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(Courtesy Dr. Alan Outram, University of Exeter)

The world's first broncobusters, it seems, hailed from Central Asia. New research proves that herders from the steppes were the first to tame horses 5,500 years ago. Since the 1990s, horse bones have been unearthed at the site of Botai, a village in what is now northern Kazakhstan that was occupied from 3700 to 3100 B.C. But a new analysis of bones, teeth, and pottery sherds leaves no question that the people of Botai practiced horse husbandry.

Researchers from the U.S., Britain, and Kazakhstan, including archaeologist Sandra Olsen of Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Natural History compared the Botai bones with those from two sites occupied by nomadic horse hunters at the same time as Botai and one from the Bronze Age (1200-900 B.C.), by which time horses had clearly been domesticated. They say the Botai equines are closer to domesticated horses than to wild ones. Most notably, their lower leg bones are robust, and show evidence of load bearing. Their teeth are also shaped in a way that suggests they wore bits.

Using a newly refined method of stable isotope analysis, the researchers detected horse milk on pottery sherds from Botai. In the past, it had been difficult to distinguish between horse-meat fats and milk fats on pottery. Horses were hunted by the nomadic tribes of the steppes, so the presence of meat fat would tell the scholars little. On the other hand, milk fat could only come from domesticated horses. "It is inconceivable that anyone would milk a wild mare," says Olsen.

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