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How Southern Russia exported all the modern horses of the world

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For thousands of years, the grasslands of Europe and Asia were home to a mosaic of genetically distinct equine lines. But a single descent galloped forward to catch and replace all the other wild horses. This tamed descent became the horse of our modern imagination: slender legs, a muscular back, and a mane that shines in the wind.

For decades, scientists had been trying to figure out when and where modern horses were first domesticated, but still had not found the tobacco hoof they needed.

Now, in a newspaper published Wednesday in the magazine Nature, scientists have finally solved the mystery. After collecting and sequencing the 273 ancient equine genomes, a team of 162 authors concluded that modern horses were domesticated about 4,200 years ago in the steppes around southern Russia, near where the Volga and Don rivers meet.

This new work comes as close as possible to solving the mystery of the origin of the domestic horse, according to Peter Heintzman, a paleogenomic researcher on the Troms campus of the Arctic University of Norway, who was not involved in the research. It’s a monumental endeavor, Dr Heintzman said, noting that they collected a data wall of hundreds of horses.

Ludovic Orlando, a paleogenetic and research director at the Toulouse Center for Anthropobiology and Genomics in France and an author in the newspaper, has struggled with this question for a decade.

In recent years, researchers settled in a Botai settlement in the steppes of Kazakhstan, which was filled with fragments of horse bones and clay pots that were coated with what appeared to be mare’s milk. This was the earliest archaeological evidence of taming horses and looked promising as the birthplace of modern horses.

But in 2018, a team of researchers including Drs. Orlando sequenced the horse bone genomes in Botai. To the astonishment of researchers, the Botai horses did not create modern horses, but were the direct ancestors of the Przewalskis horses, a thick lineage originally thought to be the last wild horses on the planet. They discovered that the Przewalskis were not savages after all, but rather the savage descendants of the native people. So the enigma of the origin of modern horses remained unsolved. Every time I expected something, it was wrong, said Dr. Orlando.

He said that to solve the mystery, we decided to be exhaustive and really look everywhere.

Everywhere, in this case, is meant throughout Eurasia. Starting in 2016, Dr. Orlando collected specimens throughout the region from archaeological collections and new excavations, basically every ancient horse bone they could get their hands on.

To preserve the remains for the future, researchers drilled small holes in ancient horses in the inner ears, teeth and other bones to take small samples.

As researchers gradually mapped horse genomes in time and space, the picture became sharper. A little over a year ago, they were able to pinpoint the exact location: the Volga-Don region in what is now Russia.

With such a large body of data, the researchers ended up responding to other historical details. They found that modern horses had two major genetic differences from other ancient ancestors, one gene associated with humility and another with a stronger backbone which may have facilitated the spread of animals.

Domestic horses transformed human history, allowing humans to travel great distances and develop new warfare technologies. Everyone loved the horse, said Dr Orlando.

Accordingly, the genetic findings of the letters represent major advances in our understanding of the human societies that bred these horses, said Pauline Hanot, a postdoctoral researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research, who was not involved in the research.

The study also debunked ideas about the role of horses in early human history. For example, an earlier theory suggested that a pastoral people called the Yamnaya were able to migrate by horse in large numbers to Europe about 5,000 years ago. But the new genetic map found no evidence; researchers note calm, not horses, may have been the driving force behind their expansion.

The new paper also reveals native horses spread throughout Eurasia along with the Bronze Age Sintashta culture, which possessed talking wheeled chariots, about 3,800 years ago.

After smoothing out all this equine data, Dr. Orlando has taken on a new hobby: He started taking riding lessons.

Like all other people, he rides domestic horses descended from ancient animals that galloped in southern Russia.

I would not dare approach a Przewalskis horse, Dr Orlando said. They kill wolves. I’m not that racer.

Sources

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2/ https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/20/science/horses-domestication-russia.html

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