Goat herding to Golden Horde

I was recently on a brief trip to Mongolia to visit family. This mainly involved drinking salty milk tea with relatives in long silence.

The coolest part of my visit however, was when I met a talented archaeologist who work in a field of science that explains the fundamental reason how my ancestors transformed from simple herders to builders of the world’s largest land empire.

Photo by koskhkanakrushe @Tumblr

The rise of nomadic pastoralists of the Eurasian steppe is directly linked to the fact that they were amongst the pioneers of domesticating horses and perfecting this trade. The science behind exactly how horses were used by these prehistoric societies is underpinned by findings of zooarchaeology and paleopathology.

Zoo – what?

Zooarchaeology is a fascinating field of science that studies the faunal remains to understand the role of animals in earlier societies. It has many uses. Anything from reconstructing the history of archeological sites to helping illustrate a clearer picture of ancient cultures and everything in the middle – helping ascertain past climatic conditions. It mainly uses animal parts such as bones and any available DNA material.

Through a comparative study of equine cranial parts from different sources including museums, zoos and wilderness sanctuaries zooarchaeologists have been able to come up with a novel way to pinpoint the osteological impact of activities such as riding and pulling chariots on horse skulls.

All about the groove!

The osteological change on the horse skull from bridle use and rein tension has been recognized to cause lateral and medial groove along the bridge of the horse’s nose. The groove marks are asymmetrically positioned along the nose, consistent with left hand control of the horse while the right was occupied with a whip, lasso or weapon. This pattern matches historical paintings, sculptures and images that often depict ancient warriors holding the rein in their left hands.

Medial (A) and lateral (B) groove formation on the nasal process of the incisive bone of a ridden horse. Specimen from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Photo extracted from Taylor et al (2015).

Medial (A) and lateral (B) groove formation on the nasal process of the incisive bone of a ridden horse. A ridden horse (left), and a feral pony (right). Specimen from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Photo extracted from Taylor et al (2015).

Painting a bigger picture

Archaeologists applied the correlation between cranial grooves and bridle wear to assess horse skulls found from burial sites dating back to the late Bronze Age or 1300-700 BC. They have been able to recognize the same groove patterns on horse skulls as old as 3200 years old, indicating Central Asian people of this period indeed used horses in their daily lives and also likely for mounted warfare. The increased mobility and power enabled by the use of horses would have given the Central Asian pastoralists a huge advantage over coexisting societies of the time. Essentially these people had come up with the fundamental unit of Industrialism – horse power, only about 3000 years prior.

Perfect preservation

So, how does a 3200 year old horse skull still kicks around until today and not long disintegrated? The secret lies in the arid, extreme continental climate with annual precipitation of around 200mm. Additionally, past glaciation in this region also helps preserve the contextual and zooarchaeological artifacts. However, to not damage the artifacts archaeologists mostly work with 3-D models of the horse skulls.

2 Responses to “Goat herding to Golden Horde”

  1. Maja Dunstan says:

    Really interesting article! It’s so interesting seeing how archeologists can piece together history from such small things!

  2. August says:

    Well written Khorloo!
    Loved the idea that animal remains helped us to date the invention of arguably one of the most important technologies in human history.

    Any chance you would know if they’ve also looked into similar evidences for saddles? If i’m not mistaken saddles were invented by Eurasian nomadic people somewhat later than bridles, wonder what sort of evidence they will leave on a horse’s bones