The team from the University of Helsinki (UH) in Finland and Hartwick College in New York state examined more than 200 Yamnaya individuals who date back to 3000 B.C. or the beginning of the Bronze Age. Originally hailing from the region around Ukraine and western Russia, the Yamnaya expanded across Europe.
The group's success purportedly stemmed from the fresh domestication of horses, which served a two-fold purpose. First, it permitted carts filled with food, weapons and other supplies to be transported long distances. Second, it allowed for more efficient herding of livestock.
The researchers analyzed 39 skeletons of individuals belonging to the Yamnaya that were found in kurgans – prehistoric burial mounds found in Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary. Of the 39 remains, they recognized five persons who had the most "reliable" proof of being horseback riders. This discovery serves as the first evidence of people actually mounting their horses, the researchers said.
Close examination of their bones showed all had at least four out of six skeletal traits which indicated "horsemanship syndrome." One such trait was stress reactions on the pelvis and femur, most probably a consequence of gripping to the side of the horse using the lower body and thigh muscles. Another trait was "stress-induced vertebral degeneration", or signs of vertical impact stress usually suffered by riders.
One poor rider suffered injuries to the sacral vertebrae – a huge, triangular-shaped bone located just above the tailbone – which the researchers attributed to "a forceful fall on the backside."
According to the researchers, later descriptions of Bronze Age riders typically show a position called "chair seat" which is a style mostly used when riding without a padded saddle or stirrups to avoid discomfort to horse and rider. With the subsequent introduction of shaped and padded supporting saddles and stirrups, other riding styles including the split seat, dressage seat and hunt seat developed.
"The osteological features described here fit well with this riding style and may have been typical for the earliest period of horsemanship," they wrote. "It is physically demanding, with the legs exerting constant pressure to cling to the mount’s back and needs continual balancing, but would not preclude activities such as combat or the handling of herd animals.
Further scrutiny done by lead researcher Martin Traumann and his colleagues discovered that 24 of the 39 remains they examined had at least half of the traits of horsemanship syndrome. This, according to them, give a strong case that horseback riding was already a normal activity for the Yamnaya people as early as 3,000 years ago.
"A greater anxiety response in early Yamnaya horses probably made them even more likely to 'bolt' from violent or loud actions. The military benefit of equestrianism may therefore have been limited, but nevertheless, rapid transport to and away from the side of raids would have been an advantage," the researchers said.
According to Trautmann hopping on a horse's back may have been one small step for man 5,000 years ago, but a giant leap for mankind. He added that their findings indicate the Yamnaya people may have been ancient cowboys or the first people to herd livestock on horseback. (Related: Fresh finds from a cave in Mexico suggest humans populated North America earlier than currently known, rewriting the prehistoric first settlers.)
UH researcher and study co-author Volker Heyd, said the Yamnaya people were able to enhance their mobility, which enabled them to keep vast herds of cattle and sheep and guide them on horseback.
Hartwick researcher and co-author David Anthony agreed, citing three benefits of horsemanship for the Yamnaya.
First, it made herding cattle and sheep three times more efficient. Second, it changed the human conception of distance. Lastly, it served as an aid in warfare.
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