Ancient nomads from the Eurasian Steppe may have been the earliest people to ride horses, new archaeological evidence suggests. And the equestrian practice could have given them a competitive advantage as they galloped across Europe.
Twenty-four ancient skeletons from graves in Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria show signs of physical stress caused by horseback riding. Most of the skeletons are of people from the nomadic Yamnaya culture, which spread westward from the grasslands of eastern Europe about 5,500 years ago.
Five Yamnaya individuals in particular, from graves dated to between 4,500 and 5,000 years old, show multiple signs that they frequently rode horses—damage to their lower vertebrae, for example, as well as thickening of their pelvic bones and ridges on their femurs. Similar signs are also seen in four individuals thought to have been from cultures influenced by the Yamnaya.
The remains are the earliest evidence for horseback riding ever found, although the researchers caution the Yamnaya may not have been the very first to mount horses.
“It might be possible that these are not the earliest riders,” says archaeologist Volker Heyd of the University of Helsinki, the senior author of a new study about the skeletons published in Scientific Advances. “But this is the best evidence for horseback riding so far.”
Tens of thousands of distinctive burial mounds called kurgans are spread throughout southeastern Europe. The skeletons in the study come from among 217 that were unearthed from these and other graves by archaeological teams between 2019 and 2022.
The high proportion of likely riders among the skeletons suggests that horseback riding was a common activity for some people in southeastern Europe as early as 5,000 years ago, says archaeologist Martin Trautmann, a researcher at the University of Helsinki and the lead author of the study. “It’s quite probable that horse riding was already established by the time that we’ve found the earliest evidence for it,” he says.
The authors of the study think it is unlikely that the Yamnaya used horses in warfare, as has been previously claimed, but they write that riding horses “would have contributed substantially to the overall success of pastoral Yamnaya society.”
The new study bridges a gap between the domestication of horses for milk and meat, which scientists think occurred about 5,500 years ago, and the use of horses for pulling war chariots around 4,500 years ago. Heyd thinks that the Yamnaya’s horses would have been too skittish for combat and that horses seen pulling chariots in carvings from the second millennium B.C. were likely bred for war.
“The horse breed that we see from 2000 B.C. onwards may have been genetically selected for being more courageous and more warlike,” he says.
Trautmann adds that Yamnaya horses were smaller than modern horses. “They had a broad, barrel-like chest, with short and stocky legs, very much like Przewalski’s horses,” he says.
Early riding gear was different, too. Heyd says that archaeological evidence of horse gear is sparse because it was made from perishable materials. But early riders likely placed simple mats on the backs of horses rather than saddles—which wouldn’t be invented until after 1000 B.C., while stirrups came even later.
Heyd also notes that ancient portrayals of horse riders from Egypt and Mesopotamia show them sitting much further back than riders today, with long reins attached to a harness on the horse’s head.
“I think this is a feature of Bronze Age horse riding,” he says. “You had to sit at the very back of the horse in order to keep upright and to guide the animal.”
End of the trail
Archaeologist Kristian Kristiansen of the University of Gothenburg, who wasn’t involved in the study, says the new research helps resolve decades of debate about whether the Yamnaya rode horses or only herded them for their milk and meat. “This is a breakthrough after a long stalemate,” he says.
Kristiansen, the editor of a new book about the Yamnaya, says they probably started riding horses to better manage their herds of cattle, sheep, goats, and other horses.
While scholars once explained the Yamnaya’s rapid expansion as a result of military conquest by mounted warriors, more recent studies suggest factors like their increased mobility may have had more influence. Anthropologist James Mallory, a professor emeritus at Queens University Belfast who also wasn’t involved, says the study is “rightfully cautious” of the role of Yamnaya horses in warfare. “But this debate is far from closed.”
Whether or not the Yamnaya used horses for fighting, their ability to traverse great distances may have been played a role in the mark they left on Europe’s languages. The Yamnaya language is believed to have shaped the vocabulary and grammar of the entire Indo-European language family, which includes Greek and Latin as well as the Germanic, Slavic, and Celtic languages.
Linguists think similarities in certain ancient words, including “mother” and “father,” originated with a language spoken by the Yamnaya that scholars have reconstructed and call Proto-Indo-European. Another reconstructed word from this language is éḱwos, which would become equus, the Latin word for “horse.”