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).
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).
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!
About two months ago I stumbled upon a gem in archaeological studies related to Proto-Indo-Europeans, the book О скипетрах, о лошадях, о войне: этюды в защиту миграционной концепции М.Гимбутас (On sceptres, on horses, on war: Studies in defence of M. Gimbutas’ migration concepts), 2007, by V. A. Dergachev, from the Institute of Cultural Heritage of the Moldavian Republic.
Dergachev’s work dedicates 488 pages to a very specific Final Neolithic-Eneolithic period in the Pontic-Caspian steppe, and the most relevant parts of the book concern the nature and expansion of horses and horse domestication, horse-head scepters, and other horse-related symbology – arguably the most relevant cultural signs associated with Proto-Indo-European speakers in this period.
I haven’t had enough time to read the whole book, but I have read with interest certain important chapters.
The genetic and chronological relationship of horse-head pommel-scepters is classified with incredible detail, to the extent that one could divide subregions among those cultures using them.
Simplified conclusions of this section include (emphasis mine):
The [horse-head pommel-]scepters arose originally in the depth of the Khvalynsk culture. Following the now well-known finds, they are definitely related to those of the Middle Volga group.
In their next modifications, these scepters continued to evolve and develop into the area of the Khvalynsk culture in its latest stages, and possibly later.
Simultaneously, with the same modifications, these scepters “are introduced” into common usage in the Novodanilovka culture, which in its spread by one wing was in contact and interspersed immediately with the area of Khvalynsk remains; and on the other hand, far in the south – in the Pre-Kuban and Ciscaucasian regions – within the range of the Domaikopska culture; and in the west – in the Carpathian – Post-Kuban – with the areas of early agricultural cultures Cucuteni A – Trypillia B1, Gumelnița-Karanovo VI.
The simultaneous presence in the areas of the Ciscaucasian, Carpatho-Danubian, and especially Novodinilovka cultures, whose carriers continue the Khvalynian traditions of making stone scepters, and the scepters themselves (in their non-functional implication in the local cultural environment), all definitely allow us to view these findings as imported Novodanilovka objects.
Cultural relevance of scepters
The text goes on to make an international comparison of scepters and their relevance as a cultural phenomenon, with its strong symbolic functions as divine object, its use in times of peace, in times of war, and in a system of ritual power.
Especially interesting is the section dedicated to Agamemnon’s scepter in the Iliad, one of the oldest Indo-European epics. Here is an excerpt from Illiad II.100-110 (see here the Greek version) with the scepter’s human and divine genealogy:
Then among them lord Agamemnon uprose, bearing in his hands the sceptre which Hephaestus had wrought with toil. Hephaestus gave it to king Zeus, son of Cronos, and Zeus gave it to the messenger Argeïphontes; and Hermes, the lord, gave it to Pelops, driver of horses, and Pelops in turn gave it to Atreus, shepherd of the host; and Atreus at his death left it to Thyestes, rich in flocks, and Thyestes again left it to Agamemnon to bear, that so he might be lord of many isles and of all Argos.
About the horse
His studies on horse remains show an interesting, detailed quantitative and statistical approach to the importance and (cultural and chronological) origin of horses (and likely horse domestication) in each culture.
Although the part on horse remains is probably a bit outdated today, after many recent studies of Eneolithic steppe sites (see here one example), it still shows the relative distribution of horse bone remains among different steppe cultures, which is probably similar to what could be reported today:
Even more interesting is the relationship of the distribution of horse remains with archaeological complexes and horse-related symbols. Some excerpts from the conclusions of this section:
Accounting and analysis of archeo-zoological and archaeological data proper for a horse for a vast area from the Tisza and the Middle Danube to the Caucasus and the Urals (which includes the main cultures of the western agricultural, Caucasian, and Eastern European cultural zones) clearly points to the eastern cultural zone as a zone of the originally the most important social significance of a horse as the only possible zone of the earliest domestication, horseback riding and all-round use of a horse. In relation to the eastern, the western land – the ancient Carpatho-Danubian or the Caucasian cultural zones – are secondary and subordinate to the first on the phenomenon under consideration.
The first quantitative leap in the manifestation of the remnants of a horse, marking itself and the first qualitative changes in the social status of this animal, is due mainly to the Middle Volga culture of the developed Neolithic of the Middle Volga region (in part, the Southwest Urals), which, accordingly, determine the cultural context, time and geographic region – or, the initial, single and main epicenter of the process of taming and domestication of a horse.
