Ancient Krasnyi Yar

Part of the Horse exhibition.

Uncovering the Past

Some 5,000 years ago, a community of hunters known as the Botai people lived on the steppes of Central Asia. Were they among the first humans to breed horses and put them to use?

To find out more about the domestication of horses, archaeologists are studying the site of Krasnyi Yar in northern Kazakhstan, a country that borders Russia and China. Thousands of horse bones found at this site show that the people who settled here in the distant past lived near horse herds and ate large quantities of horsemeat. But were the horses domestic, or wild? Researchers are considering a wide array of evidence to decide, including bones, artifacts, and even chemicals in the soil.

Out of the Dust

At the Krasnyi Yar dig site in Kazakhstan, researchers are uncovering the remains of a village that was once home to the Botai people, whose lives depended on horses. The people and horses are now long gone. But by studying what they left behind, archaeologists hope to understand their relationship more clearly. What did they mean to each other? Were the horses at Krasnyi Yar domesticated?

magnetic image
Krasnyi Yar magnetic image.
Sandra Olsen

Fenced In

By surveying this site with magnetic sensors, archaeologists have found traces of holes where posts once stood. Connect the dots, and these curving rows of postholes suggest fences. What were they for?

Researchers tested samples of soil from inside the fence and found them high in nitrogen and phosphates--the same chemicals found in soil enriched by manure. Horses were the only potential livestock at the site, so it is very likely that these fenced areas were horse corrals.

Leather Craft

A tool shaped from a horse's jawbone was used to make leather ropes, or thongs. Strips of horsehide were pulled back and forth against the notch in the bone until they became flexible and smooth. Researchers have found many tools of this kind at Krasnyi Yar, showing that the villagers prepared lengths of rawhide--materials often used to make gear for horse control, such as bridles, whips, and lassos.

manure roof
Modern Mongolian manure roof.
Sandra Olsen

Up on the Roof

Archaeologists have uncovered the floor of a house at Krasnyi Yar. Under a microscope, soil from inside a Botai house looks very similar to manure. One explanation is that the Botai people spread horse dung on their roofs for insulation, as many Kazakh horse herders do today. After the people left, the roof caved in, leaving the dung on the floor.

Food and Drink

The first domestic horses were probably mainly kept as a source of food, rather than for work or for riding. Horse bones found at Krasnyi Yar are covered with cut marks, making it clear that the people who lived here butchered horses for meat. Their pottery contains evidence too. Biochemists are testing ceramics unearthed from the site to see if they contain tiny traces of milk fats--a sign that the Botai people milked their horses, as many Kazakh people do today.

Milking a Mare

Many people in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries milk horses, then ferment the milk to make a drink called koumiss. The milk is full of vitamins and helps complete a diet rich in meat.

From Herding to Riding

No one knows exactly when people began raising, harnessing or riding horses, but evidence from archaeology and ancient art shows that all of these skills were well developed by 1500 BC.

c. 3500 BC
 Horses are raised for meat in Kazakhstan.

c. 2000 BC
 Horses pull chariots in eastern Russia and Kazakhstan.

2000-1500 BC
 Horseback riding becomes common in Afghanistan and Iran.

Ancient Krasnyi Yar

Around 5,000 years ago, as many as 200 people lived in this village in northern Kazakhstan. More than 50 houses stood here, and fenced areas may have served as corrals.

The people who lived here grew no crops. Ninety percent of the bones they left behind are horse bones, showing they mainly ate horsemeat. A large settlement like this would have been difficult to feed on hunting alone. So archaeologists think it likely that the people of this village raised domestic horses for food.