraloid is found also on a single skull of Vol’sko-Lbishche culture (Tamar Utkul VII, Kurgan 4). Potentially related variants, including Mongoloid features, could be found among the Seima-Turbino tribes of the forest-steppe zone, who mixed with Sintashta and Abashevo. In the Sintashta Bulanova cemetery from the western Urals, some individuals were buried with implements of Seima-Turbino type (Khalyapin 2001; Khokhlov 2009; Khokhlov and Kitov 2009). Previously, similarities were noted between some individual skulls from Potapovka I and burials of the much older Botai culture in northern Kazakhstan (Khokhlov 2000a). Botai-Tersek is, in fact, a growing contender for the source of some “eastern” cranial features.

Facial reconstructions based on skulls from (a) Khvalynsk II Grave 24, a young adult male; (b) Poludin Grave 6, Yamnaya culture, a mature male (both by A. I. Nechvaloda); and (c) Luzanovsky cemetery, Srubnaya culture (by L. T. Yablonsky). In Khokhlov (2016).

The wave of peoples associated with “eastern” features can be seen in genetics in the Sintashta outliers from Narasimhan et al. (2018), and it probably will be eventually seen in Abashevo, too. These may be related to the Seima-Turbino international network – but most likely it is directly connected to Sintashta through the starting Andronovo and Seima-Turbino horizons, by admixing of prospective groups and small-scale back-migrations.

Corded Ware – Yamna similarities?

So, if peoples of north-eastern Europe have been assumed for a long time to be Uralic speakers, what is happening with the Corded Ware = IE obsession? Is it Gimbutas’ ghost possessing old archaeologists? Probably not.

It is about certain cultural similarities evident at first sight, which have been traditionally interpreted as a sign of cultural diffusion or migration. Not dissimilar to the many Bell Beaker models available, where each archaeologist is pushing certain differences, mixing what seemed reasonable, what still might seem reasonable, and what certainly isn’t anymore after the latest ancient DNA data.

“European dialect” expansion of Proto-Indo-European according to Gimbutas (1963)

The initial models of Gimbutas, Kristiansen, or Anthony – which are known to many today – were enunciated in the infancy of archaeological studies in the regions, during and just after the fall of the USSR, and before many radiocarbon dates that we have today were published (with radiocarbon dating being still today in need of refinement), so it is only logical that gross mistakes were made.

We have similar gross mistakes related to the origins of Bell Beakers, and studying them was certainly easier than studying eastern data.

  • Gimbutas believed – based mainly on Kurgan-like burials – that Bell Beaker formed from a combination of Yamna settlers with the Vučedol culture, so she was not that far from the truth.
  • The expansion of Corded Ware from peoples of the North Pontic forest-steppe area, proposed by Gimbutas and later supported also by Kristiansen (1989) as the main Indo-European expansion – , is probably also right about the approximate origins of the culture. Only its ‘Indo-European’ nature is in question, given the differences with Khvalynsk and Yamna evolution.
  • Anthony only claimed that Yamna migrants settled in the Balkans and along the Danube into the Hungarian steppes. He never said that Corded Ware was a Yamna offshoot until after the first genetic papers of 2015 (read about his newest proposal). He initially claimed that only certain neighbouring Corded Ware groups “adopted” Indo-European (through cultural diffusion) because of ‘patron-client’ relationships, and was never preoccupied with the fate of Corded Ware and related cultures in the east European forest zone and Finland.

So none of them was really that far from the true picture; we might say a lot people are more way off the real picture today than the picture these three researchers helped create in the 1990s and 2000s. Genetics is just putting the last nail in the coffin of Corded Ware as a Yamna offshoot, instead of – as we believed in the 2000s – to Vučedol and Bell Beaker.

So let’s revise some of these traditional links between Corded Ware and Yamna with today’s data:


Even more than genetics – at least until we have an adequate regional and temporary sampling – , archaeological findings lead what we have to know about both cultures.

It is essential to remember that Corded Ware, starting ca. 3000/2900 BC in east-central Europe, has been proposed to be derived from Early Yamna, which appeared suddenly in the Pontic-Caspian steppes ca. 3300 BC (probably from the late Repin expansion), and expanded to the west ca. 3000.

Early Yamna is in turn identified as the expanding Late Proto-Indo-European community, which has been confirmed with the recent data on Afanasevo, Bell Beaker, and Sintashta-Potapovka and derived cultures.

The question at hand, therefore, is if Corded Ware can be considered an offshoot of the Late PIE community, and thus whether the CWC ethnolinguistic community – proven in genetics to be quite homogeneous – spoke a Late PIE dialect, or if – alternatively – it is derived from other neighbouring cultures of the North Pontic region.

NOTE. The interpretation of an Indo-Slavonic group represented by a previous branching off of the group is untenable with today’s data, since Indo-Slavonic – for those who support it – would itself be a branch of Graeco-Aryan, and Palaeo-Balkan languages expanded most likely with West Yamna (i.e. R1b-L23, mainly R1b-Z2103) to the south.

The convoluted alternative explanation would be that Corded Ware represents an earlier, Middle PIE branch (somehow carrying R1a??) which influences expanding Late PIE dialects; this has been recently supported by Kortlandt, although this simplistic picture also fails to explain the Uralic problem.

Kurgans: The Yamna tradition was inherited from late Repin, in turn inherited from Khvalynsk-Novodanilovka proto-Kurgans. As for the CWC tradition, it is unclear if the tumuli were built as a tradition inherited from North and West Pontic cultures (in turn inherited or copied from Khvalynsk-Novodanilovka), such as late Trypillia, late Kvityana, late Dereivka, late Sredni Stog; or if they were built because of the spread of the ‘Transformation of Europe’, set in motion by the Early Yamna expansion ca. 3300-3000 BC (as found in east-central European cultures like Coţofeni, Lizevile, Șoimuș, or the Adriatic Vučedol). My guess is that it inherits an older tradition than Yamna, with an origin in east-central Europe, because of the mound-building distribution in the North Pontic area before the Yamna expansion, but we may never really know.

Distribution of Pit-Grave burials west of the Black Sea likely dating to the 2nd half of the IVth millennium BC (triangles: side-crouched burials; filled circles: supine extended burials; open circles: suspected). Frînculeasa, Preda, and Heyd (2015)

Burial rite: Yamna features (with regional differences) single burials with body on its back, flexed upright knees, poor grave goods, common orientation east-west (heads to the west) inherited from Repin, in turn inherited from Khvalynsk-Novodanilovka. CWC tradition – partially connected to Złota and surrounding east-central European territories (in turn from the Khvalynsk-Novodanilovka expansion) – features single graves, body in fetal position, strict gender differentiation – men on the right, women on the left -, looking to the south, graves with standardized assemblages (objects representing affirmation of battle, hunting, and feasting). The burial rites clearly represent different ideologies.

Left: Pit-Grave burial types expanded with Khvalynsk-Novodanilovka. Right: Pit-Grave burial types associated with the Yamna expansion and influence. Frînculeasa, Preda, and Heyd (2015)

Corded decoration: Corded ware decoration appears in the Balkans during the 5th millennium, and represents a simple technique whereby a cord is twisted, or wrapped around a stick, and then pressed directly onto the fresh surface of a vessel leaving a characteristic decoration. It appears in many groups of the 5th and 4th millennium BC, but it was Globular Amphorae the culture which popularized the drinking vessels and their corded ornamentation. It appears thus in some regional groups of Yamna, but it becomes the standard pottery only in Corded Ware (especially with the A-horizon), which shows continuity with GAC pottery.