On the one hand, the subsequent substantial increase in the number of horse remnants, and, on the other, the wide inclusion of the horse in cults, rituals, funerary rituals (horse pendants, ornamented metacarpus, horse bones, sacrificial altars) in the Samara culture of the Early Eneolithic of the same region definitely indicates the continuing increase in the social significance of this species of animal, which was most likely expressed in the final design of a specialized horse breeding culture and, accordingly, in a wide range of applications using a horse for riding. At the same time, we can observe the beginning of the transfer of the already domesticated horse from the original historical and geographic epicenter to other cultures of the eastern cultural zone and, in part, the cultures closest to the periphery of this zone, into the western agricultural zone (Bolgrad-Aldeni P, Pre-CuCuteni-Trypillya A) .
Middle Eneolithic – early stages. One of the leading places in the remnants of the horse is in the Middle Volga region, the Khvalynsk culture. Genetically related to the Samara, the Khvalynsk I culture preserves the traditions of the ritual, cultural meaning, the treatment of the image of a horse in funerals (altars, horse bones, funerary rituals). But, At the same time, it is in this precise culture that the image of the horse, included in the social symbolism (horse-head pommel-scepter), for the first time it acquires a special, maximum social significance. That is why the appearance and subsequent widespread distribution of the social symbols in Novodanilovka-type objects can definitely be considered as another qualitative leap in the social significance of a horse – its use for military purposes for close and distant expeditions. And such an interpretation is fully confirmed from the analysis of Novodanilovka-type objects, which is the subject of discussion.
Judging by the osteological data and the typological evolution of the horse-head scepters, the Khvalynian culture and remains of the Novodanilovka type are already associated with the relatively widespread and intensive findings of domesticated horses in various areas of the eastern cultural zone (semi-desert regions of the Lower Volga and the Caspian region – Khvalynsk culture, forest-steppe and steppe from the Volga to the Dnieper – Sredni Stog, Repin cultures), and the western – agricultural (Gumelnitsa, Cucuteni A-Tripolye Bl), and the Caucasus (Pre-Maykop) zones, where, however, the horse played a very modest role.
From the functional point of view, according to the sum of the data, there is no reason to doubt that in the eastern zone the horse is already present in the Late Neolithic period. Since its domestication and the emergence of a specialized horse breeding, it has been also widely used for meat, milk and dairy products (including the traditional hippace tradition of the later Scythians), and since the beginning of the early Eneolithic for transport and for riding purposes. Another thing is the horse as a means of war, a means of distant travel and expansion. The beginning of the use of a horse for these purposes, in the opinion of the author, is determined by the appearance of social symbolism in the form of horse-head scepters, and is most fully reflected in the memories of the Khvalynsk culture and, in particular, the Novodanilovka type. Concerning western or Caucasian cultural zones related to Khvalynsk, the horse is thought to have been linked to the eastern region, used mainly for riding, as a means of transport and for communication, which, however, does not exclude its use for meat.
These are the main conclusions-interpretations, suggesting the analysis and archaeological and other sources containing information about the horse. And as for our pommel-scepters, then, as can be seen from these sources, the main thing is that the culture of the Middle Volga region, according to all the data, definitely accumulates in itself the longest traditions associated with the gradual increase of social significance of the horse. And if so, this circumstance motivates the possibility or necessity of appearing in the environment of the bearers of this culture of unique signs-symbols that carry within themselves or reflect the image of this animal as an extremely significant social reality. The revealed and characterized quality, as a matter of fact, fill or open by themselves the hypothetical elements we have previously identified, the meanings of that particularity, folded in the social sign-symbol, in our case – the horse-head-shaped scepter.
The relevance of Dergachev’s work
As you certainly know by now if you are a usual reader of this blog, there were two other seminal publications that same year correcting and expanding Gimbutas’ model:
Each one of these works taken independently (especially the books) may give a different version of Proto-Indo-European migrations; Anthony and Dergachev are heirs of Gimbutas’ simplistic kurgan-based model, and of other previous, now rejected ideas, and they reflect them whenever they don’t deal with first-hand investigation (and even sometimes when interpreting their own data). Taken together – and especially in combination with recent genetic studies – , though, they describe a clearer, solider model of how Proto-Indo-Europeans developed and expanded.
Anthony’s publication overshadowed the importance of Dergachev’s work for the English-speaking world – and by extension for the rest of us. However, V. A. Dergachev’s updated study of his previous work on steppe cultures shows the right, thorough, and diligent way of describing the expansion of early Khvalynsk-Novodanilovka chieftains with the horse and horse symbolism into the Caucasus and the Lower Danube (like the seminal work of Harrison & Heyd 2007 described the expansion of Yamna settlers with East Bell Beakers, culturally opposed to Corded Ware and to the Proto-Beakers). On the other hand, Anthony’s broad-brush, superficial description of thousands of years of potential Indo-European-speaking peoples gave a migration picture that – although generally right (like radiocarbon-based Iberian origin of the Bell Beaker culture was right) – was bound to be wrong in some essential details, as we are seeing in archaeology and genetics.
