Saudis Seek to Bolster Their Claim to Earliest Horse Domestication

A new piece on the BBC website adds more to speculation over Saudi Arabia’s Al Maqar site: could the fragments of horse figures discovered there depict harness? If this could be definitively proved, the Saudis’ claim to earliest horse domestication would be verified. However, as I pointed out in an earlier, more detailed blog post on the Al Maqar hypothesis:

what sort of harness would that be? Horse collars and breast yokes for draft are not believed to have been invented until 4th century BC China, and a loose strap on the neck would provide little control for a rider. Even if domestication had happened in the peninsula at that period, it became obsolete as the hypothetical Al Maqar domesticated horse died out: new DNA research shows that all modern domestic horses are descended from animals of the Eneolithic Eurasian Steppes.

It now occurs to me that there’s another potential answer. Many equids have what are called “primitive markings” like “eel stripes” running the lengths of their backs, or zebra-esque stripes on their lower legs. One of these markings is a stripe lying across both shoulders. In donkeys it’s been attributed to the fact that Jesus rode an ass – and hence the eel stripe and shoulder band make the shape of a cross. And here’s one, photographed by Wikicommons contributor Barbirossa:
Aalstreep
And here’s the Al Maqar horse. What do you think?

Nature Wins Over Nurture in the Gaited Horse

Guðmundur Arnarson rides Sævar frá Stangarholti (grey with sunfading black base) in tölti at five-gait horse championships in Hella, 2008. Photo Dagur Brynjólfsson, WikiCommons

We talk very easily about “a gene for this” or “a gene for that” but most of our characteristics have more complex biological origins than a single strand of DNA. That’s perhaps why it’s such a surprise to read this story, which my brother, Sarah Everts and Christine Wilsdon all sent me.
Researchers at Uppsala University have discovered that a variation on a single gene called DMRT3 on chromosome 23 causes gves mice a fifth gait. The scientists moved on to looking at Icelandic horses, famous for their rapid “tolt” and sometimes for “pacing”. From GenomeWeb:

To look at this in more detail, the team started by doing an association study involving 30 Icelandic horses that could walk, trot, gallop, and amble or “tölt,” and another 40 Icelandic horses that could do those four and move at the two-beat pace gait.

Amongst the horses capable of pacing, the researchers found a significant association involving a region on chromosome 23. More extensive analyses indicated that five-gaited Icelandic horses typically share several SNPs in the region, including a nonsense mutation that introduces a premature stop codon in DMRT3.

When the team screened hundreds more Icelandic horses, it identified the same alteration affecting both copies of the DMRT3 gene in almost all of the five-gaited horses tested.

In Icelandic horses with four gaits — those that could tölt but did not perform the pace gait — the DMRT3 mutation was still more common than it is in many other horse breeds. But the change was far less likely to be homozygous.

The nonsense mutation in DMRT3 turned up in some other breeds too, the researchers reported, though it tended to be more common among those with uncommon gaits and in breeds developed for harness racing, consistent with the notion that DMRT3 function contributes to the way coordinated movement is controlled.

Discover Magazine has interviews with some of the scientists involved and added this, suggesting that while nature may have made the gaited horse by random mutation, it was human nurture that helped it to thrive:

By contrast, it’s absent in all horses that stick to the standard walk, trot and gallop. Thoroughbreds, Shetland ponies, wild Przewalski’s horses—all of them have unabridged DMRT3 proteins. The conclusion is stark: for a horse to move beyond its three natural gaits, it needs a stunted version of the DMRT3 protein. … [Mice with the mutation] walked normally, but the coordination between their legs broke down at high speeds.

The same is true for horses, and explains why the DMRT3 mutations are almost non-existent in the wild. Carriers find it hard to transition from trots and paces to full-blown gallops. They lack the coordination necessary to pull off the fastest gait, and predators would easily have removed them from the gene pool.