Origins of the first Corded Ware horizon (5th millennium BC) after the Khvalynsk-Novodanilovka expansion. Corded Ware (circles) and horse-head scepters (rectangles) and other steppe elements (triangles). Image from Bulatović (2014).

Economy: Yamna expands from Repin (and Repin from Khvalynsk-Novodanilovka) as a nomadic or semi-nomadic purely pastoralist society (with occasional gathering of wild seeds), which naturally thrives in the grasslands of the Pontic-Caspian, lower Danube and Hungarian steppes. Corded Ware shows agropastoralism (as late Eneolithic forest-steppe and steppe groups of eastern Europe, such as late Trypillian, TRB, and GAC groups), inhabits territories north of the loess line, with heavy reliance of hunter-gathering depending on the specific region.

Cattle herding: Interestingly, both west Yamna and Corded Ware show more reliance on cattle herding than other pastoralist groups, which – contrasted with the previous Eneolithic herding traditions of the Pontic-Caspian steppe, where sheep-goats predominate – make them look alike. However, the cattle-herding economy of Yamna is essential for its development from late Repin and its expansion through the steppes (over western territories practising more hunter-gathering and sheep-goat herding economy), and it does not reach equally the Volga-Ural region, whose groups keep some of the old subsistence economy (read more about the late Repin expansion). Corded Ware, on the other hand, inherits its economic strategy from east European groups like TRB, GAC, and especially late Trypillian communities, showing a predominance of cattle herding within an agropastoral community in the forest-steppe and forest zones of Volhynia, Podolia, and surrounding forest-steppe and forest regions.

Scheme of interlinked socio-economic-ideological innovations forming the Yamnaya. Frînculeasa, Preda, and Heyd (2015)

Horse riding: Horse riding and horse transport is proven in Yamna (and succeeding Bell Beaker and Sintashta), assumed for late Repin (essential for cattle herding in the seas of grasslands that are the steppes, without nearby water sources), quite likely during the Khvalynsk expansion (read more here), and potentially also for Samara, where the predominant horse symbolism of early Khvalynsk starts. Corded Ware – like the north Pontic forest-steppe and forest areas during the Eneolithic – , on the other hand, does not show a strong reliance on horse riding. The high mobility and short-term settlements characteristic of Corded Ware, that are often associated with horse riding by association with Yamna, may or may not be correct, but there is no need for horses to explain their herding economy or their mobility, and the north-eastern European areas – the one which survived after Bell Beaker expansion – did certainly not rely on horses as an essential part of their economy.

NOTE: I cannot think of more supposed similarities right now. If you have more ideas, please share in the comments and I will add them here.

Genetic similarities

EHG: This is the clearest link between both communities. We thought it was related to the expansion of ANE-related ancestry to the west into WHG territory, but now it seems that it will be rather WHG expanding into ANE territory from the Pontic-Caspian region to the east (read more on recent Caucasus Neolithic, on , and on Caucasus HG).

NOTE. Given how much each paper changes what we know about the Palaeolithic, the origin and expansion of the (always developing) known ancestral components and specific subclades (see below) is not clear at all.

CHG: This is the key link between both cultures, which will delimit their interaction in terms of time and space. CHG is intermediate between EHG and Iran N (ca. 8000 BC). The ancestry is thus linked to the Caucasus south of the steppe before the emergence of North Pontic (western) and Don-Volga-Ural (eastern) communities during the Mesolithic. The real question is: when we have more samples from the steppe and the Caucasus during the Neolithic, how many CHG groups are we going to find? Will the new specific ancestral components (say CHG1, CHG2, CHG3, etc.) found in Yamna (from Khvalynsk, in the east) and Corded Ware (probably from the North Pontic forest-steppe) be the same? My guess is, most likely not, unless they are mediated by the Khvalynsk-Novodanilovka expansion (read more on CHG in the Caucasus).

Formation of Yamna and CHG contribution, in Damgaard et al. (Science 2018). A 10-leaf model based on combining the models in Fig. S16 and Fig. S19 and re-estimating the model parameters.

WHG/EEF: This is the obvious major difference – known today – in the formation of both communities in the steppe, and shows the different contacts that both groups had at least since the Eneolithic, i.e. since the expansion of Repin with its renewed Y-DNA bottleneck, and probably since before the early Khvalynsk expansion (read more on Yamna-Corded Ware differences contrasting with Yamna-Afanasevo, Yamna-Bell Beaker, and Yamna-Sintashta similarities).

NOTE 1. Some similarities between groups can be seen depending on the sampled region; e.g. Baltic groups show more similarities with southern Pontic-Caspian steppe populations, probably due to exogamy.

Tested qpGraph model in Tambets et al. (2018). The qpGraph model fitting the data for the tested populations. “Colour codes for the terminal nodes: pink—modern populations (‘Population X’ refers to test population) and yellow—ancient populations (aDNA samples and their pools). Nodes coloured other than pink or yellow are hypothetical intermediate populations. We putatively named nodes which we used as admixture sources using the main recipient among known populations. The colours of intermediate nodes on the qpGraph model match those on the admixture proportions panel.”

NOTE 2. We have this information on the differences in “steppe ancestry” between Yamna and Corded Ware, compared to previous studies, because now we have more samples of neighbouring, roughly contemporaneous Eneolithic groups, to analyse the real admixture processes. This kind of fine scale studies is what is going to show more and more differences between Khvalynsk-Yamna and Sredni Stog-Corded Ware as more data pours in. The evolution of both communities in archaeology and in PCA (see below) is probably witness to those differences yet to be published.

R1: Even though some people try very hard to think in terms of “R1” vs. (Caucasus) J or G or any other upper clade, this is plainly wrong. It is possible, given what we know now, that Q1a2-M242 expanded ANE ancestry to the west ca. 13000 BC, while R1b-P279 expanded WHG ancestry to the east with the expansion of post-Swiderian cultures, creating EHG as a WHG:ANE cline. The role of R1a-M459 is unknown, but it might be related to any of these migrations, or others (plural) along northern Eurasia (read more on the expansion of R1b-P279, on Palaeolithic Q1a2, and on R1a-M417).

NOTE. I am inclined to believe in a speculative Mesolithic-Early Neolithic community involving Eurasiatic movements accross North Eurasia, and Indo-Uralic movements in its western part, with the last intense early Uralic-PIE contacts represented by the forming west (Mariupol culture) and east (Don-Volga-Ural cultures, including Samara) communities developing side by side. Before their known Eneolithic expansions, no large-scale Y-DNA bottleneck is going to be seen in the Pontic-Caspian steppe, with different (especially R1a and R1b subclades) mixed among them, as shown in North Pontic Neolithic, Samara HG, and Khvalynsk samples.

Image modified from Wang et al. (2018). Samples projected in PCA of 84 modern-day West Eurasian populations (open symbols). Previously known clusters have been marked and referenced. Marked and labelled are the Balkan samples referenced in this text An EHG and a Caucasus ‘clouds’ have been drawn, leaving Pontic-Caspian steppe and derived groups between them. See the original file here.