NOTE. As I have said before, Anthony’s interpretations of Sredni Stog culture representing a sort of ‘peasants’ under the rule of Novodanilovka chiefs was based on old theories of Telegin, who changed his mind – as did the rest of the Russian school well before the publication of Dergachev’s book, considering both as distinct cultural phenomena. Anthony selected the old interpretation, not to follow a Gimbutas / Kristiansen model of Sredni Stog being Indo-European and expanding with GAC into Corded Ware (because, for him, Corded Ware peoples were originally non-Indo-European speakers): he seems to have done it to prove that Proto-Anatolian traveled indeed through the North Pontic area, i.e. to avoid the regional ‘gap’ in the maps, if you like. Then with the expansion of Repin over the area, Sredni Stog peoples would have been absorbed. With genetic investigation, as we know, and with this kind of detailed archaeological studies, the traditional preference for “large and early” IE territories – proper of the mid-20th century – are no longer necessary.
We already had in 2016 a Samara hunter-gatherer sample dated ca. 5600 BC, representative of EHG ancestry, of haplogroup R1b1a. We also had three early Khvalynsk samples from Samara Eneolithic dated ca. 4600 BC, with a drift towards (what we believe now is) a population from the Caucasus, showing haplogroups Q1a, R1a1(xM198), and R1b1a, the last one described in its paper as from a high-status burial, similar to high-status individuals buried under kurgans in later Yamna graves (of R1b-L23 lineages), and therefore likely a founder of an elite group of patrilineally-related families, while the R1a1 sample showed scarce decoration, and does not belong to the M417 lineage expanded later in Sredni Stog or Corded Ware.
In 2017 we knew of the Ukraine_Eneolithic sample I6561, from Alexandria, of a precise subclade (L657) of haplogroup R1a-Z93, dated ca. 4000 BC, and likely from the Sredni Stog (or maybe Kvitjana) culture. This sample alone makes it quite likely that the expansion of R1a-Z645 subclades happened earlier than expected, and that it was associated with movements along forest-steppe cultures, most likely along the Upper Dniester or Dnieper-Dniester corridor up to the Forest Zone.
We have now confirmation that Khvalynsk samples from the Yekaterinovka Cape settlement ca. 4250-4000 BC were reported by a genetic lab (to the archaeological team responsible) as being of R1b-L23 subclades, although the precise clades (reported as P312 and U106) are possibly not accurate.
NOTE. Curiously enough, and quite revealing for the close relationship of scepters to the ritual source of power for Khvalynsk chieftains (political and/or religious leaders), the scepter found in the elite burial 45 of the Ekaterinovka cape (a riverine settlement) shows a unique zoomorphic carving, possibly resembling a toothed fish or reptile, rather than the most common horse-related motifs of the time.
With Wang et al. (2018), a real game-changer in the Khvalynsk – Sredni Stog (and also in the Yamna/Bell Beaker – Corded Ware) opposition, we also know that two Steppe Eneolithic samples from the Northern Caucasus Piedmont, dated ca. 4300-4100 BC, show haplogroup R1b1. Although its direct connection to the expansion of early Khvalynsk with horse-related symbolism is not clear from the archaeological information shared (none), this is what the paper has to say about them:
The two distinct clusters are already visible in the oldest individuals of our temporal transect, dated to the Eneolithic period (~6300-6100 yBP/4300-4100 calBCE). Three individuals from the sites of Progress 2 and Vonjuchka 1 in the North Caucasus piedmont steppe (‘Eneolithic steppe’), which harbor Eastern and Caucasian hunter-gatherer related ancestry (EHG and CHG, respectively), are genetically very similar to Eneolithic individuals from Khalynsk II and the Samara region19, 27. This extends the cline of dilution of EHG ancestry via CHG/Iranian-like ancestry to sites immediately north of the Caucasus foothills.
In contrast, the oldest individuals from the northern mountain flank itself, which are three first degree-related individuals from the Unakozovskaya cave associated with the Darkveti-Meshoko Eneolithic culture (analysis label ‘Eneolithic Caucasus’) show mixed ancestry mostly derived from sources related to the Anatolian Neolithic (orange) and CHG/Iran Neolithic (green) in the ADMIXTURE plot (Fig. 2C). While similar ancestry profiles have been reported for Anatolian and Armenian Chalcolithic and Bronze Age individuals20, 23, this result suggests the presence of the mixed Anatolian/Iranian/CHG related ancestry north of the Great Caucasus Range as early as ~6500 years ago.
