Horse culture comes east

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In Friday's New York Times:

"A Record of Horseback Riding, Written in Bone and Teeth:  Close examination of horse remains has clarified the timeline of when equestrianism helped transform ancient Chinese civilization", by Katherine Kornei (11/13/20)

More archeological evidence that the horse, horse riding, and related equestrian technologies and culture came to East Asia from the Eurasian interior before the rise of extensive trade along the Silk Road during the Han Dynasty (202 BC-9 AD), and that these developments had a profound impact on the civilization and political organization of East Asia.

We have had numerous posts about specific words from western Eurasia that spread to East Asia during the period from the 2nd millennium BC to the 1st millennium AD (see "Selected readings" below for a sampling).  As time passes, the archeological record of the peoples who brought these words eastwards is filled in and documented more and more securely.

From the southern Urals and Pontic Steppes to Mongolia, we know that humans have been riding horses since at least the latter part of the 2nd millennium BC, and that already then the high mobility and power afforded by horseback riding, together with its associated technologies, had an enormous impact upon state, society, and culture when they impinged upon East Asia.

Peoples of the East Asian Heartland (EAH) were aware of equestrianism when their neighbors to the north used it against them from the latter part of the 2nd millennium BC, but did not adopt and begin to master it themselves until the latter part of the 1st millennium BC, during the Warring States period (471-225 BC).  Thereupon, the old feudal order broke down and was replaced by a succession of imperial, bureaucratic states, the first of which was the Qin (221-206 BC), whence is derived our word "China".  The physical embodiment of Qin's utilization of the horse and technologies such as iron metallurgy which came along with it may be found in the famous Terracotta Army of the First Emperor of the Qin in Lintong County, outside Xi'an, Shaanxi.

It is noteworthy that Qin itself came from the northwest and was considered by the more settled agrarians of the EAH to be a barbarian state.  This, in fact, is reflected in their laws, which miraculously have been archeologically recovered.

Here is the archeological report upon which the NYT article is based:

"Early evidence for mounted horseback riding in northwest China"

Yue LiChengrui Zhang, William Timothy Treal Taylor, Liang Chen, Rowan K. Flad, Nicole Boivin, Huan Liu, Yue You, Jianxin Wang, Meng Ren, Tongyuan Xi, Yifu HanRui Wen, and Jian Ma



This study provides insights into the emergence and adoption of equestrian technologies in China. Analysis of ancient horse bones from Shirenzigou and Xigou in eastern Xinjiang demonstrates that pastoralists along China’s northwest frontier practiced horseback riding and mounted archery by the fourth century BCE. This region may have played a key role in the initial spread of equestrian technologies from the Altai region into the heartland of China’s early settled states, where they eventually facilitated the rise of the first united empires in China and triggered extensive social, political, and economic exchanges between China and its neighbors on the Eurasian Steppes.



Horseback riding was a transformative force in the ancient world, prompting radical shifts in human mobility, warfare, trade, and interaction. In China, domestic horses laid the foundation for trade, communication, and state infrastructure along the ancient Silk Road, while also stimulating key military, social, and political changes in Chinese society. Nonetheless, the emergence and adoption of mounted horseback riding in China is still poorly understood, particularly due to a lack of direct archaeological data. Here we present a detailed osteological study of eight horse skeletons dated to ca. 350 BCE from the sites of Shirenzigou and Xigou in Xinjiang, northwest China, prior to the formalization of Silk Road trade across this key region. Our analyses reveal characteristic osteological changes associated with equestrian practices on all specimens. Alongside other relevant archaeological evidence, these data provide direct evidence for mounted horseback riding, horse equipment, and mounted archery in northwest China by the late first millennium BCE. Most importantly, our results suggest that this region may have played a crucial role in the spread of equestrian technologies from the Eurasian interior to the settled civilizations of early China, where horses facilitated the rise of the first united Chinese empires and the emergence of transcontinental trade networks.

Even when we go to the moon and beyond, the thrust of the rockets that take us there is still measured in horsepower — by the millions.


Selected readings


[Thanks to June Teufel Dreyer, Dan Waugh, and Alan Kennedy]


  1. Dick Margulis said,

    November 15, 2020 @ 2:20 pm

    I saw the article in the Times and thought of your columns on the subject. What caught my eye was the assertion that equestrianism (that is, riding horses) came after the use of horses to draw carts. I didn't notice where using horses as pack animals fell on that timeline—whether before or after their use as draft animals. As a casual reader, I probably wouldn't have thought about those as separate stages in the domestication of horses had the article not drawn my attention to it.