Corded Ware and ‘steppe ancestry’

If we take a look at the evolution of Corded Ware cultures, the expansion of Bell Beakers – dominated over most previous European cultures from west to east Europe – influenced the development of the whole European Bronze Age, up to Mierzanowice and Trzciniec in the east.

The only relevant unscathed CWC-derived groups, after the expansion of Sintashta-Potapovka as the Srubna-Andronovo horizon in the Eurasian steppes, were those of the north-eastern European forest zone: between Belarus to the west, Finland to the north, the Urals to the east, and the forest-steppe region to the south. That is, precisely the region supposed to represent Uralic speakers during the Bronze Age.

This inconsistency of steppe ancestry and its relation with Uralic (and Balto-Slavic) peoples was observed shortly after the publication of the first famous 2015 papers by Paul Heggarty, of the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (read more):

Haak et al. (2015) make much of the high Yamnaya ancestry scores for (only some!) Indo-European languages. What they do not mention is that those same results also include speakers of other languages among those with the highest of all scores for Yamnaya ancestry. Only these are languages of the Uralic family, not Indo-European at all; and their Yamnaya-ancestry signals are far higher than in many branches of Indo-European in (southern) Europe. Estonian ranks very high, while speakers of the very closely related Finnish are curiously not shown, and nor are the Saami. Hungarian is relevant less directly since this language arrived only c. 900 AD, but also high.


These data imply that Uralic-speakers too would have been part of the Yamnaya > Corded Ware movement, which was thus not exclusively Indo-European in any case. And as well as the genetics, the geography, chronology and language contact evidence also all fit with a Yamnaya > Corded Ware movement including Uralic as well as Balto-Slavic.

Both papers fail to address properly the question of the Uralic languages. And this despite — or because? — the only Uralic speakers they report rank so high among modern populations with Yamnaya ancestry. Their linguistic ancestors also have a good claim to have been involved in the Corded Ware and Yamnaya cultures, and of course the other members of the Uralic family are scattered across European Russia up to the Urals.

NOTE. Although the author was trying to support the Anatolian hypothesis – proper of glottochronological studies often published from the Max Planck Institute – , the question remains equally valid: “if Proto-Indo-European expands with Corded Ware and steppe ancestry, what is happening with Uralic peoples?”

For my part, I claimed in my draft that ancestral components were not the only relevant data to take into account, and that Y-DNA haplogroups R1a and R1b (appearing separately in CWC and Yamna-Bell Beaker-Afanasevo), together with their calculated timeframes of formation – and therefore likely expansion – did not fit with the archaeological and linguistic description of the spread of Proto-Indo-European and its dialects.

In fact, it seemed that only one haplogroup (R1b-M269) was constantly and consistenly associated with the proposed routes of Late PIE dialectal expansions – like Anthony’s second (Afanasevo) and third (Lower Danube, Balkan) waves. What genetics shows fits seamlessly with Mallory’s association of the North-West Indo-European expansion with Bell Beakers (read here how archaeologists were right).

Map of the much beloved steppe (or “Yamnaya”) ancestry in modern populations, by Balanovsky. Modified from Klejn (2017).

More precise inconsistencies were observed after the publication of Olalde et al. (2017) and Mathieson et al. (2017), by Volker Heyd in Kossinna’s smile (2017). Letting aside the many details enumerated (you can read a summary in my latest draft), this interesting excerpt is from the conclusion:

NOTE. An open access ealier draft version of the paper is offered for download by the author.

Simple solutions to complex problems are never the best choice, even when favoured by politicians and the media. Kossinna also offered a simple solution to a complex prehistoric problem, and failed therein. Prehistoric archaeology has been aware of this for a century, and has responded by becoming more differentiated and nuanced, working anthropologically, scientifically and across disciplines (cf. Müller 2013; Kristiansen 2014), and rejecting monocausal explanations. The two aDNA papers in Nature, powerful and promising as they are for our future understanding, also offer rather straightforward messages, heavily pulled by culture-history and the equation of people with culture. This admittedly is due partly to the restrictions of the medium that conveys them (and despite the often relevant additional detail given as supplementary information, which is unfortunately not always given full consideration).

While I have no doubt that both papers are essentially right, they do not reflect the complexity of the past. It is here that archaeology and archaeologists contributing to aDNA studies find their role; rather than simply handing over samples and advising on chronology, and instead of letting the geneticists determine the agenda and set the messages, we should teach them about complexity in past human actions and interactions. If accepted, this could be the beginning of a marriage made in heaven, with the blessing smile of Gustaf Kossinna, and no doubt Vere Gordon Childe, were they still alive, in a reconciliation of twentieth- and twenty-first-century approaches. For us as archaeologists, it could also be the starting point for the next level of a new archaeology.

Main distribution of Yamnaya kurgans in the Pontic-Caspian steppe of modern day Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, and its western branch in modern south-east European countries of Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary, with numbers of excavated kurgans and graves given. Picture: Volker Heyd (2018).

The question was made painfully clear with the publication of Olalde et al. (2018) & Mathieson et al. (2018), where the real route of Yamna expansion into Europe was now clearly set through the steppes into the Carpathian basin, later expanded as Bell Beakers.

This has been further confirmed in more recent papers, such as Narasimhan et al. (2018), Damgaard et al. (2018), or Wang et al. (2018), among others.

However, the discussion is still dominated by political agendas based on prevalent Y-DNA haplogroups in modern countries and ethnic groups.


Mitogenomes suggest rapid expansion of domesticated horse before 3500 BC

Open access Origin and spread of Thoroughbred racehorses inferred from complete mitochondrial genome sequences: Phylogenomic and Bayesian coalescent perspectives, by Yoon et al. PLOS One (2018).

Abstract (emphasis mine)

The Thoroughbred horse breed was developed primarily for racing, and has a significant contribution to the qualitative improvement of many other horse breeds. Despite the importance of Thoroughbred racehorses in historical, cultural, and economical viewpoints, there was no temporal and spatial dynamics of them using the mitogenome sequences. To explore this topic, the complete mitochondrial genome sequences of 14 Thoroughbreds and two Przewalski’s horses were determined. These sequences were analyzed together along with 151 previously published horse mitochondrial genomes from a range of breeds across the globe using a Bayesian coalescent approach as well as Bayesian inference and maximum likelihood methods. The racing horses were revealed to have multiple maternal origins and to be closely related to horses from one Asian, two Middle Eastern, and five European breeds. Thoroughbred horse breed was not directly related to the Przewalski’s horse which has been regarded as the closest taxon to the all domestic horses and the only true wild horse species left in the world. Our phylogenomic analyses also supported that there was no apparent correlation between geographic origin or breed and the evolution of global horses. The most recent common ancestor of the Thoroughbreds lived approximately 8,100–111,500 years ago, which was significantly younger than the most recent common ancestor of modern horses (0.7286 My). Bayesian skyline plot revealed that the population expansion of modern horses, including Thoroughbreds, occurred approximately 5,500–11,000 years ago, which coincide with the start of domestication. This is the first phylogenomic study on the Thoroughbred racehorse in association with its spatio-temporal dynamics. The database and genetic history information of Thoroughbred mitogenomes obtained from the present study provide useful information for future horse improvement projects, as well as for the study of horse genomics, conservation, and in association with its geographical distribution.

Bayesian skyline plot (BSP) based on mitochondrial genome sequences from 167 modern horses.
The dark line in the BSP represents the estimated effective population size through time. The green area represents the 95% highest posterior density confidence intervals for this estimate.

