The Human-Animal Relationship

Lead researcher: Sandra Olsen

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 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.

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.


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.