September 20, 2005

Botai and horse domestication

See also the updated entry on the redating of the Dereivka stallion, including some comments from Dr. David Anthony. Now that Dereivka has been redated as belonging to the Scythian Iron Age, the Botai (east of the Urals) represents the earliest evidence of possible horse riding. Levine writes:

Another example of this commitment to an earliest date is Anthony’s argument that the domesticated horse was present in the Ukraine earlier than in Kazakhstan. His evidence for this comes from bitwear studies of two samples of lower second premolars from two Eneolithic sites, Botai in northern Kazakhstan (5 from a total of 19 teeth) and Dereivka in the Ukraine (2 from a total of 6 teeth). He implies from this that horse domestication spread from west to east (Anthony 1995).

The redating of the Dereivka stallion casts doubt on the idea that horse domestication spread from west to east. Certainly it might have, but there is no direct evidence for the prior existence of domesticated horses in Ukraine than in Kazakhstan (Botai). But is the pattern of tooth wear interpreted as bit wear unambiguous evidence of horse riding? Levine writes:

The question of whether the wear pattern described by Anthony and Brown could have had other causes has not been adequately addressed. Their unbitted sample of feral horses consisted of 20 individuals from two North American populations (mustangs from the mountains of Nevada and barrier island ponies from the Atlantic Coast). They have generalized from this small sample that unbitted horses could not manifest the wear pattern they describe as unique to bitwear. On the other hand, Angela von den Driesch (personal communication) has observed
that similar, if not identical, wear on the lower second premolar can result from abnormal occlusion with the upper second premolar.

As far as we know, then, beveling on the anterior part of the lower P2 masticatory surface could be caused by bitwear or abnormal occlusion. Either a domesticated horse or a wild one that had been tamed could be bitted. The absence of bitwear could indicate that a horse had not been ridden recently or regularly before its death, that it was ridden unbitted, or that it never was ridden. We must conclude from this that bitwear should not be used without corroboration as proof of domestication. This is not to say that bitwear studies should not be carried out. On the contrary, their use should be much more widespread, but in conjunction with other methods of analysis.

From the conclusions:

The results of the analyses carried out on the data from Dereivka and Botai suggest that the vast majority of the horses from those sites were killed in the hunt. Different hunting techniques were employed at each of them: stalking or chasing at Dereivka and driving or surrounding at Botai. The possibility that some of the horses might have been tamed or domesticated, as suggested by Anthony and Brown’s bitwear studies, is certainly not excluded. However, the possibility that the wear pattern they define as bitwear could have other causes has not been disproved.
See also Domestication, Breed Diversification and Early History of the Horse.

Journal of Anthropological Archaeology
Volume 18, Issue 1 , March 1999, Pages 29-78

Botai and the Origins of Horse Domestication

Marsha A. Levine


This paper explores some issues related to the origins of horse domestication. First, it focuses on methodological problems relevant to existing work. Then, ethnoarchaeological and archaeozoological methods are used to provide an alternative approach to the subject. Ethnological, ethological, and archaeological data are used to construct a series of population structure models illustrating a range of human–horse relationships. Analysis of assemblages from the Eneolithic sites of Botai (northern Kazakhstan) and Dereivka (Ukraine) suggests that horses at these sites were obtained largely by hunting.



Dr. Anthony writes in the comments section. I have placed his comments in the blog entry because haloscan comments get deleted after a few months.
1. I have argued that horse domestication spread from west to east because the cultures of Ukraine and the the Volga-Ural region certainly had domesticated animals (cattle and sheep) before 5000 calBC, while the cultures of northern Kazakhstan remained foragers until at least 3500 calBC (when they probably adopted horse-herding), and perhaps until 2500 calBC (when they finally began to adopt domesticated cattle and sheep, 2500 years after the cultures of the western steppes). Horses were included with cattle and sheep in funeral sacrifices in the western steppes between 5000-4500 calBC and were portrayed there in mobile art, while in the eastern (Kazakh) steppes horses played no special role in ritual or in art until the Botai culture appeared, about 3500 BCE. Botai was a radically new kind of culture in the Kazakh steppes, with large settlements and dense deposits of animal bone consisting of 70-90% horse bones. This specialized horse hunting economy appeared with bit wear and stabling soils full of horse dung in the settlement of Botai. Bit wear also appeared at the related settlement of Kozhai 1. The Botai people were foragers who rode domesticated horses to hunt wild horses, a peculiar adaptation that existed only in Kazakhstan and only between 3500-3000 calBC.

2. Levine is incorrect in stating that what we have defined as bit wear can appear on the teeth of wild horses; her description of our sample size is incorrect; and her statement that bit wear could have other causes is an unsupported speculation. In a forthcoming paper in a BAR volume edited by Sandra Olsen we describe a new sample of 74 never-bitted Pleistocene equid teeth, studied with our methods. None of them shows a bevel measurement of 3mm, our threshold for bit wear. No one, including von den Dreisch and Levine, has described a population of wild horses that exhibits this kind of wear facet as the result of natural wear. Bit wear clearly distinguishes bitted from never-bitted populations at better than the .001 level of confidence. Levine's criticism of our bit wear statistics in the Journal of Anthropological Anthropology confused the issue by comparing our median measurement for bitted horses to our maximum measurement for never-bitted horses, implying that only .5mm separated them. This was a basic error. Comparing median to median and maximum to maximum, the statistical separation is very good.

3. Levine distinguishes between horses that are merely 'tamed' and those that are 'domesticated'. Tamed horses might have been ridden regularly in the hunt and in war, but this is unimportant in her scheme if they do not show the measurements she expects for a 'domesticated' horse. Culturally, this turns anthropological zoology upside down. When people began to ride horses regularly the world was changed. Whether leg bone measurements changed at the same time is an interesting question, but not nearly as interesting as identifying ridden horses.

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