Botai: Early Horse Herders on the Steppes of Northern Kazakhstan 


Humans owe more to horses than they do to any other domesticated animal. The roles of horses have evolved through time and continue to do so today. Early on, horses were prey to Paleolithic hunters, providing them with large quantities of meat, bones, hide, and probably hair (Fig. 4). After horses were domesticated, they contributed many additional benefits: fermented mare’s milk (koumiss) (Fig. 5), a means of transportation for people and goods (riding, draft, pack haulage), military service, ritual and status symbols, and participation in sports.

Former Carnegie Museum of Natural History Curator of Anthropology Sandra Olsen and colleagues have discovered persuasive evidence from village sites of the Botai people that indicates horse domestication began as early as 5,500 years ago in Kazakhstan.


 Fig. 4 Solutre, France, site of more than 20,000 years of communal horse hunts, 32,000–12,000 years ago  


Fig. 5 Kazakh mare milking at village of Kenetkul, 2002   


The predecessors of the Botai were nomadic hunters of the steppe who took a variety of animals as their prey, including red deer, moose, aurochs (wild cattle), saiga antelope, and the horse. Their sites consist of shallow campsites with pottery sherds and stone tools and occasionally one or two small houses. This implies that they traveled in small bands and did not stay in one location for very long intervals.

Beginning sometime between 3700–3100 BCE, the Copper Age Botai Culture radically changed their lifestyle and settled in large, permanent villages. They also focused most of their economy on the horse, with more than 90% of the animal bones at their sites attributed to this species. Botai stone tools also changed dramatically, although the pottery was very similar to that of their ancestors.


Fig. 6 Site of Botai showing house pits as greener depressions  


Fig. 7 Map of Kazakhstan showing locations of Botai culture sites  

The Botai lived in north-central Kazakhstan, within the drainage of the Ishim River, one of the major sources of water in this region (Fig. 6, Fig. 7). Only four Botai settlements have been identified: the largest one, Botai, for which the culture is named, Roshchinskoe, Krasnyi Yar, and Vasilkovka IV. They date to between 3700–3100 BCE, based on numerous AMS radiocarbon dates. Sandra Olsen’s research team has investigated Botai as well as the two smaller villages of Krasnyi Yar and Vasilkovka IV, which are just 14 km apart. 


In the 1980s and 1990s, teams of archaeologists from the Petropavlovsk Pedagogical Institute (now Petropavlovsk University) excavated around 70 houses at Botai (Fig. 8.), and one house each at Krasnyi Yar and Vasilkovka IV. Only surveys have been conducted at Roshchinskoe. Their work demonstrated that these sites were roughly contemporaneous and derived from the same culture, the Botai. Olsen’s work at Botai began in 1993 and continued until 1998. She co-directed excavations there in 1994–1995, excavating one house and a large bone midden.


Fig. 8 Aerial photo of the site of Botai. Dark spots are ancient pit houses.  


Fig. 9 Excavations at Krasnyi Yar  

In 2000, a joint Kazakh-American team from Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the Presidential Cultural Center of Kazakhstan initiated excavations at Krasnyi Yar, digging a third house and part of a fourth house (Fig. 9). Nearly all of the artifacts from the excavations at Krasnyi Yar appear to be from the Copper Age. Krasnyi Yar is estimated to have a total area of 5 ha, compared to 9 ha for the site of Botai.


Fig. 10 Landscape as seen from Zhartas Quarry  

In 2001, the Neolithic campsite of Zhusan, located near Krasnyi Yar, was excavated and the stone quarry of Zhartas (Fig. 10) was located, mapped, and evaluated. In 2002, at Vasilkovka IV (Fig. 1, above), one complete house and its surrounding ground surface were excavated and a large trench was dug through an additional house. Our excavations there also produced midden deposits from late 19th-early 20th-century Kazakh herders’ camps filling the house depressions as well as a small scatter of Neolithic material.

 1. Introduction
 1.1 Horses and Humans
 1.2 The Botai People
 1.3 Recent Excavations
2.1 Paleoenvironment of Northern Kazakhstan 5,500 Years Ago
2.2 Sedentary Horse Pastoralism
 3.1 Mapping whole villages with remote sensing
3.2 Reconstructing Botai house structures
3.3 Other Fauna
 4.1 Ceramic Tradition
 4.2 Stone Technology
 4.3 Bone Artifacts
 4.4 Shell Beads
5 Death and the Botai
6.1 Kazakh Archaeology Student Training Program
6.2 Institutional Collaboration and Funding
6.3 Recommended Readings 

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