Interesting excerpts:

We carried out a Bayesian coalescent approach using extended mitochondrial genome sequences from 167 horses in order to further assess the timescale of horse domestication. Here, we first calculated the time of the most recent common ancestor of Thoroughbred horses. Our analysis revealed the age of the most recent common ancestor of the racing horse to be around 8,100–111,500 years old. This estimate is much younger than that of the most recent common ancestor of the global horses, which has been estimated at 0.7286 Mys old.

Bayesian maximum clade credibility phylogenomic tree on the ground of the mitochondrial genome sequences of 167 modern horses.
The data set (16,432 base pairs) was also analyzed phylogenetically using Bayesian inference (BI) and maximum likelihood (ML) methods which showed the same topologies. 95% Highest Posterior Density of node heights are shown by blue bars. Groups are marked by a “G”. Numbers at the nodes represent (left to right): posterior probabilities (≥0.80) for the BI tree and bootstrap values (≥70%) for the ML tree. The racing horses were revealed to have multiple maternal origins and to be closely related to horses from one Asian, two Middle Eastern, and five European breeds. Results of phylogenomic analyses also uncovered no apparent association between geographic origin or breed and heterogeneity of global horses. The most recent common ancestor of the Thoroughbreds lived approximately 8,100–111,500 years ago, which was significantly younger than the most recent common ancestor of modern horses (0.7286 My).

On the domestication time of modern horses, there have been several publications derived from both archaeological [49–51] and molecular [11–12, 23, 48] evidences. D’Andrade [49] reported that the origin of domestic horses was around 4,000 years ago. Ludwig et al. [50] stated the domestication time to be about 5,000 years ago, while Anthony [51] noted that horse rearing by humans may have occurred approximately 6,000 years ago. Subsequently, on the basis of mitochondrial genome sequences, Lippold et al. [11] and Achilli et al. [12] postulated domestication time to be about 6,000–8,000 and 6,000–7,000 years ago, respectively. Warmuth [48] dated domestication time to 5,500 years ago based on autosomal genotype data, while Orlando et al. [23] claimed that Przewalski’s and domestic horse populations diverged 38,000–72,000 years ago based on analysis of genome sequences. In contrast to the previous hypothesized date of horse domestication, the results of our Bayesian skyline plot (BSP) analysis depict a rapid expansion of the horse population approximately 5,500–11,000 years ago, which coincides with the start of domestication.

It seems that we will not have an update on horse aDNA from the ISBA 8, so we will have to make do with this for the moment.


Origin of horse domestication likely on the North Caspian steppes

Open access Late Quaternary horses in Eurasia in the face of climate and vegetation change, by Leonardi et al. Science Advances (2008) 4(7):eaar5589.

Interesting excerpts (emphasis mine):

Here, we compiled an extensive continental-scale database, consisting of 3070 radiocarbon dates associated to horse paleontological and archeological finds across the whole of Eurasia, that has been analyzed in association with coarse-scale paleoclimatic reconstructions. We further collected the number of identified specimens (NISP) frequency data for horses versus other ungulates in 1120 archeological layers in Europe (…) This ma.ssive amount of data allowed us to track,with unprecedented details, how the geographic distribution of the species changed through time

Geographic range through time

For most analyses, the data have been divided into climatic periods: pre-LGM(older than 27 ka B.P.), LGM(27 to 18 ka B.P.), Late Glacial (18 to 11.7 ka B.P.), Preboreal (11.7 to 10.6 ka B.P.), Boreal (10.6 to 9.1 ka B.P.), Early Atlantic (9.1 to 7.5 ka B.P.), Late Atlantic (7.5 to 5.5 ka B.P.), and Recent (younger than 5.5 ka B.P.) (Fig. 1, A and B). The spatial and temporal distribution of horse remains compiled in our database reveals a strong imbalance in Eurasia (Fig. 1, A and B).

We found a common trend in both regions for a high number of occurrences at the end of the Pleistocene (with a decrease during the LGM, only visible in Europe), followed by a drastic reduction in the Early and Middle Holocene, and a relative increase toward more recent times. These included both the Early Atlantic in Europe, which started ~9.1 ka B.P., and the time range after 5.5 ka B.P. for Asia. The horse fossil record appears ubiquitous throughout Europe in the Late Pleistocene, while in the Early and Middle Holocene the finds are concentrated in central-western Europe and Iberia. From 7.5 ka B.P., the number of finds increases markedly, and the geographical distribution extends toward the east and southeast.

Horse occurrences through time. (A) Horse occurrences through time. Histograms showing the number of horse observations in Europe (left panel) and Asia (right panel) for each time bin (top) and for climatic period (bottom). Only time bins with more than 10 observations (black horizontal line) have been considered for the SDM analyses. From 22 ka B.P. backward (gray vertical line), time bins cover 2 ka following the available paleoclimatic reconstructions. The central map shows the boundaries considered while defining European and Asian regions, with the black line representing the Urals. The zoomed area shows the geographical resolution of the climatic reconstructions, with each pixel representing a grid cell. (B) Geographic distribution of horse occurrences. Maps showing horse occurrences for each climatic period in Europe (left) and Asia (right).

Different Asian and European niches

This analysis revealed that, in both continents, horses occupied only a portion of the climatic space available. The range covered by random locations shows that the paleoecological conditions present in Europe were only a subset of those found in Asia. However, European horses occupied a much wider climatic space than in Asia, with only limited overlap between the two ranges.

Horses conquered temperate environments from a European source

There is no evidence of climatic barriers between those two populations through time because the forecasts from Europe and Asia always overlap in central Eurasia, except 5 ka B.P. (figs. S3 and S4). An alternative explanation is the role of the Urals as a potential constraint for the dispersal of horses between Europe and north central Asia.

Climatic suitability. (A) Cumulative climatic suitability for the past 44 ka based on simulation on the European (left), Eurasian (middle), and Asian (right) data sets. To correct for sampling bias in the Eurasian data set, for each time slice, all estimates and projections for Eurasia are performed considering 100 random resampling of European occurrences in the same number as Asian occurrences. The darker the colors, themore stable the climatic suitability for horses (climatic niche = p-Hor) through time. (B) Projection of climatic suitability across Eurasia in different climatic periods based on occurrences in Europe (left), Eurasia (middle), and Asia (right). Because of the scarcity of data available for Asia, no models for the Holocene have been possible for both Asia and Eurasia, with the exception of 5 and 3 ka B.P. (both included in the “Recent” period).

Climatic and habitat association patterns for horses in Europe support increasing habitat fragmentation

The decrease of horse remains in Europe is not characterized by a geographic reduction in the overall extent of the area occupied by the species but in a drop of frequencies in a geographic extent that does not vary much between the Late Glacial and the Early Atlantic (Figs. 1B and 4B). This pattern is more likely to result from habitat fragmentation than from a geographic shift in the climatic range suitable for the species, as observed for many animals during the LGM (23).

In the whole period ranging from the Preboreal (11.7 to 10.6 ka B.P.) to the Late Atlantic (7.5 to 5.5 ka B.P.), the total amount of land space most and likely suitable to horses is wider than in the Late Glacial, and only between 8 to 7 ka ago the European range appears patchy and fragmented (Fig. 4C). When comparing each of four successive time bins during the Holocene (8, 7, 6, and 5 ka B.P., respectively) (Fig. 4E), the difference in successive p-Hor values in Europe shows that the suitability for the species in Iberia, northeastern France, Italy, the Balkans, and eastern Europe steadily increased, while in Central Europe strong differences can be observed between neighboring regions.

