The ancient Scythians once roamed a region spanning from Siberia to the Black Sea beginning in the 9th century and enduring for almost 800 years. Primarily known for their horsemanship skills in battle—which included firing arrows at their enemies whilst on horseback—the ancient Greek historian Herodotus recorded that the Scythians brutally treated those they bested in battle, even blinding their slaves and drinking the blood of their enemies.
Yet a recent study, conducted by an international team of researchers for the journal Science, has compiled new evidence that shows how these nomads played an important role in the domestication of horses. Thirteen sacrificed stallions found in a burial mound in Kazakhstan were tested using the newest genetic tools, providing information that indicates that the Scythians were not just domesticating these animals, but breeding them for certain characteristics. Ludovic Orlando, a molecular archaeology professor at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, says the research reveals that the Scythians had both knowledge and a management strategy dating from 2,300 years ago.
Horses were not the first animals tamed by humans. Dogs were man’s first companions, followed by farm animals such as cattle, pigs, and chickens, which were domesticated between 8,000 and 11,000 years ago at various locations around the world. About 5,500 years ago, horses were first captured and raised for their milk and meat, though riding them would come much later.
The research was conducted using DNA extracted from less than half a gram of the buried stallions’ bone matter. From this, the team successfully analyzed the genomes from 11 of the 13 horses found at the site. From the bone fragments, it was discovered that the horses were being bred for specific traits, such as stockier forelimbs and the ability to retain more water, which may imply that the milk produced by mares was being used for human consumption. The Scythians were also able to successfully breed horses in different colorings such as cream, black, spotted and chestnut. Some of the stallions even possessed the same ‘speed’ genes found in Thoroughbred racehorses today.
The Scythians, it appears, were also cautious about inbreeding, and maintained the natural herd structure followed by horses in the wild. The latest study supports research published three years ago, which suggests that the goal of breeding ‘tamer’ animals actually resulted in a series of traits observable in many domesticated animals today. Among them: varied colorings, curly tails, and smaller brains.
To read the full New York Times’ full report on Scythian horse breeding, click here.