New clues to the origin of domestic horses

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Domestic horses are probably not native to Anatolia as previously suspected, according to a new study of ancient remains dating as far back as 9,000 BCE.

Instead, they may have been introduced to the peninsula – which makes up most of modern-day Turkey – and the neighboring Caucasus region from the Eurasian steppe around 2000 BCE, during the Bronze Age.

The results, presented in an article in the journal Scientists progress, also suggest that imported domestic horses were bred with local wild Anatolian horses and donkeys, and provide the earliest genomic evidence of a mule in Southwest Asia, dating to between 1100 and 800 BCE.

The research was led by Silvia Guimaraes of the Jacques Monod Institute, Paris, and brought together scientists from France, Germany, the United States, the Netherlands and Armenia.

The domestication of horses some 5,500 years ago changed transport, trade, war and migration forever, but despite their transformative role in human history, it is still unclear where, when and how many times have horses been domesticated.

Anatolian wild horse tooth. Credit: Benjamin S. Arbuckle, Chapel Hill University

In particular, write Guimaraes and his colleagues, the origin of the domestic horse in Anatolia, and more generally in South-West Asia, “continues to represent a complex archaeological puzzle”.

In recent years, however, the recovery of horse remains from archaeological sites in Anatolia and neighboring regions, coupled with new technologies, has made it possible to specifically address the processes responsible for the origin of domestic horses in this part of the world. ‘Asia.

In 2018, a study published in Science upset conventional thinking by suggesting that the horses of the Botai culture of Kazakhstan were not the ancestors of our modern equine companions.

To go further, Guimaraes and his colleagues analyzed 111 equine remains from eight sites in central Anatolia and six in the Caucasus, mostly dating from the Early Neolithic to the Iron Age (9000-500 BCE). .

They performed morphological and paleogenetic analyzes, scrutinizing mitochondrial DNA, Y chromosome DNA, and DNA markers related to coat color.

They found, they say, that the non-local genetic lines still present in domestic horses appeared suddenly around 2000 BCE rather than developing gradually over time, as one would expect if these changes did appear. in Anatolia.

“We were able to identify mitotypes characteristic of local Anatolian wild horses, which were regularly exploited in the early and mid-Holocene,” they write in their article.

“However, we have identified a pattern of genetic change that does not reflect a gradual process involving the local population, but rather a sudden appearance ~ 2000 BCE of non-local lines which are still present in domestic horses.”

Their findings, they suggest, draw attention to neighboring Black Sea regions as a more likely origin for domesticated horses.

Credit: Eva-Maria Geigl, CNRS, and Institute of Horse and Riding ifce, France




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