Analyses of the European data set and biomefrequency. (A) Distribution through time of the frequency of horse remains in Europe calculated as NISP of horses versus other ungulates. (B) Density of horse remains through time in Europe, calculated as NISP of horses versus other ungulates. The numbers at the bottom of each bar represent the number of observations falling in each class, from 0 to >5%. (C) Climatic suitability for horses in Europe between 10 and 3 ka B.P. (D) Climatic suitability per time period. Percentage of land cells in Europe with a value of suitability for horses (p-Hor) > 0.5 and p-Hor > 0.8. (E) Holocene climatic amelioration. Difference in p-Hor in Europe comparing five successive time bins during the Holocene: 9, 8, 7, 6, and 5 ka B.P. Eachmap shows the difference in themore recent distribution compared to the previous one. (F) Environmental reconstructions in themacro area surrounding horse finds in Europe (left) and Asia (right) per climatic period. The lighter the color, the less forested is the region. The numbers at the bottom of the bars show the number of occurrences in closed environments over all the observations. The dotted line represents a frequency of 0.5.

Taken at face value, this pattern would suggest that horses were not restricted to open environments but could equally well inhabit closed, forested environments, as previously suggested (18). However, as others recently emphasized (19), the faunal associations inHolocene sites from Europe suggest a different pattern. The PCAs based on faunal assemblages (figs. S1 and S2) separate on the second principal component sites characterized by ungulates associated to forested areas (red deer, wild boar, and roe deer) and all other animals, associated to semi-open and open environments, including horses for most records.

Together, the contrast between the reconstructed microscale and macroscale vegetable coverage in Europe, the increase of horses in mainly forested macroregions, and the spatial pattern of extinction suggest that, from the beginning of the Holocene, the suitable environment became more and more patchy, with open areas increasingly fragmented by forests, where wild populations of horses could have survived in isolation until one or several waves of arrivals of domestic horses, leading to either local admixture or a full replacement of the preexisting local populations.


Our data show that, up to 5.5 ka ago, horse finds do not show association with species characteristic of forested areas such as wild boar and roe deer. We infer that the open and semi-open habitats occupied by horses on a narrow geographic scale appear less and less frequent at a macroenvironmental scale, supporting the possibility of increasing fragmentation of open habitats. This event is also likely to have led to an intensification of genetic isolation for the remaining horse populations, a pattern that still needs to be tested on genomic data.

The suitability of both Iberia and eastern Europe appears constant throughout the entire post-LGM period, in line with these regions being hotspots of genetic diversity and, possibly, the refugia sources for the recolonization of the continent (11). While the Pontic-Caspian region appears not suitable for European horses around the time when horses where first domesticated some 5.5 ka ago (6), part of this region appears suitable for the Asian horses (with the Caspian Sea as the westernmost boundary). This may suggest that horse domestication started from a population background related to an Asian ancestry and that the further spread of the domesticated horses in Europe involved either adaptation to novel niches (possibly through selective breeding) or the application of domestication techniques to local horse populations pre-adapted to these environmental conditions. Testing this scenario will require mapping the genetic structure of the Eurasian horse population within the fifth to third millennium BCE.

Some remarks

Cultural-anthropological research and archaeological remains (see here), genetics (see here and here), and now also thorough palaeoclimatic and archaeological models point to the North Caspian region, settled by the Khvalynsk culture, as the most likely earliest origin of horse domestication. The paper also supports the favorable conditions of western Europe up to Iberia for the introduction of a horse-riding culture.

I intended to write a post about the myth of Corded Ware horse riders, but for the moment I haven’t found the time. Not that Corded Ware pastoralists didn’t have horses, or could not ride them: they were a highly mobile culture of pastoralists stemming from eastern Poland / western Ukraine, so they must have known horses, like many other European cultures of the late 4th / early 3rd millennium influenced by expanding Yamna settlers. But it just cannot be said to have formed an essential part of their culture, as it was for Khvalynsk-Novodanilovka, and especially Yamna and later East Bell Beaker, Sintashta, etc.

A mere look at these maps suffices to assess the limited role of the horse in north-eastern Europe, the only region where groups of late Corded Ware-derived cultures survived the expansion of Yamna, and especially East Bell Beakers after ca. 2500 BC, which transformed Western, Northern, and Central Europe, and even East Europe reaching the modern Baltic countries, Belarus, and Romania. Even Trzciniec was born out of the influence from expanding Bell Beakers into earlier Corded Ware territory, although the later (Iron Age) relevance of this culture was probably quite limited.

As you can imagine, without horses and horse symbolism, horse riding, carts, and intensive cattle-breeding (associated with Yamna and the broad, east-central European grasslands typical of steppe regions), there can be no Proto-Indo-European, whose reconstructed vocabulary is particulary rich in horse-related words, and whose reconstructed culture, society, and religion cannot be understood without the domesticated horse. In forest regions to the north-east and eastern Europe, there was apparently little space for horses, but plenty of room for other ungulates and thus hunting, and indeed Uralic languages

In the upcoming months we will see R1a-fans associating Proto-Indo-Europeans more and more with wool, and sheep, and corded ware, and forest regions, until the proposed homeland shifts to the Baltic and Finland, instead of dat boring horse-riding people of the steppes…No wait, it’s already happening.

NOTE. Also open access is the recent Horse Y chromosome assembly displays unique evolutionary features and putative stallion fertility genes, by Janečka et al. Nature Communications (2018).


Origins of equine dentistry in Mongolia in the early first millennium BC

New paper (behind paywall) Origins of equine dentistry, by Taylor et al. PNAS (2018).

Interesting excerpts (emphasis mine):

The practice of horse dentistry by contemporary nomadic peoples in Mongolia, coupled with the centrality of horse transport to Mongolian life, both now and in antiquity, raises the possibility that dental care played an important role in the development of nomadic life and domestic horse use in the past. To investigate, we conducted a detailed archaeozoological study of horse remains from tombs and ritual horse inhumations across the Mongolian Steppe, assessing evidence for anthropogenic dental modifications and comparing our findings with broader patterns in horse use and nomadic material culture.

We conducted a detailed study of archaeological horse collections spanning the past 3,200 y, including those from the Late Bronze Age DSK complex (ca. 1200–700 BCE, n = 70), Early Iron Age Slab Burial culture (ca. 700–300 BCE, n = 4), Pazyryk culture (ca. 600–200 BCE, n = 2), Late Iron Age Xiongnu Empire (ca. 200 BCE–200 CE, n = 3), Early Middle Ages post-Xiongnu period (ca. 100–550 CE, n = 3), and Turkic Khaganate (ca. 600–800 CE, n = 3).

A (top): Contemporary Mongolian herder engaged in horseback riding, using left-handed rein position causing asymmetric pressures to the horse’s skull. Photo by Orsoo Bayarsaikhan. B(center) contemporary Mongolian horse skulls, showing asymmetric and skewed thinning to the nasal bones caused by bridle pressure. C(bottom) Asymmetric deformation to the cranial bones of a Deer Stone-Khirigsuur horse (left), alongside an early Middle Ages horse with a similar feature (right). Modified from Taylor and Tuvshinjargal (2018).


