Where did horses come from originally?

Horses against a snowy mountain backdrop in Georgia

The Caucasus region was identified as the home of domesticated horses. Picture credit: Shutterstock / Uskarp


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First published 1 November 2021

Researchers investigating the origins of all current domestic horses have discovered that domesticated horses are around three centuries younger than the Pyramids of Giza.

Scientists discovered that modern horses originated in Central Asia and quickly displaced all of their cousins roughly 4000 years ago.

Scientists have uncovered the origins of domestic horses, demonstrating how the creatures we know today came to be.

Scientists discovered that current horses’ ancestors were domesticated in the northern Caucasus area of what is now southern Russia. They were bred for their stress tolerance and back strength, allowing humans to use them for transport, farming and warfare.

Approximately 4000 years ago, these horses swiftly expanded and displaced all other groups across Europe and Asia, becoming a vital element of human civilization on both continents.

Dr Pablo Librado, the lead author of the study, says, ‘Horses living in Anatolia, Europe, Central Asia and Siberia used to be genetically quite distinct. Then, between 2200 and 2000 BCE, genetic evidence testifies to an exponential demography at the period, with no comparable in the previous 100,000 years.

‘This is when we seized control of the animal’s reproductive and created them in massive quantities.’

The results were published in Nature by an international team of scientists lead by French experts.

The skeleton of Eohippus angustidens

Eohippus angustidens is said to be the progenitor of all contemporary horses. Image © Mariomassone, licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

From forest to farming 

The earliest recognised ancestor of horses is Eohippus angustidens , sometimes referred to as the morning horse. It was a small North American animal around the size of a fox which lived in forests and ate fruits, shoots and leaves around 55 million years ago.

For the next tens of millions of years, horse ancestors like Mesohippus expanded in size. As grasslands expanded around 20 million years ago, species like Parahippus became more adapted to eating grass. 

Its descendants also became better at running, with the bones of the leg fusing together and the number of toes reducing to allow it to evade predators on the open plains. Some horses also crossed a land bridge into Asia and Europe, a procedure that occurred on a regular basis over millions of years.

The genus Equus Modern horses, zebras, and donkeys initially emerged roughly five million years ago and spread over the planet. While sharing many of the major adaptations of modern horses, such as ‘spring feet’ which cushion their legs while running, these horses were still quite different from those that are known today.

With horses going extinct in North America around 10,000 years ago, the animals were confined to just Asia and Europe. Although their past is well-known up to this point, the picture quickly becomes murky.

The earliest known domesticated horses, for example, are from Botai, an ancient civilization that thrived in what is now Kazakhstan. Archaeological evidence indicates that the animals were ridden and milked for sustenance, but they are not related to current domesticated horses. To further complicate matters, there is evidence that horses were domesticated many times across their range.

In 2016, the Pegasus project was initiated in an attempt to tackle the problem once and for all. Now, researchers are confident that they have finally pieced together where the domesticated horse comes from.

Horses trekking across the steppe

Horses still roam central Asia today. Picture courtesy of Shutterstock / Gonzalo Buzonni

Taking history by the reins 

Horse remains were collected from all regions of Europe and Asia where horses are thought to have been domesticated, including what is now modern-day Spain, Turkey, and the Asian steppes.

They discovered four distinct horse lineages before domestication, centered in Siberia, France, Spain, and the northern Caucasus. But by around 4200 years ago, the Caucasus horses began to spread out across both continents.

This herd of horses exhibited substantial changes in the gene linked to persistent back pain in humans, as well as another linked to anxiety and fear in mice. This suggests that humans in the northern Caucasus were selecting for horses that were more docile and stress resistant, as well as being able to carry heavier loads.

This corresponds to archaeological discoveries in the region, which indicate that the first recognized chariots appeared soon after this time. Stronger horses from the Caucasus would have been in demand in war, which may have helped them spread more quickly and lead to technological developments.

Another reason that may have aided the spread of these horses was a population drop in Europe at the period, ascribed to starvation, which may have enabled people from the Caucasus to migrate westward.

By around the start of the Iron Age in 1000BCE, modern horses had replaced all others across Europe and Asia. In the sixteenth century AD, their ancestors were reintroduced to the Americas, bringing horses back to their native homelands.

Scientists believe that learning more about the origins of the modern horse will help us comprehend not just the animals themselves, but also their influence on early people and their societies.

Related Questions

  • Where did the first horses originate?

    Now, a team of geneticists studying modern breeds of the animal has assembled an evolutionary picture of its storied past. Horses were domesticated 6000 years ago in the western section of the Eurasian Steppe, modern-day Ukraine, and West Kazakhstan, according to the experts.

  • Where did horses evolve from?

    Evolution. Around 55 million years ago, the first horses appeared on the North American prairies. They then abandoned North America and crossed the Bering land bridge into what is now Siberia. They migrated west through Asia into Europe and south to the Middle East and Northern Africa from there.

  • What animal did horses evolve from?

    The horse, a mammal of the family Equidae, evolved over a geologic time scale of 50 million years, changing the little, dog-sized Eohippus into the contemporary horse.

  • Who first found horses?

    Findings in the context of the Botai civilisation revealed that the first domestication of the horse occurred in Botai towns in Kazakhstan’s Akmola Region. Warmouth et al. (2012) pointed to horses having been domesticated around 3,000 BC in what is now Ukraine and Western Kazakhstan.

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