Leiden University: Genetics proves it: Indo-European did not come to Europe on horseback

Horses were first domesticated in South-West Russia, is the conclusion drawn by an international team of researchers writing in the well-respected journal Nature. Their conclusion resolves a longstanding archaeological question. But, surprisingly enough, this domestication did not contribute to the rapid spread of Indo-European languages in Europe, according to a sub-study carried out in Leiden.

In the Nature article, the researchers conclude that the first horses were domesticated some five thousand years ago in the region between the Volga and the Don, two rivers in the west of Russia. Based on DNA research on 273 ancient horse skeletons, they have managed to determine the exact location where horses were first domesticated, thus settling a longstanding discussion in archaeology.

A sub-study carried out by Leiden linguist Guus Kroonen has, however, shown that the domestication of horses was not the cause of the rapid spread of Indo-European languages in Europe in the same period. This language family was brought to Europe five thousand years ago by Russian immigrants, and became the dominant language here. Indo-European is still the predecessor of almost all European languages, including Dutch. But the recent domestication of horses did not play any meaningful role in this.

Hypothesis in part dismissed
This finding at least in part dismisses an important archaeological and linguistic hypothesis, Kroonen explains. Linguists have been trying for a long time to work out how the Indo-European language family managed to spread so rapidly and so successfully. Popular theory has it that the domestication of horses may have played a role in this because horses allowed people to travel faster. But this research shows that the theory does not hold for Europe.

Kroonen reached this conclusion after he and several other archaeologists had examinations made of the remains of horses from the period when Indo-European was spreading over Europe. The examination showed that none of these European horses were descended from the horses from the Russian steppes, the animals that were the first to be domesticated. The conclusion is thus that the Russian immigrants must have come to Europe on foot, bringing the Indo-European language with them, but leaving the horses behind in Russia.

Horses did play a role in India
Surprisingly enough, horses do seem to have played a role in the spread of the language family in India, thus from Russia in an easterly direction. Indo-European was introduced there one millennium later, together with combat chariots. ‘Maybe it took that thousand years to breed and domesticate horses so that they were able to make such long journeys,’ Kroonen hypothesises. ‘You can imagine that a half-wild horse is unlikely to carry a rider or draw a chariot. Horses were probably kept in the early period mainly to provide meat and milk.’

The research reported on in Nature was carried out by a multidisciplinary team of archaeologists, geneticists and linguists. For his sub-study, Kroonen worked with Leiden archaeologist Quentin Bourgeois, who went with Kroonen in search of ancient remains of horses. ‘I think the collaboration among different disciplines is really fantastic,’ Kroonen says. ‘We are now able to test ages-old questions using evidence from genetics and archaeology. All of a sudden, that brings the answers to major questions within reach.’

Looking for other causes
Even so, the results of his own research came as a surprise, says Kroonen. ‘Secretly, I suspected that the domestication of horses would play some kind of role. When this proved not to be the case, it felt like an anticlimax. But, on the other hand, we can now look further for the real causes. We know for sure that Indo-European appeared very suddenly, but this change was probably not related to a transport revolution, but to changes in lifestyle, such as the advent of pastoralism.’

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