Humans were kinder, and saw a different sort of potential. Andersson imagines that early humans noticed that some horses could move in unique ways, and selected them for breeding, perhaps because they offered a smoother ride or were more versatile at intermediate speeds. Certainly, these animals also do very well in harness-racing, where trotting horses are disqualified if they break into a gallop. In our stables and tracks, an otherwise debilitating mutation has found a comfortable home.

At this point a bell went off in my head and I made my way to the bookshelf. Stephen Budiansky’s The Nature of Horses: Their Evolution, Intelligence and Behaviour. Page 21 of the Phoenix paperback:

The almost unbelievable discovery of fossil footprints of three Hipparion horses [in Tanzania]  from the middle Pliocene (3.5 million years ago) has provided ample confirmation of the speed and agility of these grasslands adapted horses.  … A subsequent analysis of the horse footprints makes a convincing case that these Hipparion horses traveled at a good clip utilizing the gait known as the running walk – the characteristic gait of Tennessee walking horses, Icelandic ponies, and paso finos, in which the length of stride is extended and only one or two feet are in contact with the ground at any given time. Comparison of the the fossil footfalls wih the footfall patterns of Icelandic ponies suggests that one of the Hipparions was traveling at 15 kilometers per hour.

Hipparions, imagined by Heinrich Harder (1858-1935) via WikiCommons

Hipparion is a relative of the modern horse, but not an ancestor. According to Wikipedia, it existed for 22.219 million years, which really ain’t bad for a runty little gaited horse.

The Horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot via the British Museum

How could you fit the history of horses and humans into a space? Not even the British Museum could hold it: it would be crammed like Tutankhamun’s tomb. Selene’s chariot horses on the eastern Parthenon pediment would be eyeball to eyeball with Da Vinci’s triple-life-size Spanish steed. The central atrium would be the tackroom to end all tackrooms, with thousands of saddles perched on wall mounts like crows in a rookery: an Icelandic sidesaddle with a tool-worked seat and dinky safety rail, a Western saddle with beaten silver on the stirrups, a wooden nomad’s saddle from Central Asia, spineless, stuffed with deer fur and decorated with snow leopards. Then you’d have to clear out the Egyptian hall for donkey war chariots from Ur, a brougham with some courtesan’s coat of arms on the door, and a racing sulky so light you could pick it up in one hand.

I’d throw in pony rides in the forecourt, floodlit classical dressage and buzkashi matches, some lectures on the subtleties of Stubbs, Peche Merle and Rosa Bonheur… It would represent the life’s work of a batallion of curators and the air freighting of all the artefacts would raise the temperature of the globe by a couple of notches. That would do the trick, I think.

Limits, I suppose, are necessary in these austere times. That’s why The British Museum’s new exhibit, “The Horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot”, would more accurately be called simply “The Arabian Horse: from Arabia to the Royal Ascot”, although it does contain artefacts from non-Arab cultures, some of which even lie outside the Middle East. The museum and its sponsors – the Saudi Royal Family and their various agents – have chosen their own path through the mass of artefacts, cultures and facts. Charged by King Abdullah to “take good care of the Kingdom’s national antiquities and to project them to the world so it can witness the deep-rooted historical civilization of Saudi Arabia and its people”, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities are heavily involved, and the extended programme for the exhibit featured a talk by Prince Sultan entitled “Measures to Promote the Civilization Dimension of Saudi Arabia.”

I’m not going to make some facile point about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record vs. the 21st century notion of civilization because that has nothing to do with horse history. I don’t think it’s wrong, either, for the Saudis to put themselves at the centre of this exhibit. After all, this is how the relation of history works: we learn by creating threads of narrative out of the chaos of facts. We tell ourselves stories. You need a narrative or else it’s just display case after display case: thing with a horse on it, slightly later thing with a horse on it – my fantasy jumble sale of saddles and chariots.

My problem with “The Horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot” is twofold: firstly facts have been overlooked or even excluded to follow an old, well-trodden path. Secondly, a fresh, well-researched narrative could have given Eastern culture an even more central role.

