The Early Horse Herders of Botai

Lead researcher: Sandra Olsen

Kazakh horses on the steppe near Botai.

Kazakh horses on the steppe near Botai

Investigations of the Copper Age Botai culture (3700–3100 BCE) of north-central Kazakhstan reveal an unusual economy focused primarily on horses. The large, permanent settlements have yielded enormous collections of horse remains. Excavations at the eponymous site have produced an astonishing 300,000 or more bone fragments, over 90% of which were derived from horses. The Botai culture is now seen as a crucial source of information for documenting horse domestication, one of the most seminal developments in human history. It provides the optimal case study for this elusive achievement because Botai sites are located in the heart of the native geographic range of the European wild horse, Equus ferus, and date to the fourth millennium BCE, sometime soon after horse domestication began. As a result, this culture offered an ideal opportunity for developing a multidisciplinary, holistic approach to research questions surrounding this process.

Map of Kazakhstan showing Botai culture sites (3100-3700 BCE)

Map of Kazakhstan showing Botai culture sites (3100-3700 BCE)

The preceding Neolithic people of northern Kazakhstan forest-steppe were nomadic hunters who took a variety of animals as their prey, including red deer, moose, aurochs (wild cattle), saiga antelope, and the European wild horse.  Their sites consist of shallow campsites and occasionally one or two semi-subterranean houses, implying that they traveled in small bands and remained in one location for very brief intervals.  Beginning sometime in the fourth millennium BCE, the Botai radically changed their lifestyle and began settling in substantial, year-round villages.  The settlement of Botai had over 160 pit houses, while remote sensing revealed that Krasnyi Yar had 54 and Vasilkovka IV had 44. The fourth site, Roshchinskoe, has not been investigated in detail. Botai stone tools also morphed dramatically from the light, easily transported blades of the peripatetic Neolithic hunters to heavier bifaces.  The cord and comb-impressed pottery, on the other hand, continued to be very similar to that of their ancestors.

House reconstruction

Investigations of the Botai sites in the past two decades reveal that the ancient people were sedentary pastoralists who raised herds of domesticated horses. They also had domesticated dogs, but no additional livestock.  The same wild species were hunted as in the Neolithic, but much less frequently.

Based on the large numbers of cut marks and chop marks on the horse bones, the Botai were clearly eating horsemeat.  The chopping methods reflect the routine division of horse carcasses into smaller portions and marrow extraction.  For sufficient fat intake, marrow and bone grease would have been an essential part of the diet.  Residue analysis by Dr. Richard Evershed (Outram et al. 2009) identified horse milk in several pots, indicating that fermented mare’s milk, or koumiss, was consumed.

Horse cranium and neck

Horse manure was used as a building material for insulating house roofs.  A corral was identified based on geochemical markers for manure (high concentrations of phosphorus) and urine (high concentrations of sodium) in an enclosure at Krasnyi Yar.  The absence of the Schlepp Effect in the faunal assemblage illustrates that horses were normally slaughtered in or near the village, rather than hunted and field dressed.   Horses were sacrificed and their heads and necks were placed in pits around the perimeters of houses, facing NE or SE, toward the rising sun in the spring or autumn.   Large numbers of thong-smoothers, made from horse mandibles, may reflect the need for rawhide thongs for equestrian tack.  Hundreds of bone artifacts were made from the remains of horses, including female figurines from phalanges.  These shed light on the dress construction and decorations of the women of Botai.

 

Female figurine carved from horse phalanx

Female figurine carved from horse phalanx

Although the Botai subsisted primarily on horsemeat, other animal remains have also been found, albeit in very small numbers.  The array of wild animals that were hunted includes aurochs, saiga antelope, moose, red deer, wolf, fox, wolverine, beaver, marmot, hare, and a variety of birds.  Very few fish remains were found, despite fine sieving at the excavations, and no specific fishing equipment has been found at Botai sites.

Dogs, most of which resembled the Samoyed breed, were second in frequency after the horse in the faunal assemblages. Their remains are closely associated with those of horses in sacrificial pits, which may reflect their relationship in life. Dogs are still important today in Kazakhstan for herding horses, and also would have been useful hunting alongside horses.   Dog skulls or whole bodies were interred in paired pits just outside houses on the west or southwest side. The association of two dogs with the west is found in many ancient Indo-European cultures.

Conclusions

Research continues on the faunal remains from Krasnyi Yar and Vasilkovka IV.  It is clear that the Botai represent a dramatic shift in lifestyle on the steppe that sprung from the arrival of domesticated horses.  Because this change appears full-blown rather suddenly, it is thought that the horse was domesticated elsewhere, probably Ukraine or western Russia, and was then introduced into this region.