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Were horses first tamed on the steppes of Northern Kazakhstan?

Tuesday 11.00-11.30am 5 November 2002

Aubrey Manning returns with a new series of archaeological mysteries from around the world.

Dr Sandra Olsen meets a modern Kazak herdsman
Excavation co-director Dr Sandra Olsen meets a modern Kazak herdsman and his horses.

*** See the slideshow of pictures from Kazakhstan ***

1. Taming the Horse

In the first of a new series of Unearthing Mysteries Aubrey Manning examines evidence from excavations in Kazakhstan of what could be the earliest domestication of the horse. 5,500 years ago, on the steppes of Northern Kazakhstan, groups of nomadic hunters began to settle down and build permanent houses in large villages. Now, an international team of archaeologists is excavating some of those houses to try and unearth a mystery: what gave them the stability to settle down?

The answer seems to be the horse. There are hundreds of thousands of horse bones on the sites. But were the animals hunted or domesticated? Archaelogist Sandi Olsen and her team have found post holes that suggest fenced enclosures next to the houses, stone and bone tools probably used for leather working, ceremonial horse burials and the use of horse skull masks and evidence that horse dung was used in roofing materials.

Sandi Olsen
Sandi Olsen excavates bones from the floor of a 5,500 year old pit house at Vasilkovka in Kazakhstan.

Listen to Sandi Olsen as she excavates the bones Listen to Sandi Olsen as she excavates the bones.

Listen to Sandi describing the taste of Koumiss And Sandi describes the taste of Koumiss, the traditional Kazak drink of fermented mares' milk.

Aubrey Manning hears from the archaeologists excavating in Kazakhstan - and studying the herdsmen who still drive their horses across the steppes today - and pieces together the evidence that this could be the place where our four-legged friends were first tamed.

Historians argue that it was the domestication of horses that opened the way to trade and warfare, conquest and the building of cities. What we call civilisation in fact.

Dr Bruce Bradley with Kazakhstan archaeology students
Dr Bruce Bradley demonstrates flint knapping technology to Kazakhstan archaeology students.

Listen to Dr Bruce Bradley Listen to Dr Bruce Bradley describing the making of a bi-face spear point similar to the sort used at the site
5,500 years ago.

Kazak archaeologists excavating a Botai house at Vasilkovka
Kazak archaeologists at work in the excavations of a Botai house at Vasilkovka. The central, deeper, part of the excavation is the approximate size of the house itself. The cross of banks (left in place to show a cross section of the excavations) reveals how the modern ground surface dipped down into the remains of the pit house.

Listen again to the programme Listen again to the programme

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