Botai: Early Horse Herders on the Steppes of Northern Kazakhstan 



Fig. 27 Nearly whole pot from Botai 

Like their Neolithic predecessors and many other groups in the Urals to the west, the Botai made simple bag- or bell-shaped vessels with round or slightly pointed bottoms (Fig. 27). The rims of these jars were slightly everted, straight, or inverted. Their pottery was mostly gray or nearly black, with some appearing occasionally buff or even light orange. No glaze was used and the temper was typically sand or crushed quartz. The vessels were made with the coil method and then smoothed inside and out with a horse rib or scapula paddle. Experiments indicate that the pots were fired at low temperatures in a reducing atmosphere, probably by digging a shallow pit, placing the unfired vessels inside, and packing wood tightly around the pots and building it high before igniting it.

Also, as with many of their neighbors and earlier people in the area, the Botai decorated their pottery with geometric designs, such as hatched triangles and diamonds and step motifs. They did this by impressing a wide variety of objects into the soft clay before firing. The most common were combs and cord-wrapped paddles. In addition, punctate impressions were made with awls and sticks, and circular ones were made with hollow reeds.


 Fig. 28 Cloth impressions on background with comb-impressed ladder pattern  


Fig. 29 Scanning electron microscope (SEM) image of comb impressions  


Fig. 30 Cord-wrapped paddle impressions  


Fig. 31 SEM image of cord impressions  

The surfaces of Botai pottery serve an invaluable function by shedding light on the perishable industries of this culture, including basketmaking, cordmaking, and cloth weaving. One potsherd recorded the impression of a coiled basket, and many pieces have the imprints of twined cloth over large areas of their surfaces (Fig. 28). Comb impressions (Fig. 29) are some of the most common, along with cord-wrapped paddle impressions (Fig. 30). Cord-wrapped paddle impressions show that the cordage was made from bast fibers of plants such as hemp or nettle, and was universally 2-ply and S-twisted (Fig. 31). Without these ceramic impressions, archaeologists would have no record of Botai perishable technologies.


 Fig. 32 Small pit with flakes  


Project co-director Bruce Bradley analyzed all the stone tool assemblages and debitage from our Krasnyi Yar and Vasilkovka IV excavations. During the preceding Neolithic, nomadic hunters had a lightweight blade technology and made their tools at the quarry, for the most part. The Neolithic camp of Zhusan, which we excavated in 2001, contained primarily finished tools, while the hillside quarry, Zhartas, just 8 km away, had blade cores and evidence of Neolithic knapping.

Conversely, the Botai had a biface technology, with thicker, heavier tools, and there is convincing evidence that they made most of their tools in their settlements. At Krasnyi Yar, at least two knapping stations were found, one inside and one outside an abandoned house. A cache of large flakes was found in a small pit (Fig. 32), and large chunks of raw material, thousands of flakes, and many unfinished pieces were found. This change in stone tool manufacture may be related to having packhorses to haul heavy raw material from the quarry.

The people from both Krasnyi Yar and Vasilkovka IV also appear to have used the Zhusan quarry, which is the closest known source for red and green quartzite. Only small amounts of jasper, chalcedony, and flint were found on the hill where Zhartas quarry is, in separate, smaller outcrops.

The Botai stone tool assemblages (Figs. 33 and 34) contain large numbers of thumbnail scrapers as well as smaller amounts of large bifaces (probably knives), spearpoints, arrowpoints, small axes, and pieces esquilles, whose functions are unknown.


 Fig. 33 Stone bifaces from Krasnyi Yar  


Fig. 34 Stone ring from Krasnyi Yar   

Fist-sized stone rings made from material derived from a nearby conglomerate source were found at Krasnyi Yar, but their function is also still unclear.


At the large site of Botai more than 900 bone artifacts were recovered. These include a wide array of weapons as well as tools for weaving, hide working, woodworking, and pottery making. Weapons consist of small numbers of harpoons and bone points made from the heavy metapodials of horses (Fig. 35). Most of the harpoons have dramatic breaks at their tips and across their shafts from impact. Wounds in wild horse and aurochs bones indicate that they were used for hunting large terrestrial game, rather than fish. This is not surprising, since the fish remains from the sites were from species smaller than the harpoons themselves. Awls, for weaving or leatherworking, were manufactured from delicate small mammal and bird long bones (Fig. 36). Worked mandibles of beaver, marmot, and souslik (ground squirrel) (Fig. 37) were most likely employed for incising wood, since their lower incisors showed unusual wear and evidence of filing. The most common bone tools consisted of notched horse mandibles made into thong smoothers (Fig. 38). Thong smoothers are tools for straightening and stretching rawhide thongs. Horse herders could have used thongs for making simple bridles, lassoes, hobbles, and other basic tack.


Fig. 35 Botai harpoon 


Fig. 36 Botai awls 


Fig. 37 Souslik mandible incising tools  


Fig. 38 Thong smoother  

Female figurines made on proximal and occasional mesial phalanges of horse and sometimes saiga antelope are important indicators of the clothing of women and perhaps the belief in a “hearth goddess” to protect the domicile. Fifty-three of these were found at Botai and an additional 13 at Krasnyi Yar in earlier excavations by Petropavlovsk Pedagogical Institute. Incised patterns on the phalanges illustrate the dress construction and ornamentation (Fig. 39, Fig. 40). Caches of phalanges, some decorated, others plain, occur in small pits dug into house floors, suggesting that they were put there as a form of protection.


Fig. 39 Incised proximal phalanx of a horse from Botai.  


Fig. 40 Replica hemp dress made in the style of a Botai dress. Model is Amy Eckhardt, photo by Ron Lutz II  


We know little about the ways in which the Botai adorned their bodies, apart from what is gleaned from female figurines. However, they did manufacture delicate disc beads from freshwater clamshells. These were all perforated at the center, indicating that they were either strung as necklaces and bracelets, or perhaps sewn on clothing (Fig. 41). The burials described in the next section contained large numbers of shell beads located about the neck and wrists.


Fig. 41 Shell beads from Krasnyi Yar  

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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