Eating Horses: The Evolutionary Significance of Hippophagy

By Levine, Marsha A. | Antiquity, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Eating Horses: The Evolutionary Significance of Hippophagy


Levine, Marsha A., Antiquity


The meat and milk of horses are highly valued food products, past and present. Horses were an especially valuable food resource in grassland habitats, which may explain their increased exploitation in the central Eurasian forest steppe during the late Eneolithic. It may also explain the emphasis on horses in final Upper Palaeolithic art.

The domestication of the horse for transport would have profoundly influenced human ecology, social behaviour and economy. This theory is the motor that drives most research into equid prehistory. However, the social and ecological implications of its use as a food source are equally interesting. As early as the Lower Palaeolithic equid flesh was an important food and as late as the present it remains so for many people. In steppe and savannah regions it is an almost ubiquitous component of hominid midden deposits. Many contemporary peoples, who value horseflesh and milk, believe that this food source has special nutritional and even medicinal attributes. On that basis, the horse often occupies a special place in traditional societies.

This paper discusses four populations which value equids as a food source: steppe Mongols, forest-steppe Kazakhs, the Hadza hunter-gatherers of Tanzania and the urban French. The data come from a variety of sources. Two Mongols - one mountain(1) and one steppe(2) - were interviewed who described pre-collectivization horse husbandry. In Kazakhstan nine formal interviews(3) and many informal discussions took place. The Kazakh informants all had horseherding backgrounds. Some could speak of the time before collectivization(4); the experience of others was mainly derived from work on state farms. Even where husbandry methods were no longer traditional, ancestral techniques of horsemeat butchery and preparation seem to have remained relatively intact or could be recalled. Historical and ethnographic sources have also been consulted. Information about the Hadza came from conversation with James Woodburn. The discussion of French hippophagy is based upon written sources. The objective of this paper is to elucidate the dietary role of horse flesh and milk in these cultures, and to suggest how they could be relevant to the study of ancient populations.

Horsemeat and fat

Around 1972, I interviewed James Woodburn about the Hadza. His comments, gently simmering in my mind over the intervening years, inspired the line of thought that I am taking today. According to Woodburn, traditionally the Hadza hunted a wide variety of herbivores of which the most important numerically were impala and zebra. Zebra was preferred over impala, because of the nature and abundance of its fat. The Hadza, like many other traditional hunters, value fat more highly than protein (Woodburn pers. comm.; Speth 1983). They classify fat as either 'hard' (e.g. bovids) or 'soft' (e.g. equids). Soft fat is particularly valuable because it can be fed to babies within their first few weeks of life. Adult male zebra are highly regarded because they can provide relatively large quantities of soft fat.

Both in northern Kazakhstan and in eastern Mongolia, horses are almost invariably slaughtered in late autumn or early winter while they are still in good condition [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]). Because the winters in both of these regions are so severe, flesh from horses slaughtered in November will keep until spring. In northern Kazakhstan meat is stored in a special building called a shoshola [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]). In eastern Mongolia it is kept in a box in the snow. According to my Mongolian steppe informant, horse flesh is only eaten fresh, so that by spring all stored meat must be consumed. In Kazakhstan, however, horsemeat is eaten during the winter either fresh or salted; in spring any remaining will be smoked for consumption until late autumn.

The traditional nomadic pastoralist Mongolians referred to here normally only slaughtered their horses when they were no longer productive, either for transport or for procreation, usually after around 14 to 15 years of age.

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