This Late Bronze Age dental modification counts among the earliest documented instances of equine veterinary care, and the oldest known evidence for horse dentistry. At first glance, the detailed historical record of early equine veterinary care in places such as China, Greece, Rome, and Syria, which spans the late second millennium BCE through the early centuries CE (11, 15, 16), might imply that equine dentistry emerged in the sedentary civilizations of the Old World. However, the earliest textual references describe only nonsurgical medicinal treatments and make few mentions of oral health (11). Recent archaeological discoveries suggest that human care of domestic animals was practiced by hunter-gatherers as far back as the Paleolithic (46), and that pastoralists may have occasionally practiced surgical procedures on domestic animals as early as the Neolithic in Europe (47). The evidence presented here indicates that horse dentistry was developed by nomadic pastoralists living on the steppes of Mongolia and northeast Asia during the Late Bronze Age, concurrent with the local adoption of the metal bit and many centuries before the first mention of dental practices in historical accounts from sedentary Old World civilizations.

Our results reveal a fundamental link between equine dentistry and the emergence of horsemanship in the steppes of Eurasia. At the turn of the first millennium BCE, militarized, horse-mounted peoples reshaped the social and economic landscape of many areas of the Eurasian continent. Conflagrations with equestrian peoples, such as those between the Persian Empire and the Pontic “Scythians,” plagued alluvial civilizations from the Near East to India and China, while large-scale movements of people linked East and West in never-before-seen ways (48). The archaeological and historical records indicate that the earliest horseback riding was accomplished without stirrups or saddles, and probably using only bitless or organic-mouthpiece bridles (49, 50). The bronze snaffle bit, and the improved control it provided, was a key technological development that enabled the use of horseback riding for more stressful and difficult activities, such as long-distance transportation and warfare (32). We argue that these technological improvements in horse control were preceded and sustained by innovations in veterinary dentistry by nomadic peoples living in the continental interior. By increasing herd survival and mitigating behavioral and health issues caused by horse equipment, innovations in equine dentistry improved the reliability of horseback riding for ancient nomads, enabling horses to be used for nonpastoral activities like warfare, high-speed riding, and distance travel.

Damage to the retained wolf tooth in a 4-5 year old mummified horse, dating to the 2-4th centuries CE from the site of Urd Ulaan-Uneet in western Mongolia


Archaeozoological data from Mongolian horses indicate that the nomadic practice of equine dentistry dates back more than 3,000 y to the DSK complex, a Late Bronze Age culture associated with the first mounted horseback riding and mobile pastoralism in eastern Eurasia. Attempted removal of deciduous incisors through sawing of the exterior suggests experimentation with dental extraction, but not the removal of wolf teeth. The appearance of extracted first premolars in the first millennium BCE coincides with the arrival of metal bits in the archaeological record and oral trauma linked with metal bit use, suggesting that innovations in dental practice were an adaptation to the mechanical changes in horse equipment. These bronze and metal bits provided greater control over the horse, facilitating the development of military uses for the horse, but also introduced new dental problems with the first premolar. Our results indicate that, coincident with the earliest evidence for metal bit use, wolf tooth extraction was practiced in Mongolia by ca. 750 BCE and continued through the early Middle Ages. These results push back the earliest dates for equine dentistry by more than a millennium and suggest that nomadic peoples developed key innovations in veterinary care that enabled more sophisticated horse control, ultimately changing the structure of communication, exchange, and military power in ancient Eurasia.


Domesticated horse population structure, selection, and mtDNA geographic patterns


Open access Detecting the Population Structure and Scanning for Signatures of Selection in Horses (Equus caballus) From Whole-Genome Sequencing Data, by Zhang et al, Evolutionary Bioinformatics (2018) 14:1–9.

Abstract (emphasis mine):

Animal domestication gives rise to gradual changes at the genomic level through selection in populations. Selective sweeps have been traced in the genomes of many animal species, including humans, cattle, and dogs. However, little is known regarding positional candidate genes and genomic regions that exhibit signatures of selection in domestic horses. In addition, an understanding of the genetic processes underlying horse domestication, especially the origin of Chinese native populations, is still lacking. In our study, we generated whole genome sequences from 4 Chinese native horses and combined them with 48 publicly available full genome sequences, from which 15 341 213 high-quality unique single-nucleotide polymorphism variants were identified. Kazakh and Lichuan horses are 2 typical Asian native breeds that were formed in Kazakh or Northwest China and South China, respectively. We detected 1390 loss-of-function (LoF) variants in protein-coding genes, and gene ontology (GO) enrichment analysis revealed that some LoF-affected genes were overrepresented in GO terms related to the immune response. Bayesian clustering, distance analysis, and principal component analysis demonstrated that the population structure of these breeds largely reflected weak geographic patterns. Kazakh and Lichuan horses were assigned to the same lineage with other Asian native breeds, in agreement with previous studies on the genetic origin of Chinese domestic horses. We applied the composite likelihood ratio method to scan for genomic regions showing signals of recent selection in the horse genome. A total of 1052 genomic windows of 10 kB, corresponding to 933 distinct core regions, significantly exceeded neutral simulations. The GO enrichment analysis revealed that the genes under selective sweeps were overrepresented with GO terms, including “negative regulation of canonical Wnt signaling pathway,” “muscle contraction,” and “axon guidance.” Frequent exercise training in domestic horses may have resulted in changes in the expression of genes related to metabolism, muscle structure, and the nervous system.

Bayesian clustering output for 5 K values from K = 2 to K = 8 in 45 domestic horses. Each individual is represented by a vertical line, which is partitioned into colored segments that represent the proportion of the inferred K clusters.

Interesting excerpts:

Admixture proportions were assessed without user-defined population information to infer the presence of distinct populations among the samples (Figure 2). At K = 3 or K = 4, Franches-Montagnes and Arabian forms one unique cluster; at K = 5, Jeju pony forms one unique cluster. For other breeds, comparatively strong population structure exists among breeds, and they can be assigned to 2 (or 3) alternate clusters from K = 3 to K = 5 including group A (Duelmener, Fjord, Icelandic, Kazakh, Lichuan, and Mongolian) and group B (Hanoverian, Morgan, Quarter, Sorraia, and Standardbred). For group A, geographically this was unexpected, where Nordic breeds (Norwegian Fjord, Icelandic, and Duelmener) clustered with Asian breeds including the Mongolian. Previous results of mitochondrial DNA have revealed links between the Mongolian horse and breeds in Iceland, Scandinavia, Central Europe, and the British Isles. The Mongol horses are believed to have been originally imported from Russia subsequently became the basis for the Norwegian Fjord horse.31 At K = 6, Sorraia forms one unique cluster. The Sorraia horse has no long history as a domestic breed but is considered to be of a nearly ancestral type in the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula.32 However, our result did not support Sorraia as an independent ancestral type based on result from K = 2 to K = 5, and the unique cluster in K = 6 may be explained by the small population size and recently inbreeding programs. Genetic admixture of Morgan reveals that these breeds are currently or traditionally continually crossed with other breeds from K = 2 to K = 8. The Morgan horse has been a largely closed breed for 200 years or more but there has been some unreported crossbreeding in recent times.33

Principal component analysis results of all 48 horses. The x-axis denotes the value of PC1, whereas the y-axis denotes the value of PC2. Each dot in the figure represents one individual.

