Botai: Early Horse Herders on the Steppes of Northern Kazakhstan 



 Fig. 42 Burial site   

Archaeologists have found only one Botai burial, so the typical mortuary practices are a mystery. However, in the 1980s, Kazakh archaeologists did find a mass burial containing two men, a woman, and a ten-year-old child (Fig. 42). Perhaps this was a family that died of an epidemic or in an accident? They were buried in a row in a large pit dug into the floor of a house at the site of Botai. Around them were the remains of at least 14 horses, which were probably slaughtered as a part of the funeral ceremony. The people were buried with large quantities of shell beads. This is one of the earliest examples of multiple horse sacrifices in a burial in the Eurasian steppe.

The Botai people were probably Central Asian and may have looked something like modern Kazakh people. However, there is no evidence that they were the ancestors of the Kazakhs living in the region today.

Collaborating with our colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University, we were able to reconstruct what the younger man in the burial looked like. Carnegie Mellon University lecturer Yang Kai used computer software to reconstruct the man’s face from photographs of the skull. This technique put the flesh back on the bones. Carnegie Museum of Natural History Scientific Illustrator Mark Klingler then took it to the next level and produced a lifelike image of the Botai man, complete with hair, eyes, and clothing (Fig. 43).


Fig. 43 Botai reconstruction. Illustration by Mark Klingler. 


Fig. 44 Botai decapitated skull that once had a clay mask, showing locations of fine skinning marks  

Two isolated crania were also found at the site of Botai. One was a complete skull, covered in a clay mask, the other the fragment of a skull bowl. It is difficult to know whether they were trophy heads or, more likely, simply examples of Botai ritual treatment of their own deceased (Fig. 44). Clay masks have been found on skulls in many parts of the Eurasian steppes at later Bronze Age or Iron Age sites.

The Botai head, which was found in a small pit outside a house, was carefully cleaned by delicate skinning, and the brain was removed before the clay was added. Two small holes were drilled in the top of the skull, perhaps to attach a wig or headdress, or to suspend the skull from the rafters or someone’s belt (Fig. 45). It was buried in a small pit with horse bones, arrowheads, and red ochre (iron oxide pigment used for ceremonial purposes).

A fragment of a skull bowl was also found. With the aid of a computer, illustrator Mark Klingler was able to show exactly where on the cranium the fragment belonged and project from the partial rim how the bowl would have looked (Fig. 46).


Fig. 45 Botai decapitated skull, showing two perforations in top of cranium  


Fig. 46 Skull bowl reconstruction superimposed over a human skull. Illustration by Mark Klingler.  


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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