Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Luckiest Horse in the Fifth Millennium BCE

The subject for the day is the domestication of the horse, where and when and how and why, as recounted by David W. Anthony in his fascinating and absorbing new book, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language (2008)—and also a salute to the luckiest the Fifth Millennium BCE.

Per Anthony, the date is about 4800 BCE; the place is in what he chooses to call “the Pontic-Caspian steppes,” just above the Caspian Sea. The “why” is interesting: apparently not for riding, but for food—horses were big and meaty and could live over the winter in cold climates (riding came later).

AS to “how,” the flip answer is “it wasn’t easy,” which is not surprising when you stop to think of it: horses—or, more precisely, stallions—are a notoriously tricky lot and they wouldn’t take kindly to being stabled or hobbled or slapped into harness.

But as to precisely how, the DNA evidence provides a remarkable clue. Per Anthony,

the female bloodline of modern domesticated horses shows exgtreme diversity. Traits inherited through the mitochondrial DNA, which passes unchanged from mother to daughter, show that this part of the bloodline is so diverse that at least seventy-seven ancestral mares, grouped into seventeen phlogenetic branches, are required to account for the genetic variety in modern populations around the globe. Wild mares must have been taken into domestic horse herds in many different places at different times. (196)

So much for the ladies. What of the gents? Anthony continues:

Meanwhle the male aspect of modern horse DNA, which is passed unchanged on the Y chromosome from sire to colt, shows remarkable homogeneity. It is possible that just a single wild stallion was domesticated. (Id.)

Got the picture yet? “The standard feral horse band,” explains Anthony, “consists of a stallion with a harem of two to seven mares and their immature offspring.”

Mares are…instinctively disposed to accept the dominance of others, whether dominant mares, stallions—or humans. Stallions are headstrong and violent, and are instinctively disposed to challenge authority by biting and kicking. … [A] relatively docile and controllable stallion was an unusual individual—and one that had little hope of reproducing in the wild. Horse domestication might have depended on a lucky coincidence: the appearance of a relatively manageable and docile male in a place where humans could use him as a breeder of a domesticated bloodline. From the horse’s perspective, humans were the only way he could get a girl. From the human perspective, he was the only sire they wanted. (197)

So here’s to you, Mr. Lucky, the granddaddy of them all.

Afterthought: Anthony’s book is a rewarding read but it’s hard to figure out just who is his target audience. He seems to have written at least three books here—the horse, the wheel, and language—or maybe six—one set each for specialists and non-specialists. The nonspecialist (that would be me) will get a lot out of it, but he’ll find himself skipping a lot of the detail. The specialist—well, my impression is that nothing is ever settled in archaeology, so I suspect there are plenty of specialists ready to prove to me that he’s full of something horsey.

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