What we actually get is a familiar account of a Fertile Crescent “Birth of Civilization”: Ur, Mitannis, cuneiform, chariots, grain cultivation et cetera. A wealth of booty from the British Museum’s store rooms are laid out to support this in a small maze of dark, air-conditioned rooms in the drum at the centre of Norman Foster’s atrium. It costs nothing to see this treasure, and treasure it is.

It begins with a film of a grey Arabian moving silkily round a floodlit arena in slow motion. Then there are priceless, unique pieces: the Standard of Ur (2600BC) is a small relief carving in shell, lapis lazuli, red limestone and bitumen showing a parade of figures with war-donkey chariots trampling the defenceless underfoot. The donkeys have rings through their noses (“bits hadn’t been invented,” says the caption, which rather overlooks the evidence of bitwear found in Botai horse teeth from 3500 BC). There’s a charming silver rein ring from a driving harness, featuring a trotting donkey with one ear fore and the other aft. Correspondence from Middle Eastern rulers to the pharaohs is carefully chipped in Babylonian cuneiform: memos concerning chariots and horses send by a Mitanni king, and a letter from the King of Cyprus to the King of Egypt, with the formal wish that the king’s “house, horses, chariots and land are well.” Panels provide information on the development of harness, chariots and battle techniques, as well as the spread of horses in the area.

What’s absent is the new story that is emerging from contemporary archaeology, in which horse-centric nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples – like the Saudis’ ancestors, the Bedouins – played a driving role in the spread of civilization. The peoples of the Eurasian Steppes did not leave cuneiform and stone temples, but they shuttled goods, grains, technology and Indo-European languages across vast distances over a long period of time, ultimately leaving traces of their culture everywhere from Ireland to Korea and from Siberia to the Fertile Crescent.  The domestication of the horse in Kazakhstan is mentioned briefly at the British Museum but passed easily over. Nor is there a sense of what role the nomadic Bedouins played in the Middle Eastern world. Horsemanship in “The Horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot” is tied to settled cultures. There is only one “civilization dimension”.

The exhibit begins to make gigantic leaps in time and space after the first room, bucketing along erratically. A dummy horse and rider kitted out in 15th century Ottoman horse armour stands next to another plastic horse in 19th century quilted Sudanese armour stuffed with kapok wool. An exquisitely cut shadow puppet faces an Uzbek blanket. A painting of a late 18th century Mughal horse with its tail dipped in henna segueways into European oils of the same period:  Sartorious’ Eclipse, Stubbs’ Gimcrack and Letitia, Lady Lade.  There’s an accelerated account of the development of the thoroughbred and modern flat racing and, randomly, images of horsedrawn traffic in eighteenth-century London. In the finishing straight we’re treated to a French version of the racing board game Totopoly, footage of dressage-Wunderpferd Totilas and the Saudi showjumping team and then out we’re spat into the exhibition shop. What’s the connection? That all these horses have Arab ancestry? Where are we going? Would you like a hobby horse with your catalogue?

A few weeks ago I wrote about Donna Landry’s excellent Noble Brutes: How Eastern Horses Transformed English Culture. Landry carefully draws on the work of many scholars to show how the English adopted not only oriental horses but also oriental horsemanship. We took their light, forward riding seat and called it the English hunt seat. We copied the Bedouins’ meticulous breeding records, pedigrees and carefully planned matings – it’s to these nomads that we owe the very notion of a “pure bred horse”. Landry’s “Houyhnhnmization” is the ideal inspired by Middle Eastern horsekeeping practices of the Arabian or oriental horse as a loyal, intelligent and noble creature that was both queerly human and better than a human, and to be treated as such by devoted grooms.

This is what the Saudis were looking for. This is a vision of Eastern culture as a civilizing force that left a deep mark on British ways of doing and thinking: the horse in Landseer’s Bedouin tent with its gentle eyes, the feather-light jockey’s hand on the reins.

