The world’s first cowboys have been identified – and they come from Europe.
Researchers have come across the earliest known cases of horse riding, about 5,000 years ago, by analysing skeletons found in ancient burial sites of Yamnaya people in Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria.
Remains of more than 200 Yamnaya individuals who dated as far back as 3000BC – the start of the Bronze Age – from prehistoric burial mounds, or kurgans, in Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria, were assessed.
Five of them “displayed changes in bone morphology and distinct pathologies associated with horseback riding”.
This not only makes them the oldest humans identified as riders so far, but suggests that they – or others from the Yamnaya culture – could have been the world’s earliest cowboys.
The five Yamnaya individuals were located in five separate ancient burial sites ocated around the village of Strejnicu to the north of Bucharest in Romania, the villages of Malomirovo in south-east Bulgaria, and Vetrino in north-east Bulgaria. Others came from Dévaványa in east Hungary and Balmazújváros in north-east Hungary.
The Yamnaya culture, initially from the area around Ukraine and western Russia, spread out across Europe and was thought to be so successful due to the recent domestication of horses.
This allowed for carts full of food, weapons and other provisions to be transported long distances, as well as livestock to be herded more effectively.
And it is now thought, the creation of the world’s first known cowboys, as they used their skills to herd cattle.
“Hopping on a horse’s back may have been one small step for man 5,000 years ago, but a giant leap for mankind,” Martin Trautmann, of the University of Helsinki, told the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington.
“These people were able to greatly enhance their mobility and it enabled them to keep large herds of cattle and sheep and, as we now know, to guide them on horseback,” added his colleague, Volker Heyd.
Co-author David Anthony, from Hartwick College in New York state, said: “It made herding cattle and sheep three times more efficient, it changed the human conception of distance and it was an aid in warfare.”
The scientists identified the oldest riders by looking for small changes in the skeletal structure of ancient human remains.
Close analysis of their bones revealed all had at least four out of six skeletal traits which suggested ‘horsemanship syndrome’.
Examples of this include stress reactions on the pelvis and femur – most likely a result of gripping to the side of the horse using the lower body and thigh muscles.
Some individuals also had “stress-induced vertebral degeneration” – signs of vertical impact stress typically suffered by riders.
One rider also had injuries to their sacral vertebrae – a large, triangular-shaped bone positioned just above the tailbone.
“A forceful fall on the backside is the most likely trauma scenario,” the researchers wrote in their paper, published in the journal Science Advances.
They added: “Biomechanical stress markers on human skeletons provide a viable way to further investigate the history of horseback riding and may even provide clues about riding style and equipment.
“Later depictions of Bronze Age riders usually show a position called ‘chair seat’. This style is mainly used when riding without padded saddle or stirrups to avoid discomfort to horse and rider.
“It is physically demanding, with the legs exerting constant pressure to cling to the mount’s back and needs continual balancing, but would not preclude activities such as combat or the handling of herd animals.
“The osteological features described here fit well with this riding style and may have been typical for the earliest period of horsemanship.
“With the later introduction of shaped and padded supporting saddles and stirrups, other riding styles such as the so called ‘split seat’, ‘dressage seat’ and ‘hunt seat’ evolved.
“Together, our findings provide a strong argument that horseback riding was already a common activity for some Yamnaya individuals as early as 3000BC.”