During the late 5th millennium BC, cultural groups of the Eneolithic occupied the northern circumpontic area and the areas between the North Caucasus and the Lower Volga. For the first time, individual inhumations were placed below low burial mounds (Rassamakin, 2011). During the 4th millennium BC, the area split into two cultural spheres. In the northern steppe area communities continued with the burial practice of crouched inhumations below low mounds, with this culturally transforming into the early Pit Grave culture. In contrast, in the Caucasian foothill zone and the neighbouring steppe, the Majkop-Novosvobodnaya culture emerged (Kohl and Trifonov, 2014). Similarly, during the 3rd millennium BC, two cultural spheres influenced the area: The North Caucasian Culture dominated the Caucasian foothills for the next five centuries, while in the steppe area between the Lower Don and the Caucasus, regional groups of the Catacomb Culture existed side-by-side.
Burials of the Eneolithic epoch (late 5th millennium BC)
The oldest group of individuals with trepanations are found in the North Caucasian variant of the late circumpontic Eneolithic and date to the last third of the 5th millennium BC (Korenevsky, 2012). Burials of this epoch are inhumations in shallow pits, chiefly without burial goods, but covered with large quantities of red ochre. Of special interest is a collective burial of seven individuals from VP 1/12, who were interred together in a secondary burial ritual. The sites of Tuzluki, Mukhin, Voinuchka, Progress, and Sengileevskii all belong to this period.
Without the datasets to test different models, you can only imagine what is happening with the processed, secondary data we have. The position of Eneolithic Steppe cluster in the PCA (probably Khvalynsk-related peoples already influenced by the absorbed, previous Caucasus population), as well as other potential Caucasus groups intermediate between Steppe Maykop and Caucasus Maykop (as suggested by other ancient and modern Caucasus samples), may indicate that Yamna is between Khvalynsk and such intermediate Caucasus populations (as the source of the additional CHG-related ancestry) and – as the paper itself states – that it also received additional EEF contribution, probably from the western cultures absorbed during these Khvalynsk-Novodanilovka migrations (or later during Khvalynsk/Repin migrations).
Also interpreted in light of these early Khvalynsk-Novodanilovka migrations of horse riding chieftains (and their close contacts with the Caucasus), you can clearly see where the similar CHG-like contribution to Ukraine Eneolithic and other North Pontic forest-steppe cultures (which later contributed to Proto-Corded Ware peoples) must have come from. The simplistically reported proportions of EHG:CHG:EEF ancestry might be similar in many of these groups, but the precise origin and evolution of such ancestral components is certainly not the same: statistical methods will eventually show this, when (and if) we have many more samples, but for the moment Y-DNA is the most obvious indicator of such differences.
What lies between the formation of that early Eneolithic cultural-historical community, and what we see in archaeology and genetics in Middle and Late Eneolithic steppe cultures, is the radical differentiation of western (Ukraine Eneolithic, mainly forest-steppe) and eastern (Samara and Khvalynsk/Repin, mainly steppe) cultures and peoples, i.e. precisely the period of differentiation of an eastern, Proto-Indo-Hittite-speaking early Khvalynsk community (that expanded with the horse and horse-related symbols) from a western, probably Early Proto-Uralic speaking community of the North Pontic forest-steppe cultural area.
NOTE. I am not against a Neolithic ‘steppe’ language. But this steppe language was spoken before and/or during the first Neolithisation wave, and should be associated with Indo-Uralic. If there was no Indo-Uralic language, then some communities would have developed Early Proto-Indo-European and Early Proto-Uralic side by side, in close contact to allow for dozens of loanwords or wanderwords to be dated to this period (where, simplistically, PIH *H corresponds to EPU *k, with some exceptions).
The convergence that we see in PCA and Admixture of Yamna and the earliest Baltic LN / Corded Ware ‘outlier’ samples (if not directly related exogamy of some Baltic LN/CWC groups with Yamna migrants, e.g. those along the Prut), must be traced back to the period of genetic drift that began precisely with these Khvalynsk-Novodanilovka expansions, also closely associated with populations of the Caucasus, thus bringing North Pontic forest-steppe cultures (probably behind Proto-Corded Ware peoples) nearer to Khvalynsk, and both by extension to Yamna.
Steppe Eneolithic peoples were thus no different to other previous and posterior expanding groups, and ancestry is going to be similar for people living in neighbouring regions, so Y-DNA will remain the essential tool to distinguish different peoples (see here a summary of Proto-Indo-Europeans expanding R1b-L23).
