Botai: Early Horse Herders on the Steppes of Northern Kazakhstan 


One of the objectives of this investigation was to identify and map subsurface archaeological features using non-invasive prospecting methods. The geophysical data collected by our team were targeted at houses, pits, and other domestic structures in order to determine the degree of residential planning involved in village construction. The remote sensing investigation also looked for evidence of communal areas such as plazas, since these relate to social organization. Linear arrangements of post moulds, possibly representing corrals, were sought, because they would help provide evidence for early horse domestication.


Fig. 17 Remote sensing images of Vasilkovka IV village with magnetic gradient image on the left and electrical resistivity image on the right. Prominent dark spots represent house pits in both images.  


Fig. 18 Magnetic gradient image of Krasnyi Yar  

The remote sensing study, conducted by David Maki, Archaeophysics, Ltd., consisted of magnetic field gradient and electrical resistance surveys over 66% of the total area of Krasnyi Yar and the entire site of Vasilkovka. In the specific cases of Krasnyi Yar and Vasilkovka, the electrical resistance images show probable houses as intensely dark spots, but usually do not reveal their shapes as distinctly as the magnetic gradient images do. For Krasnyi Yar, about 43 of the houses are indicated by electrical resistance, compared to 54 in the magnetic gradient image. For Vasilkovka, 38 houses were detected using electrical resistance and 44 with magnetic gradient imaging (Fig. 17). Using just electrical resistivity, most of the houses could only be identified as anomalies of an unknown nature. The coordination of the two remote sensing methods increased the degree of certainty in house identification, particularly for the more ambiguous magnetic anomalies. The magnetic images also revealed numerous smaller pits, hearths, and series of post moulds at Krasnyi Yar (Fig. 18). With the aid of remote sensing, we were able to draw reasonably accurate village plans of both Krasnyi Yar (Fig. 20) and Vasilkovka (Fig. 21), showing the locations of major features with minimal excavation.


Fig. 20 Krasnyi Yar  


Fig. 21 Vasilkovka  


House pits or foundations are often visible on the ground surface in the spring as shallow depressions (Fig. 22). Materials and building methods for Botai culture houses have been important topics for investigation. Previous researchers thought that the superstructures of these semi-subterranean houses were built by log cribbing, but Botai stone tool assemblages are curiously lacking any large axes capable of felling trees. Axes are rare and those that are found are usually quite diminutive. Posts for corral fences could be obtained from smaller tree limbs, some of which had fallen.


Fig. 22 House pit at Botai  


Fig. 23 House pit excavated at Vasilkokva  

The houses excavated at Krasnyi Yar and Vasilkovka are square in outline with rounded corners (Fig. 23). In 2002, a breakthrough was finally made in understanding house construction. Fortunately, the two houses excavated at Vasilkovka had burned, consolidating and preserving evidence for wall and roof construction.


Fig. 24 Reconstruction of Botai style house. Illustration by Mark Klingler.  

The aboveground wall foundations of the burned houses appear to have been built of local clay with added small pieces of quartz (Fig. 24). Abundant charcoal in the layers representing the collapsed roofs demonstrated that the houses were covered with a lightweight wooden framework that was sealed with clay. Charles French’s soil micromorphological analysis at Cambridge University Archaeology Department supported our hypothesis that the walls were made from clay and also identified horse manure in the roofing material.

Although it is not possible in every case to determine the shape of individual houses, from remote sensing, most are square and 5-8 meters on a side. Their foundations were dug 0.75-1 meter below the ancient ground surface. House orientation may be closely linked to ethnicity in this region. The predominant orientation of houses in the Botai culture positions the corners toward the cardinal directions. Orientation is evident in the remote sensing images as well as the excavations. This is a pattern that is already apparent in the Neolithic from the Ural Mountains to the west, eastward across northern Kazakhstan. Neolithic houses in many of the region’s cultures are square, about 6 meters on a side, and have the same orientation as those dominant at the Botai sites. The alignment of Botai dwellings in rows produces avenues to walk or ride along and facilitates the efficient grouping of structures close together without making passage between them difficult.


Although the Botai subsisted primarily on horsemeat, as indicated by the 90% or more concentration of horse bones in the faunal assemblages, other animal remains have also been found. Dogs were second in frequency and were the only other domesticated animal identified to date in Botai sites. Wild animals were hunted, including aurochs, saiga antelope, moose, red deer, wolf, fox, wolverine, beaver, marmot, hare, and a variety of birds. Very few fish remains were found, despite fine sieving at our excavations, and no specific fishing equipment has been found at Botai sites. The few harpoons that have been identified were most likely used for hunting large terrestrial game, as witnessed by four examples of wounds in presumably wild horse and aurochs bones.


Fig. 25 Botai dog skull and face of Samoyed breed 


Fig. 26 Dog burial at Botai  

Botai dogs were medium-sized and were comparable to the modern Samoyed breed in terms of size, proportions, and cranial morphology (Fig. 25). The identification of a specific breed at 3300 BCE is significant, particularly since little has been known previously about dog breeds in the Eurasian steppe at this early date. Dog remains are closely associated with horse remains in sacrificial pits, which may reflect their association in life (Fig. 26). Dogs are still important today in Kazakhstan for herding horses, and also would have been useful hunting alongside horses.

 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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