Genetic analysis shows that the ancestors of all modern horses lived in the Western Eurasian steppes more than 4,000 years ago.
Archaeologists have used ancient DNA samples to identify the genetic homeland of modern horses, where the animals were first domesticated around 4,200 years ago. According to a study published in Nature on 20 October1, modern domestic horses probably originated on the steppes around the Volga and Don rivers, now part of Russia, before spreading across Eurasia, ultimately replacing all pre-existing horse lineages.
“This study has solved a massive mystery, and also fundamentally altered our view of some of the most significant human migrations in prehistory,” says Alan Outram, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Exeter, UK, and a co-author of the work.
Horses shaped much of human development by revolutionizing transport, communication and warfare. But the origins of domestic horses have long been debated because, unlike with other livestock, such as cattle, it is difficult to tell whether bones and other remains belong to domestic horses or wild ones. “Previous work had to be built on indirect evidence, such as killing patterns, tooth damage, traces of consumption of horse milk, symbolic evidence and more,” says lead author Ludovic Orlando, a molecular archaeologist at Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse, France.
Over the past 5 years, Orlando and his team have collected pieces of bone and tooth from ancient horses — amassing more than 2,000 samples from places where domestic horses could have originated, including Iberia, Anatolia, the steppes of Western Eurasia and Central Asia.
The analysis found that horses with the modern domestic DNA profile lived in the Western Eurasian steppes, especially the Volga–Don region, from the sixth to the third millennia BC. “Populations with modern domestic horse ancestry were marginal at best elsewhere,” says Orlando.
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PHOTO CREDIT: Mongolian stallion rolling in the grass. SNAPWIRE