In this version of events Arab culture would, however, have had to share credit with the Turks and North Africans, and this, perhaps, is the problem. The British Museum states that the thoroughbred was descended from three Arabian horses, but as Landry and others have pointed out, the Byerley Turk was probably so named because he was just that, a Turkish horse, and during his lifetime no one could decide if the Godolphin Arabian was not, in fact, the Godolphin Barb. There is evidence that Arabians themselves are originally of Turkic origin (think of an ancient Akhal Teke type), or perhaps desended from the tiny and fine Caspian horses of Northern Iran.

This rich and complex picture is not only blurred at Great Russell Street but supplanted by an attempt to write a new narrative. At the furthest end of the air-conditioned maze sit the Al Maqar stone carvings, aka Saudi Arabia’s much-trumpeted evidence that horse domestication took place in the Arabian Penninsula 3,500 years before the Kazakhs pulled it off.

It’s a treat to see them so soon after their discovery: the Al Maqar horse is beautiful – hefty, primitive, precise. It has a blunt profile and a smoothly joined rather than pronounced cheekbone. A groove cuts horizontally across its muzzle. To me it’s a Przewalski from the shape of its head to the mealy nose. There’s a vertical line running down its shoulder which the caption optimistically claims “may represent part of a halter or a harness” – what sort of harness would that be? Horse collars and breast yokes for draft are not believed to have been invented until 4th century BC China, and a loose strap on the neck would provide little control for a rider. Even if domestication had happened in the peninsula at that period, it became obsolete as the hypothetical Al Maqar domesticated horse died out: new DNA research shows that all modern domestic horses are descended from animals of the Eneolithic Eurasian Steppes.

The limbless stone horse is exhibited side by side with two companion carvings, one of which is believed to be a saluki and the other a hawk: the classical Bedouin accoutrements of horse, dog and raptor. Could this triptych have been set literally in stone in 7000BC? The caption hedges its bets: “Further research may determine the exact date of the three stone carvings.”

Just behind this display case is a light box which shows a series of images of striking Bedouin rock paintings of Arab-like horses led by stick figure men, black against gradations of red. When you press on an image it is projected onto the wall of the exhibition space. The figures look primitive and ancient enough but bafflingly, no date is provided for them; the caption refers to the artists using the Thamudic script but does not place them in history.  A short Google reveals that the Thamudic alphabet was used by Bedouins in the period 200BC to 300 AD. Quite a jump from the Neolithic.

Ignore me though. Go and have your eyes widened. Pass over the narrative and feast on the tiny golden chariot of the Oxus treasure, on Letitia Lade’s nonchalance and devilry, on a delicate pink chalcedony seal of a flying horse and Rembrandt’s copies of Mughal miniatures. Get confused. Forget the title. Start thinking about 19th century Sudanese cavalry and what inspired Bedouin tribesmen to paint horses on desert rock formations. Take a deep breath and throw yourself headfirst into the richness and diversity that results from millennia of interaction of humans and horses.

If Wishes Were Horses: Hunters and Amazons

The Ukok Plateau, uploaded by Kobsev at Wikipedia.ru

Here’s the Robin Hood Cave horse carving, safely at the British Museum.

I drew heavily on the work of a husband and wife archaeology team for the section on the early domestication of the horse: you can find out about David W Anthony and Dorcas Brown’s Institute for Ancient Equestrian Studies here. You can find more about the fascinating experiments they’ve done to establish that bits were used on Bronze Age horses.

Here’s a transcript of a PBS documentary about the Pazyryk priestess, and a photograph of her remains. Click through here to see some of the St Petersburg Hermitage’s collection of Pazyryk artifacts, including some incredible tattoos (the ice priestess’s most distinctive tatt is here, along with a modern interpretation. Yes, I’m tempted!). UPDATE: more detailed photos and a reconstruction here.

