Earliest cowboys revealed by 5,000 year old skeletons

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A skeleton in Malomirovo, Bulgaria, displays the typical burial custom of the Yamnaya CREDIT: Michał Podsiadło

5,000 years ago, long before the days of the American Wild West, the world’s first cowboys were cattle ranchers in Eastern Europe.  According to a new study published in the journal Science Advances, the earliest evidence of horse riding dates back to the Eastern European Yamnaya people who mastered the art around 3,000 BC.

Thousands of Yamnaya skeletons have been found in kurgans, or prehistoric burial mounds, in Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary. Analysis of the remains by scientists from the University of Helsinki and Hartwick College in New York shows changes to the anatomy caused by horse riding. These included changes to the riders’ pelvis, thigh, spine and back.

Skeletons in the study displayed changes to their femur caused by gripping onto the sides of the horse, well-known among horse riders. There was also some evidence of degeneration to the vertebrae in the spine, possibly caused by the up-and-down movement of horse riding. One skeleton had suffered an injury to the sacral vertebrae, a large triangular bone above the tailbone. The researchers suggest that “a forceful fall on the backside” was the most likely cause.

The grave of a Yamnaya horse rider, a man estimated to be aged 65 to 75 CREDIT: Michał Podsiadło

The team also said that a position called “chair seat”, which involved no saddle or stirrups, was also employed by early riders despite it being “physically demanding”. It requires the rider to constantly squeeze their legs together to stay on the back of their steed and is a test of one’s balance and strength.

A messenger on horseback from the Horemheb tomb in Egypt. The rider sits in a ‘chair seat’ position, used when riding without padded saddle or stirrups CREDIT: Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna

The Yamnaya originated in Ukraine and their horsemanship allowed them to spread throughout Europe. Riding opened up new possibilities in transportation, warfare and supply chains. Volker Heyd, co-author of the study, said that mounting steeds enabled people to greatly enhance their mobility. David Anthony, from Hartwick College, added: “It made herding cattle and sheep three times more efficient, it changed the human conception of distance and it was an aid in warfare.”

Martin Trautmann, the lead author, said: “Hopping on a horse’s back may have been one small step for man 5,000 years ago, but it was a giant leap for mankind.”

The researchers presented their findings at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington.

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