Bayesian clustering and PCA demonstrated the relationships among the horse breeds with weak geographic patterns. The tight grouping within most native breeds and looser grouping of individuals in admixed breeds have been reported previously in modern horses using data from a 54K SNP chip.33,34 Cluster analysis reveals that Arabian or Franches-Montagnes forms one unique cluster with relatively low K value, which is consistent with former study using 50K SNP chip 33,34 Interestingly, Standardbred forms a unique cluster with relatively high K value in this study, different from previous study.33 To date, no footprints are available to describe how the earliest domestic horses spread into China in ancient times. Our study found that Kazakh and Lichuan were assigned to the same lineage as other native Asian breeds, in agreement with previous studies on the origin of Chinese domestic horses.4,5,35,36 The strong genetic relationship between Asian native breeds and European native breeds have made it more difficult to understand the population history of the horse across Eurasia. Low levels of population differentiation observed between breeds might be explained by historical admixture. Unlike the domestic pig in China,8  we suggest that in China, Northern/Southern distinct groups could not be used to genetically distinct native Chinese horse breeds. We consider that during domestication process of horse, gene flow continued among Chinese-domesticated horses.

Open access Some maternal lineages of domestic horses may have origins in East Asia revealed with further evidence of mitochondrial genomes and HVR-1 sequences, by Ma et al., PeerJ (2018).


There are large populations of indigenous horse (Equus caballus) in China and some other parts of East Asia. However, their matrilineal genetic diversity and origin remained poorly understood. Using a combination of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and hypervariable region (HVR-1) sequences, we aim to investigate the origin of matrilineal inheritance in these domestic horses.

To investigate patterns of matrilineal inheritance in domestic horses, we conducted a phylogenetic study using 31 de novo mtDNA genomes together with 317 others from the GenBank. In terms of the updated phylogeny, a total of 5,180 horse mitochondrial HVR-1 sequences were analyzed.

Eighteen haplogroups (Aw-Rw) were uncovered from the analysis of the whole mitochondrial genomes. Most of which have a divergence time before the earliest domestication of wild horses (about 5,800 years ago) and during the Upper Paleolithic (35–10 KYA). The distribution of some haplogroups shows geographic patterns. The Lw haplogroup contained a significantly higher proportion of European horses than the horses from other regions, while haplogroups Jw, Rw, and some maternal lineages of Cw, have a higher frequency in the horses from East Asia. The 5,180 sequences of horse mitochondrial HVR-1 form nine major haplogroups (A-I). We revealed a corresponding relationship between the haplotypes of HVR-1 and those of whole mitochondrial DNA sequences. The data of the HVR-1 sequences also suggests that Jw, Rw, and some haplotypes of Cw may have originated in East Asia while Lw probably formed in Europe.

Our study supports the hypothesis of the multiple origins of the maternal lineage of domestic horses and some maternal lineages of domestic horses may have originated from East Asia.

Median joining network constructed based on the 247- bp HVR-1 sequences. Circles are proportional to the number of horses represented and a scale indicator (for node sizes) was provided. The length of lines represents the number of variants that separate nodes (some manual adjustment was made for visually good). In the circles, the colors of solid pie slices indicate studied horse populations: Orange, European horses; Blue, horses of West Asia; Light Green, horses from East Asia; Grey, ancient horses; Purper, Przewalskii horses.

Geographic distributions of horse mtDNA haplogroups

The analysis of geographic distribution of the mitochondrial genome haplogroups showed that horse populations in Europe or East Asia included all haplogroups defined from the mtDNA genome sequences. The lineage Fw comprised entirely of Przewalskii horses. The two haplogroups Iw and Lw displayed frequency peaks in Europe (14.08% and 37.32%, respectively) and a decline to the east (9.33% and 8.00% in the West Asia, and 6.45% and 12.90% in East Asia, respectively), especially for Lw, which contained the largest number of European horses (Table 2). However, an opposite distribution pattern was observed for haplogroups Aw, Hw, Jw, and Rw, which were harbored by more horses from East Asia than those from other regions. The proportions of horses from East Asia for the four haplogroups were 38%, 88%, 62%, and 54%, respectively.

Schematic phylogeny of mtDNAs genome from modern horses. This tree includes 348 sequences
and was rooted at a donkey (E. asinus) mitochondrial genome (not displayed). The topology was inferred by a beast approach, whereas a time divergence scale (based on rate substitutions) is shown on the bottom (age estimates were indicated with thousand years (KY)). The percentages on each branch represent Bayesian posterior credibility and the alphabets on the right represent the names of haplogroups. Additional details concerning ages were given in Tables S3 and S6.


Copenhagen group: Germanic and Balto-Slavic from Bell Beaker; Indo-Anatolian homeland in the Caucasus


Article of general knowledge in Der Spiegel, Invasion from the Steppe, with comments from Willerslev and Kristiansen, appeared roughly at the same time as the Damgaard et al. Nature (2018) and Science (2018) papers were published.

NOTE. You can read the article (in German) from Kristiansen’s account.

Excerpts translated from German (emphasis mine):

On the Y-DNA data

Particularly striking is the genetic signature from the steppe on the Y chromosome. From this the researchers conclude that the majority of migrants were males. Kristian Kristiansen, chief archaeologist in the Willerslev team, also has an idea of ​​how this could be explained: “Maybe it’s a rite of initiation, as it was spread among the steppe peoples,” he says.

The younger sons of the Yamnaya herders, who were excluded from the succession, had to seek their fortune on their own. As part of a solemn ritual, they threw themselves to wolves’ skins and then swarmed in warlike gangs to buy their own herds by cattle-stealing.


An ally that they seem to have brought from their homeland may also have contributed to the genetic success of the steppe people: Yersinia pestis, the plague bacterium. Its genes were found by researchers from the Max Planck Institute in Jena – and apparently it emerged exactly at the same time as the Yamnaya thrust began.

About the Hittites

(…) And yet now, where Asia and Europe meet geographically, there is no trace of the Yamnaya genes. The wander-loving people from the Pontic-Caspian steppe apparently found neither the way across the Balkans nor through the Caucasus mountains.

Now the researchers are puzzled: How can it be that a language goes on a walk, without the accompanying speakers coming along? Is it possible that the Indo-European seeped into Anatolia, much like the English language spread today without the need for Englishmen?

Archaeologist Kristiansen does not believe it. The researchers would find it hard to reconsider their theories, he says: “Especially the first chapter of the story has to be rewritten.”

He suspects that there was a predecessor of the Yamnaya culture, in which a kind of Proto-Proto-Indo-European was spoken. And he also has a suspicion, where this people could have drifted around: The Caucasus, says Kristiansen, was their homeland. But that remains unproven: “There’s another hole left,” he admits.

Spread of Indo-European languages

About the Botai

The study of [the Botai] genome revealed that it was genetically radically different from the members of the Yamnaya culture. The Botai, it seems, consistently avoided any contact with their neighbors – even though they must have crossed the territory of the Botai on their migratory waves.

Willerslev assumes that the art of keeping horses from the Yamnaya steppe nomads was adopted from these peoples, and then they developed it further. At some point, the Botai could then have itself become doomed by its groundbreaking innovation: While the descendants of the Yamnaya spread over half of Eurasia, the Botai disappeared without leaving a trace.

Even more interesting than the few words that set the Copenhagen group’s views for future papers (such as the expected Maykop samples with EHG ancestry) is the artistic sketch of the Indo-European migrations, probably advised by the group.

