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The role of horses in the initial spread of Indo-European languages from Yamnaya



Ancient DNA points to origins of modern domestic horses
Genetic analysis shows that the ancestors of all modern horses lived in the Western Eurasian steppes more than 4,000 years ago.


...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...

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.

By around 2200–2000 BC, these horses had appeared outside the Western Eurasian steppes — first reaching Anatolia, the lower Danube, Bohemia and Central Asia, and then spreading across Eurasia, replacing all other local horse populations by about 1500 to 1000 BC. “We found that around 4,200 years ago, the horse reproductive pool dramatically expanded, indicating that this was when past breeders started to multiply such horses in large numbers to supply increasing demands for horse-based mobility,” says Orlando. Humans probably rode on horses’ backs before the invention of horse-drawn vehicles: the first spoke-wheeled chariots emerged around 2,000–1,800 BC.

Human migration
The findings also challenge previously held ideas about the role of horses in some early human migrations. Analyses of ancient human genomes have revealed massive migrations from the Western Eurasian steppes into Europe during the third millennium BC, associated with a culture known as the Yamnaya. These people are thought to have helped to spread Indo-European languages into Europe, and have often been assumed to have ridden horses. “If these numerous people came with as many horses, then we should expect an equivalent shift in the horse ancestry profile,” says Orlando. But the analysis suggests that during this time, there were few domestic-horse ancestors outside the Western Eurasian steppes. This would rule out scenarios in which horses played a part in Yamnaya migration and in the initial spread of Indo-European languages.

“This radically changes our understanding of mass human movements from the steppe into western Europe in the Bronze Age,” says Outram. “It seems that those migrations were not, as had been commonly believed, facilitated by domestic horses.”


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