A year after I finished writing the book, Saudi Arabian archaeologists announced that they had found proof of far earlier horse domestication in the Arabian penninsula. There’s a long article on the subject at HorseTalk. Interestingly, they claim they have the one piece of evidence that the Botai researchers lack: what appear to be artistic representations of humans riding horses. They also claim that the artwork shows a distinctly “Arabian” horse.

The woman mentioned at the very end of the chapter was buried at Wetwang in east Yorkshire, and the British Museum has both some of the objects from her grave (including the hand mirror found behind her knees) and a reconstruction of her chariot here.

This post relates to a chapter of the book If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of an Equine Obsession. If you have any questions to ask about the content, please fire away in the comments. The main online index for the book is here.

New Study Reveals More About Origins of Domestic Horse

Ahem. I am now going to attempt to write a simple account of the findings of a new study into the genetic origins of domestic horses. I’m doing this as much for my benefit as for yours. Hopefully my brother will step in in the comments if I’ve got it all wrong.

Now. Horses.

This is a Przewalski Horse. It is the only true wild horse left in the world, even though this particular one is in West Berlin Zoo. Other “wild horses” like mustangs, brumbies etc are feral domestic horses. Przewalski horses can breed with domestic horses, but they have a different number of chromosomes: Przewalskis have 66, domestic horses 64, and their combined offspring 65.

This is a Tarpan. It’s another true wild horse, but one which is now extinct. It had 64 chromosomes.

This is a Konik – an attempt at recreating the Tarpan by interbreeding domestic horses which have Tarpan ancestors. But I digress.

The evolutionary development of the modern horse has been well documented and explored since the earliest days of genetics and fossil collection. Now geneticists are attempting to work out how we got from “some wild horse that wasn’t the Przewalski” to every single domestic horse in the world today. A paper published today by Alessandro Achilli of the University of Perugia and a large global team of geneticists explores this by investigating the maternal or mitochondrial DNA of a variety of horse breeds from around the planet.

It turns out that there are eighteen major “haplogroups” or, as Wikipedia usefully puts it, “a group of similar haplotypes that share a common ancestor“. A haplotype is a mumble mumble genetic-DNA-sequence-pattern-thing. Ahem. One of these haplogroups belongs to Przewalskis. All of them belong to the Neolithic or later, but radiate from some Ancestral Mare Mitogenome of 130,000–160,000 years ago. Asia is the common source for all these descendants.

SO, the conclusion appears to be that domestication occurred – multiple times, by mankind sourcing different wild mares at different points of history and from different locations – on the Eurasian Steppes from the Eneolithic onwards. The Eneolithic falls between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age, and might also be called the Copper Age. As there is already a large amount of archaeology linking horse domestication, copperwork and the spread of proto-Indo European in this area, this appears to confirm the theory that the Steppes were the origin of large scale and enduring horse domestication.

This also means that the Saudi Arabians need to come up with a bit more proof for their claim that horse domestication began in the Arabian Peninsula circa 7,000 BC and that there were already Arab-type horses at that period.

The First Appaloosa

From The Local:

An international team of researchers led by a German scientist believe they have found the first evidence that spotted horses, often seen depicted in cave paintings, actually existed tens of thousands of years ago.
“We are just starting to have the genetic tools to access the appearance of past animals and there are still a lot of question marks and phenotypes for which the genetic process has not yet been described,” said study leader Melanie Pruvost of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research and the Department of Natural Sciences at the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin. “However, we can already see that this kind of study will greatly improve our knowledge about the past.”

The spots on the cave horses were previously believed to have been a depiction of some kind of shamanic vision, rather than reality.

The unravelling of the equine genome continues to fascinate. In the last two hundred years there have been many theories about the number and range of “Ur horse” types or breeds, with the dun takhi/Przewalski and the mouse-grey tarpan having the best archaeological records. Now there’s a new cave horse, and it’s an appaloosa.

Detailed article here, in the NYT.