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Horse Genetics and the Blue Stones

30 January 2022
Ancient history

Horses have been entwined with human history for at least 5000 years. At https://phys.org/news/2022-01-quest-uncover-horse-rewriting-picture.html … we learn that horses enabled rapid transport and played a role in agriculture, warfare, and even in sport [polo for example, or horse racing]. In spite of this it is a mystery how modern horses were first domesticated, and where. Previous thinking was that all of modern horses are descended from the horses ridden by the Botai people who were extent 5500 years ago in what is today, northern Kazakhstan. Why? their horses resembled the wild Przewalski's horse. However, genetics has now shown it was somewhat more complicated. Scientists analysed the DNA from the ancient bones of 20 horses from Botai and 22 from other parts of Eurasia. They then compared them with 46 genomes of modern horses. The results showed that the Botai were the ancestors of Przewalski's horses. Nowadays this breed only lives in Mongolia. Mopdern domestic horses only share 3 per cent of ancestry with Botai horses.

This seems to indicate horses have been domesticated on more than one occasion – and the evidence flies in the face of the idea that Przewalski's horses were not the last truly wild breed. In other words, they were the feral descendants of Botai horses. Not a completely wild breed. Where then did domestic breeds arise from?

Unfortunately, genetics at the moment cannot discover that question. What genetics can do, as it has with human genetic studies, is to pinpoint the most important spread of horses [from Eurasia into Europe and India and the Near and Middle East]. A major international team was assembled and they studied273 genomes of ancient horses from across Eurasia going back 50,000 years. A research paper in Nature comes up with their conclusions. The implication made is that most modern horses are descended from horses extent around 2200BC [at the end of the EB Age] and were previously found on the steppe zone between the Don and the Volga [in what is now Russia]. This dominance was due to rapid expansion as far as the Atlantic in the west to Mongolia in the north east. The process took a hundred years or so and marks west, east and south that was so quick it obliterated earlier breeds such as the Botai horses. Since that time there has been no further comparable expansion, although steppe horses continued to be introduced south of the Caucasus by the likes of the Scythians and Cimmerians. The inference is quite important as it coincides with the arrival of Aryans in India [probably on a second occasion] and the people who established the kingdom of Mitanni in northern Mesopotamia [and presumably the ruling elite of the Hittites]. The horses of the steppe people known from the tombs of Ur, go back to around 3200BC, and would presumably have arrived as the Botai horse breed. These clearly did not survive as a breeding population once the steppe people had been overthrown as it is known that subsequently, other animals were used to replace the horse, the onager for example [into the EB period]. Once the EB had collapsed, which included a foray into the region by the Gutians [with apparent steppe ancestry], and somewhat later the ascendancy in Babylonia of the Kassites, the horse became a feature of society in the Levant the Middle East, and Iran etc. Hence, the horse would have been related to the 2200BC breeds. What this means for the Jamnaya influx into Europe around 3200BC is left unsaid. Presumably, their horses were superseded by the new breeds. Why should that have happened? Once again genetics come to the rescue. In this instance, horse genetics. It seems that horses prior to 2200BC had weaker backs than the later breeds and therefore limited their use for riders, as in horseback warriors. They could pull wagons and chariots, one might muse, but even then their backs were not sufficiently strong enough for heavy labour etc. The breeds that spread after 2200BC had strong backs, according to their genome, but we should also bear in mind what was going on around 2200BC in order to set the expansion of the horse, and rider, in place. The EB period came to a catastrophic end as a result of earthquake, and other disasters, from as far west as the Aegean to Iran and as far east as China and India etc. It also affected the Americas and Europe but the actual destruction levels are better known in the more populated Near and Middle East. The catastrophic events were the driver that carried forth the migrating horse using people, who penetrated all points south from the Greek world and western Anatolia, to other groups coming through the Caucasus into Iran and the Middle East, and further east, into the flanks of India etc. That accounts for the rapidity of the movement and the genetic change that appeared to have been considerable. None of this is really controversial as even early 20th century archaeologists saw a link between newcomers in the Hellenic world and those further east, as a result of a commonality of grey ware pottery. The part that is controversial is the catastrophic events. These are mainly not allowed in mainstream history. Claude Schaeffer was ostracised for making such a claim – and he limited himself to earthquakes rather than meteors or any other agent of destruction. Another interesting point is that it was not just innovative horse riding that was introduced but the Indo European languages [as they have subsequently evolved]. We all have a little bit of Russian in us, it would seem.

There has been another interesting, but well prodded archaeological mystery, aired this week, and that is the origins of the bluestone dolerite at Stonehenge. The story popped up on various media outlets, including Yahoo [sent in by William]. However, geologist Brian John has long advocated that the Stonehenge blue stones were erratics. Not necessarily arriving on Salisbury Plain but endemic to South Wales and the Bristol Channell where they could have subsequently been transported by river to a point close to Stonehenge. He is not a fan of the idea the bluestone circle was removed from a site in the Preseli mountains of northern Pembrokeshire and transported by sled, or a similar way, to Salisbury Plain. See https://brian-mountainman.blogspot.com/2022/01/not-quite-dead-in-water.html … where the story was followed up by a visit to the site by Brian John, author of the book, 'The Bluestone Enigma'. The discovery of the erratic on the beach at The Mumbles, outside Swansea, a scenic region, has reopened the geologist versus archaeologist take on the blue stone provenance. They are all agreed they come from the Preseli region but the dispute is on how much humans were involved. Mike Parker Pearson and some others have suggested a former circle in the Preselis was removed in its entirety and transported to Salisbury Plain. Brian John and some geologists do not dispute humans may have been partly involved in the transfer – but from a much closer point to Wiltshire. Essentially, they consider them to have been deposited as erratics during the last Ice Age, where glaciation certainly did occur across Scotland, the Lake District, and the mountains of Wales [including we may assume the Preselis]. The position in the lowland zone and the valleys is less certain. The theory is that glaciers moved large stones at the point of the snout. One may also add that meltwaters, if rapid enough, may have also moved large stones, but the rapidity itself would be disputed by most geologists. The argument has been revived by the erratic that appears to be trapped between two other stones, described as a crevice like position [see the image at the link above]. Over the years small pieces of blue stone dolerite have turned up on the Gower Peninsular, to the south of The Mumbles, and even in the Bristol Channel. It is a possibility the blue stones were then transported through the river system to end up at Salisbury during phase One [around 3000BC]. Whether the erratics could have got any closer to Stonehenge is an unknown.

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