We are nevertheless still seeing “R1b zombies” (a quite appropriate name I read on Anthrogenica) still arguing for a Western European origin of R1b-L23 based on EEF-like ancestry and few steppe-related contribution found in Iberian Bell Beakers (read what David Reich has to say on this question); and “OIT zombies” still arguing for IVC representing Proto-Indo-European, based on Iran_N ancestry and the minimal steppe ancestry-related impact on certain ancient Asian cultures, now partly helped by “Caucasus homeland zombies” with the new PIE=CHG model; apart from many other pet theory zombies rising occasionally from their graves here and there. Let’s hope that this virus of the undead theories does not spread too strongly to the R1a-Indo-European association, when the official data on Khvalynsk, West Yamna, and Yamna Hungary come out and show that they were dominated by R1b-L23 lineages.
Because we need to explore in detail the continuation of Khvalynsk-related (potential Proto-Anatolian) cultures in the Lower Danube and the Balkans, e.g. from Cernavoda I to Cernavoda III, then maybe to Ezero, and then to Troy; as well as the specific areas of Late Indo-European expansions associated with Early Yamna settlers turning into Bell Beakers, Balkan EBA, and Steppe MLBA-associated cultures. There is a lot of work to do on proper definition of Bronze Age cultures and their potential dialects, as well as convergence and divergence trends, and not only of Indo-European, but also of Uralic-speaking communities derived from Corded Ware cultures.
If we let the narratives of the 2000s in Genetics (in combination with the 1960s in Archaeology) dominate the conversation, then a lot of time will be absurdly lost until reality imposes itself. And it will.
EDIT (2 JUL 2018): Some sentences corrected, and some information added to the original post.
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.
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 . 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].
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 . For example, at the Middle Bronze Age site of Tel Haror, a metal bit was found associated with a donkey burial .
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) . 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 ). 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.
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.
The Eneolithic Botai culture of the Central Asian steppes provides the earliest archaeological evidence for horse husbandry, ~5,500 ya, but the exact nature of early horse domestication remains controversial. We generated 42 ancient horse genomes, including 20 from Botai. Compared to 46 published ancient and modern horse genomes, our data indicate that Przewalski’s horses are the feral descendants of horses herded at Botai and not truly wild horses. All domestic horses dated from ~4,000 ya to present only show ~2.7% of Botai-related ancestry. This indicates that a massive genomic turnover underpins the expansion of the horse stock that gave rise to modern domesticates, which coincides with large-scale human population expansions during the Early Bronze Age.
That none of the domesticates sampled in the last ~4,000 years descend from the horses first herded at Botai entails another major implication. It suggests that during the 3rd Mill BCE at the latest, another unrelated group of horses became the source of all domestic populations that expanded thereafter. This is compatible with two scenarios. First, Botai-type horses experienced massive introgression capture (22) from a population of wild horses until the Botai ancestry was almost completely replaced. Alternatively, horses were successfully domesticated in a second domestication center and incorporated minute amounts of Botai ancestry during their expansion. We cannot identify the locus of this hypothetic center due to a temporal gap in our dataset throughout the 3rd Mill BCE. However, that the DOM2 earliest member was excavated in Hungary adds Eastern Europe to other candidates already suggested, including the Pontic-Caspian steppe (2), Eastern Anatolia (23), Iberia (24), Western Iran and the Levant (25). Notwithstanding the process underlying the genomic turnover observed, the clustering of ~4,023-3,574 year-old specimens from Russia, Romania and Georgia within DOM2 suggests that this clade already expanded throughout the steppes and Europe at the transition between the 3rd and 2nd Mill BCE, in line with the demographic expansion at ~4,500 ya recovered in mitochondrial Bayesian Skylines (fig. S14).
This study shows that the horses exploited by the Botai people later became the feral PH. Early domestication most likely followed the ‘prey pathway’ whereby a hunting relationship was intensified until reaching concern for future progeny through husbandry, exploitation of milk and harnessing (7). Other horses, however, were the main source of domestic stock over the last ~4,000 years or more. Ancient human genomics (26) has revealed considerable human migrations ~5,000 ya involving “Yamnaya” culture pastoralists of the Pontic-Caspian steppe. This expansion might be associated with the genomic turnover identified in horses, especially if Botai horses were best suited to localized pastoral activity than to long distance travel and warfare. Future work must focus on identifying the main source of the domestic horse stock and investigating how the multiple human cultures managed the available genetic variation to forge the many horse types known in history.