The Early Horse Herders of Botai

Lead researcher: Sandra Olsen

Kazakh horses on the steppe near Botai.

Kazakh horses on the steppe near Botai.

Investigations of the Copper Age Botai culture (3700–3100 BCE) of north-central Kazakhstan reveal an unusual economy focused primarily on horses. The large, permanent settlements have yielded enormous collections of horse remains. Excavations at the eponymous site have produced an astonishing 300,000 or more bone fragments, over 90% of which were derived from horses. The Botai culture is now seen as a crucial source of information for documenting horse domestication, one of the most seminal developments in human history. It provides the optimal case study for this elusive achievement because Botai sites are located in the heart of the native geographic range of the European wild horse, Equus ferus, and date to the fourth millennium BCE, sometime soon after horse domestication began. As a result, this culture offered an ideal opportunity for developing a multidisciplinary, holistic approach to research questions surrounding this process.

Map of Kazakhstan showing Botai culture sites (3100-3700 BCE)

Map of Kazakhstan showing Botai culture sites (3100-3700 BCE)

The preceding Neolithic people of northern Kazakhstan forest-steppe were nomadic hunters who took a variety of animals as their prey, including red deer, moose, aurochs (wild cattle), saiga antelope, and the European wild horse.  Their sites consist of shallow campsites and occasionally one or two semi-subterranean houses, implying that they traveled in small bands and remained in one location for very brief intervals.  Beginning sometime in the fourth millennium BCE, the Botai radically changed their lifestyle and began settling in substantial, year-round villages.  The settlement of Botai had over 160 pit houses, while remote sensing revealed that Krasnyi Yar had 54 and Vasilkovka IV had 44. The fourth site, Roshchinskoe, has not been investigated in detail. Botai stone tools also morphed dramatically from the light, easily transported blades of the peripatetic Neolithic hunters to heavier bifaces.  The cord and comb-impressed pottery, on the other hand, continued to be very similar to that of their ancestors.