Perhaps domesticating wild horses meant saving them – nature – travel

The domestication of wild horses may have saved them, too. After all, most large steppe animals such as mammoths and giant deer became extinct, partly due to hunting and partly due to climate change caused by global warming after the Ice Ages.

Examination of the genomes of 273 horses of different eras and regions showed that horses were first domesticated around 2000 BC in the steppes of Eurasia in the Volga-Don region, North Caucasus. The research, conducted by an international team of scientists led by Ludovic Orlando from the Center for Anthropology and Genomics in Toulouse (Paul Sabatier University), was published Wednesday in the scientific journal Nature. One of the fossils important in the study is a fragment of a horse’s leg bone found in Belgium’s Joyet Cave that dates back about 36,000 years.

“There are amazing genetic differences between domestic and wild horses,” says paleontologist Mitge Germontbury of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) in Brussels and co-author of the study. A gene was found in the domestic horse that ensures the strength of the spine. Moreover, the domestic horses were apparently chosen because of their docileness: they are less stressed than their wild counterparts that roamed all over Eurasia during the Ice Ages. The first domesticated horses may have already been used to ride them.

Actual domestication began about 5,000 years ago by the steppe peoples, who until then roamed the great plains west of the Urals as hunter-gatherers. The genetic data confirms previous archaeological research, which showed that humans also began milking horses at this time. A thousand years later, it began spreading to the rest of the Eurasian continent as well. To the east, this was mainly a matter of large and small migratory movements. The horses ensured that greater distances could be traveled every day.

A status symbol

The spread of horses as pets in the plains of Asia has been a matter of many centuries, according to the research. The spread of domestic horses to the West was not related to migration, it occurred later and was mainly related to trade. Although the Indo-European peoples flocked to Europe around the time of domestication, domestic horses have not yet been introduced to our regions. When horses were finally established in then-Western Europe, they were essentially an important status symbol, as attested by the many royal tombs that have sometimes been excavated of entire teams of horses.

“The specimen from the wild horse from Goyet Cave, near Namur, which was taken with us from RBINS, was important for the research,” says Germonpré. The DNA of animals and human remains in that cave has been well preserved. Goyet’s DNA was an indispensable and highly reliable reference for wild horse DNA and essential for successful completion of the study.

The fossil remains of Joyer’s horse were brought to the cave as a trophy for hunting. Some of the horse’s bones were broken to extract the marrow. The bones date back to the middle of the last Ice Age and have been found with the remains of early modern European humans.

Horses in the Americas were not part of the study. “Wild horses were already extinct there when the Ice Age ended,” Germontbury says. European Tarpan horses, which were themselves almost extinct, but accidentally survived because Eastern European farmers used them as breeding material, are without exception hybrid horses, although they still contain a lot of DNA from their wild ancestors. She found, but was already crossed with local horses which then became feral again.

The domestication of wild horses may have saved them, too. After all, most of the large steppe animals such as mammoths and giant deer became extinct from the Eurasian Ice Ages, partly due to hunting and partly due to climate change caused by global warming after the Ice Ages.

Examination of the genomes of 273 horses of different eras and regions showed that horses were first domesticated around 2000 BC in the steppes of Eurasia in the Volga-Don region, North Caucasus. The research, conducted by an international team of scientists led by Ludovic Orlando from the Center for Anthropology and Genomics in Toulouse (Paul Sabatier University), was published Wednesday in the scientific journal Nature. One of the fossils important in the study is a fragment of a horse’s leg bone found in Belgium’s Joyet Cave, dating to about 36,000 years ago. The Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINs) in Brussels and co-author of the study. A gene was found in the domestic horse that ensures the strength of the spine. Moreover, the domestic horses were apparently chosen because of their docileness: they are less stressed than their wild counterparts that roamed all over Eurasia during the Ice Ages. The first domesticated horses may have already been used to ride them. Actual domestication began about 5,000 years ago by the steppe peoples, who until then roamed the great plains west of the Urals as hunter-gatherers. Genetic data confirm previous archaeological research, which showed that humans also began milking horses at this time. A thousand years later, it began spreading to the rest of the Eurasian continent as well. To the east, this was mainly a matter of large and small migratory movements. The horses ensured that greater distances could be traveled every day. The spread of horses as pets in the plains of Asia has been a matter of several centuries, according to the research. The spread of domestic horses to the West was not related to migration, it occurred later and was mainly related to trade. Although the Indo-European peoples flocked to Europe around the time of domestication, domestic horses have not yet been introduced to our regions. When horses were finally established in then-Western Europe, they were essentially an important status symbol, as attested by the many royal tombs that have sometimes been excavated of entire teams of horses. “The specimen from the wild horse from Goyet Cave, near Namur, which was taken with us from RBINS, was important for the research,” says Germonpré. The DNA of animals and human remains in that cave has been well preserved. Goyet’s DNA was an indispensable and highly reliable reference for wild horse DNA and essential for successful completion of the study. Joyer’s fossil horse remains were brought to the cave as hunting booty. Some of the horse’s bones were broken to extract the marrow. The bones date back to the middle of the last Ice Age and have been found with the remains of early modern European humans. Horses in the Americas were not part of the study. “Wild horses were already extinct when the Ice Age ended,” Germonpré says. European Tarpan horses, which were themselves almost extinct, but which continued to exist somewhat by chance because farmers in Eastern Europe used them as breeding material, are without exception the hybrid horses, which still contain a lot of DNA from their wild ancestors. It can be found, but it was already crossed with local horses which later became feral again. Perhaps the domestication of wild horses saved them, too. After all, most of the large steppe animals such as mammoths and giant deer became extinct from the Eurasian Ice Ages, partly due to hunting and partly due to climate change caused by global warming after the Ice Ages.

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