My Kingdom For a Horse

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Domesticated animals deserve a lot of praise for humanity’s advancements over thousands of years.

A lot of that credit goes to horses, which have contributed to transport, hunting and warfare.

Historians lately have been investigating the origins of this human-horse bond. Now, a new genetic study has pinpointed the when and where of this domestication.

Researchers believe that humans began to harness the power of horses around 2200 BCE, about 1,000 years later than previously believed, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

Writing in the journal Nature, scientists analyzed DNA from 475 ancient horse genomes and 77 modern breeds, uncovering that the domestication of modern horses traces back to the Pontic-Caspian steppe.

This region, stretching across modern-day Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, saw the rise of a dominant horse lineage around 4,200 years ago. Within just a few centuries, these horses had spread across Eurasia, transforming from local assets to global game-changers.

“We saw this genetic type spreading almost everywhere in Eurasia – clearly this horse type that was local became global very fast,” co-author Ludovic Orlando told the Associated Press.

Orlando and his colleagues explained that the findings challenge previous, long-held theories about the origin of equine domestication.

Previously, scholars suggested the Botai people of what is now Kazakhstan first domesticated horses around 3500 BCE for meat and milk. However, this practice did not endure, and horses continued to roam wild.

The new findings suggest it was the Bronze Age Sintashta culture that made successful strides in domesticating the animals for mobility around 2200 BCE, propelling human societies into a new era of expansion and connectivity.

The DNA analysis also disputes last year’s study that showed the Yamnaya people, known for their migrations across Europe and Asia around 3300 BCE, were the first horse riders.

Meanwhile, the new genetic evidence also underscores changes in the horse genome, including a mutation that likely made them easier to ride. The domestication process led to reduced genetic diversity and shorter generational intervals, from seven years to four, indicating intensified human-directed breeding.

“Humans changed the horse genome stunningly quickly, perhaps because we already had experience dealing with animals,” paleogeneticist Laurent Frantz, who was not involved in the study, told AP. “It shows the special place of horses in human societies.”

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