A simple map does not mean that all members of the Danish workgroup have changed their view completely, but I would say it is a great improvement over the previous “arrows of migration” (see here), and it is especially important that they show a more realistic picture of ancient migrations to general readers.

NOTE. Especially absurd is the identification of the ‘Celtic’ expansion with the first Bell Beakers in the British Isles (that idea is hold by few, such as Koch and Cunliffe in their “Celtic from the West” series). Also inexact, but not so worrying, are the identification of ‘Germanic’ in Germany/Únětice, or the spread of ‘Baltic’ and ‘Slavic’ directly to East Europe (i.e. I guess Mierzanowice/Nitra -> Trzciniec), which is probably driven by the need to assert a close connection with early Iranians and thus with their satemization trends.

Also, as we know now thanks to Narasimhan et al. (2018), there is no need to support that convoluted west arrow (representing CWC) from West Yamna to Central Europe, and then to East Yamna, since the Proto-Indo-Iranian community – represented by the Steppe MLBA cloud that later expanded Indo-Aryan and Iranian languages – has a more direct connection with the in situ admixture of Poltavka/Abashevo within the Volga-Ural region.

I think we can keep this from the article:

Their results, as well as those of the competition labs at Harvard University and Jena’s Max Planck Institute for the History of Humanity, leave no doubt: Yes, the legendary herdsmen in the Pontic-Caspian steppe really existed. They belonged to the so-called Yamnaya culture, and they spread, as linguists had predicted, in massive migrations towards Central Europe and India – a later triumph for linguists.

This can be added to a recent comment by de Barros Damgaard:

The project has been an extremely enriching and exciting process. We were able to direct many very different academic fields towards a single coherent approach. By asking the right questions, and keeping limitations of the data in mind, contextualizing, nuancing, and keeping dialogues open between scholars of radically different backgrounds and approaches, we have carved out a path for a new field of research. We have already seen too many papers come out in which models produced by geneticists working on their own have been accepted without vital input from other fields, and, at the other extreme, seen archaeologists opposing new studies built on archaeogenetic data, due to a lack of transparency between the fields.

Data on ancient DNA is astonishing for its ability to provide a fine-grained image of early human mobility, but it does stand on the shoulders of decades of work by scholars in other fields, from the time of excavation of human skeletons to interpreting the cultural, linguistic origins of the samples. This is how cold statistics are turned into history.


Earliest evidence for equid riding in the ancient Near East is a donkey from the Early Bronze Age

Open access Earliest evidence for equid bit wear in the ancient Near East: The “ass” from Early Bronze Age Tell eṣ-Ṣâfi/Gath, Israel, by Greenfield et al. PLOS One


Analysis of a sacrificed and interred domestic donkey from an Early Bronze Age (EB) IIIB (c. 2800–2600 BCE) domestic residential neighborhood at Tell eṣ-Ṣâfi/Gath, Israel, indicate the presence of bit wear on the Lower Premolar 2 (LPM2). This is the earliest evidence for the use of a bit among early domestic equids, and in particular donkeys, in the Near East. The mesial enamel surfaces on both the right and left LPM2 of the particular donkey in question are slightly worn in a fashion that suggests that a dental bit (metal, bone, wood, etc.) was used to control the animal. Given the secure chronological context of the burial (beneath the floor of an EB IIIB house), it is suggested that this animal provides the earliest evidence for the use of a bit on an early domestic equid from the Near East.

Interesting excerpts:

In contrast to what is known about the use of donkeys for transportation, relatively little is known about their use for riding during this early period [37]. Riding is possible, but fast riding is difficult without some kind of bridle with reins to grasp. Thus, the development of the bit becomes an essential part of the mechanism to control and ride an equid, whether horse, donkey or otherwise [38–41]. While some have tried to argue based on cave art for the presence of bridles (including cheek straps and potentially bits) on equids as far back as the Upper Palaeolithic [42, 43], this perspective has not been accepted [44, 45]. Instead, the weight of the evidence for bridles points toward the Eneolithic and Bronze Age of Kazakhstan and Russia, c. 3500 BCE for horses, not donkeys [38, 40, 46–50]. But, horses are not the earliest domestic equids to appear in the Near East. This role is reserved for the ass/donkey [20, 32, 51].

Photograph of donkey burial from the E5c Stratum of Area E at Tell eṣ-Ṣâfi/Gath in Area E as it was being uncovered; facing north.

The earliest unambiguous evidence for bridles and bits in equids in the Near East appear only in the Middle Bronze Age [52, 62, 63], and horses become common only in cuneiform texts and the archaeological record after the turn of the second millennium BC [44]. For example, at the Middle Bronze Age site of Tel Haror, a metal bit was found associated with a donkey burial [63].

Beginning in the Middle Bronze Age, there is a variety of sources that demonstrate that asses were being ridden. In fact, they seem to be the preferred animal ridden for elites in the Early and Middle Bronze Age of Mesopotamia. The earliest clear association of asses being ridden by elites comes from the Old Babylonian period (MBA, 18th century BCE—the Kings of Mari, Syria) [64]. Similarly, by the beginning of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, various texts and iconographic images (e.g. the stela of Serabit el-Khadem) from Egypt and petroglyphs from southern Sinai unambiguously depict and/or describe elites riding asses [5, 65, 66]. The later biblical narrative depicts donkeys carrying the biblical Patriarchs (Abraham), various leaders (such as Saul before he became king), prophets, and judges of Israel [16, 67, 68].

Horses became the standard royal riding animal during the Late Bronze and Iron Ages as they became more prevalent. In later periods, donkeys became associated with humility and the lower classes, and leaders emanating from it (e.g. Jesus).

These finds suggest that bit use on donkeys was already present in the early to mid-3rd millennium BCE, long before the appearance of horses in the ancient Near East. Thus, the appearance of bit use in donkeys in the ancient Near East is not connected to appearance of the horse, contrary to previous suggestions (as already noted by [62]). As such, the impact of the domestic donkey on the cultures of this region and the evolution of early complex societies cannot be underestimated. As with plant and animal domestication, the use of donkeys created a surplus of human labor that allowed for the easy transport of people and goods across the entire Near East. These changes continue to permeate the economic, social, and political aspects of even modern life in many third world countries [3, 8, 9, 93, 94].

So, the first case of equid riding in the Near East, near two of the cradles of civilization (Sumeria and Egypt), is a donkey from the early third millennium BC. Not much in favour of horse domestication (and still less for horse riding) expanding from Norh Iran or the Southern Caucasus to the north.

We already know about domesticated animals in Eneolithic steppe cultures, and there is a clear connection between the appearance of horse riding in Khvalynsk in the early 5th millennium and the expansion of this culture, including Suvorovo-Novodanilovka chiefs as Proto-Anatolians via the Balkans in the second half of the 5th millennium BC, and of Late Proto-Indo-Europeans with late Khvalynsk/Yamna in the late 4th millennium BC.

NOTE. The recent papers of the Copenhagen group made yet another controversial interpretation of genomic findings (see here): they support multiple simultaneous origins for horse-riding technique, in Khvalynsk and Botai, based on the lack of genetic connection between both human populations, with which I can’t agree. Based on the similar time of appearance and the geographic proximity, I think the most likely explanation is expansion of the technique from one to the other, probably – as supported by Anthony’s investigation – from Khvalynsk to neighbouring cultures.