  2. Pamela said,

    November 15, 2020 @ 3:05 pm

    The article is confirmation of the fairly long-standing consensus on the origins and chronological of horse riding. I was recently able to describe in an article the role of the Yellow River valley in horse breeding –not riding, or at least not with the technologies that we know prevailed in Eurasian equestrian history. China have had still had populations of stenonid horses in early historic times (possibly providing what seem like horse themes in some early art), and an area extending through southern Mongolia and northern China appears to have been important in the emergence of true caballus lineages. Stallions from Central Asia were imported and applied to the much larger populations of mares of these populations, eventually producing an all-purpose horse whose descendants played a role in the production of historical horse populations across Eurasia. So without being the origin of either horse breeding or horse riding, the Yellow River basin played a very influential role in the development of the most commonly distributed horse types across Eurasia in the neolithic and bronze ages (and probably was also the proximate homeland of Przewalski's horse, which as known today is not a wild population but a feral population).

  3. Gail Brownrigg said,

    November 15, 2020 @ 5:28 pm

    It is not universally accepted that Prjewalski horses are feral rather than a wild species. The suggestion in the paper by Gaunitz et al 2018 (C. Gaunitz et al, Ancient genomes revisit the ancestry of domestic and Przewalski’s horses, Science 10.1126/Science aao 3297, 2018) that domesticated Przewalski horses at Botai were the ancestor of all the thousands of P. horses ranging over the huge area of Asia does call into question the validity of the conclusions reached in the 2009 paper (Alan K. Outram, et al ., The Earliest Horse Harnessing and Milking, Science 323, 1332 (2009). DOI: 10.1126/science.1168594)

  4. Pamela said,

    November 16, 2020 @ 10:42 am

    Yes, that's important, the genetic issues are debated and will continue to be. The genetics may be inconclusive or still open to interpretation, but for me the nearly universal distribution of the dun gene through P horses means they are probably not wild. We know what wild horses looked like because we see them depicted very precisely at Chauvet and elsewhere. They had tremendous variety of coat colors, including dun and paint and what looks like some early form of bay, along with the primitive leggings of wild horses. Domestic horses today include all these traits, including dun stripes and primitive leggings, but the association of some breeds with overwhelming probability of a single coat orientation is a result of selection, and that is what is seen with P horses. Now, this selection could be a kind of natural selection –P horses could have evolved toward dun as a natural protection in the same way zebras evolved toward heavy body striping. To me, the edge goes toward human breeding and feral heritage in the case of the P horse because of the ambiguities of the genetic evidence, particularly evidence of some kind of late neolithic gene pool encompassing southern Mongolia and northern China, and the distinct differences from wild horses as we see them very explicit and precisely depicted.

  5. maidhc said,

    November 17, 2020 @ 1:01 am

    In the documentary about the Iron Road that was posted here recently, it said that the Central Asians used iron for horse bits, making horses much more manageable and leading to the use of cavalry. Was that because bronze was too soft for horse bits? In the Middle Eastern Bronze Age, horses were used to pull chariots. In Egypt I believe that chariots were not used until the time of the Hyksos (c. 1600 BC).

    If you had horse skeletons, could you determine the use of bits by looking at their teeth?

    It seems to me that to ride horses you would need also bigger horses than you would for pulling a chariot. The Hittites were known for horse breeding, and also the Central Asians.

  6. GH said,

    November 17, 2020 @ 5:27 am

    On a somewhat related topic, the other day I came across a new genetic study of the populations of the Eurasian Steppe from 4600 BCE to 1400 CE, which shows how different populations moved, expanded and mixed over that period, and the extent to which changes in material culture, language and political entities were associated (or not) with genetic changes in the population:

    Jeong et al. "A Dynamic 6,000-Year Genetic History of Eurasia’s Eastern Steppe" Cell 183:4.


  7. Pamela said,

    November 17, 2020 @ 10:50 am

    a good deal of what is known about horse domestication and riding does come from tooth wear on horse skeletons, yes. I should think it would be relatively easy to distinguish among bone, leather, bronze, iron and steel bits. I don't quite see what an iron bit would have to do with widespread use of cavalry. it helps to have a bit on a horse to ride it, but it is not necessary (even today hackamores do not have bits). a well-trained horse would respond to any sort of bit. I do think there may be a correspondence to horse size, but before the medieval period riding horses were what we would now consider small –13 or 14 hands. more widespread use of chain mail armor by horse and rider was probably connected to increase in size of riding horses, and a big horse might indeed need an iron bit. horses pulling chariots were generally not large, since chariots were light; I think the assumption is they were about the same size as riding horses. draft horses, which were sometimes used in preference to oxen before the Middle Ages, could get very large. they were the source of the destriers, which we now think of as war horses. without agriculture, supply wagons in war and the need for large commodity wagons traveling over engineered roads, who knows if horses would ever have got large enough carry heavily armed knights.

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