Botai: Early Horse Herders on the Steppes of Northern Kazakhstan 


Pollen analysis of soil samples from our excavations at Krasnyi Yar, by Dr. Robert Scaife, Isle of Wight, shed light on the paleoenvironment at the time that the Botai culture lived in this region of the Eurasian steppe. His investigation showed that the environment at the time of occupation consisted of open steppe with scattered pine and birch woodland. The herb flora is typical of the steppe, with the importance of halophytic taxa, plants naturally growing in saline environments. Grass pollen is relatively more important in the context of the house pit that was excavated, and it is probable that this came from building materials or house floor coverings. Overall, it appears that the vegetational habitat was comparable with the current one.


Investigations of the Botai sites in the past two decades reveal that the ancient people were sedentary pastoralists who raised herds of domesticated horses. They also had domesticated dogs, but no cattle, sheep, goats, or pigs. Based on the large numbers of cut marks (Fig. 11, Fig. 12) and chop marks on the horse bones, the Botai were clearly eating horsemeat. The chopping methods indicate a concentration on dividing the carcasses into smaller portions and extracting marrow. For sufficient fat intake, marrow and bone grease would have been an important part of the diet.


Fig. 11 Butchering cut marks from stone tool on horse bone from Krasnyi Yar  


Fig. 12 Scanning electron micrograph of cut mark  

They also made their bone tools from the skeletons of horses, skinned the horses, and probably drank their fermented milk (Fig. 13). Investigations of residues in Botai culture pottery to try to identify ancient mare’s milk are currently being conducted by Alan Outram, Exeter University, and Dr. Richard Evershed and his team, in the Biochemistry Department at Bristol University.


Fig. 13 Modern Kazakh woman milking mare  

Fermented mare’s milk is an important source of vitamins and other nutrients for the modern Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Bashkir, Mongol, Sakha, and other Eurasian steppe peoples. Koumiss, as it is known in Kazakh, or airag, in Mongolian, is reported to have been consumed on the Eurasian steppe at least since Herodotus’s time (fifth century BC). One of the most definitive forms of evidence for domestication consists of lipid residues on the insides of potsherds from Krasnyi Yar and Vasilkovka IV, which demonstrate that horse milk was stored in vessels.

Manure in the collapsed houses indicates that it was collected to insulate the roofs of their structures. Kazakhs and Mongols today still use manure to insulate the roofs of their outbuildings (Fig. 14). There are also some indications on the teeth and foot bones that the Botai rode horses and may have even used them for hauling packs and pulling loads (sleighs, sledges, or travois). In other words, by 3500 BCE, horses on the steppe were being utilized in a variety of ways.


Fig. 14 Manure on roof of sheep stable in Mongolia 

Normally, pastoralists on the steppe are and were nomadic. It is highly unusual to have a sedentary lifestyle without agriculture, as seen by nomadic groups before the Soviet government forced settlement on communes. Even agro-pastoralists moved part of their population seasonally. But the Botai, having just one kind of livestock that was well adapted to the harsh climate, did not need to move their herds to summer and winter pastures every year. Cattle and sheep, which became plentiful in the subsequent Bronze Age, on the other hand, are poorly suited to the snows and ice storms that can plague the Eurasian steppe. They require movement to safe winter pastures in the south, or fodder and heated stables. It was the later introduction of cattle and sheep that drove steppe herders to become nomadic.

The Botai did supplement their diet of horsemeat with occasional hunting of the same species that their ancestors took. They relied on fishing along their nearby rivers to a very small extent, however.

Because skeletal remains of horses from the fourth millennium BCE have so far failed to show definitive morphological changes with domestication, we explored the way horse domestication altered the lives of the herders and their settlements. One approach is to investigate whether horses were corralled in or near the settlement.


Fig. 15 Modern Kazakh horse corral 

One advantage of the Copper Age Botai settlements is that the only potential domestic livestock were horses. There are no sheep or goat remains and the few cattle bones are from the enormous wild aurochs, Bos primigenius. Therefore, if enclosures are found to contain evidence of manure, they must have been horse corrals (Fig. 15).

Remote sensing (see Section 3) techniques revealed curvilinear arrangements of dark spots that are interpreted as post moulds from fences or structures. To test whether these might represent corrals, soil samples were collected within one enclosure across north-south and east-west transects. These were then compared to samples derived from offsite in order to obtain natural background values. This work was conducted by Dr. Michael Rosenmeier, Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of Pittsburgh (Fig. 16). Modern horse manure is enriched in phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium. Nitrogen species are relatively mobile and over time can be lost to groundwater or to the atmosphere by both inorganic and organic processes (e.g., denitrification). Phosphorus, on the other hand, can be fixed in calcium and iron phosphate minerals, and is more likely to be preserved in archaeological environments.


Fig. 16 Dr. Rosenmeier taking core samples in corral area 

The elemental analysis of these soil samples was performed by Dr. Rosemary Capo, from Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of Pittsburgh. Phosphorus concentrations in the samples were elevated, as would be expected where manure was concentrated. Total nitrogen levels, on the other hand, were comparatively low. This is not surprising for ancient deposits, since nitrogen is highly mobile and readily depleted. However, according to Rosenmeier, transect soil samples did appear significantly enriched in 15N, relative to both local offsite and regional soils. The relatively high d15N values of the soil organic matter from the transects may reflect an increasing contribution to the soil organic matter from animal manures, since compared with diet, livestock manure is typically enriched in 15N. Elevated sodium concentrations may be indicative of horse urine.

In 2008, Dr. Jennifer Dungait, at the Biochemistry Department at Bristol University, analyzed the soil from the transects within the enclosure in order to test for manure-associated lipids, including stanols, sterols, and bile acids, contained in the fecal matter of horses. Control samples taken from outside the site proper were compared to the soil within the enclosure to determine if there was a significant concentration of biological signals of manure beyond that found in background samples. The lipids coprostanol and epicoprostanol were found inside the ancient enclosure, indicating the presence of general fecal matter.

The identification of a likely horse corral at the fourth-millennium settlement of Krasnyi Yar adds significantly to the mounting evidence for horse domestication in the Botai culture. Critics have selectively dismissed individual secondary lines of evidence from Botai sites, but when the whole picture is viewed, the cumulative data are extremely compelling. An enclosure that contained horses within the village proper is to date one of the significant pieces of evidence supporting the argument that horses were fully domesticated in the Botai culture by around 3500 BCE.

 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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