From Sheep to (Some) Horses: 4500 Years of Herd Structure at the Pastoralist Settlement of Begash (South-Eastern Kazakhstan)

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Pastoralist economies have been the base of Eurasian steppe societies for millennia. Ethnographers such as Vainshtein (1991), Khazanov (1994) and Masanov (1995) (among others) have long argued that Eurasian nomadism was first facilitated by the domestication and riding of the horse, while they also describe mixed herds of sheep, goats, cattle and camels as key to the socio-economic success of steppe pastoralists (generally Barfield 1993). There is no doubt that the domesticated horse had a transformative affect on the economic, socio-political and military development of Eurasian societies (Anthony 2007). However, we have surprisingly limited archaeological evidence to trace the emergence of horses as the predominant domesticate in herds managed by Eurasian nomads--especially in the earlier phases of the region's pastoralist prehistory (i.e. 3000-1000 BC).

Recently, the site of Botai (in northern Kazakhstan) has become central to debates of horse domestication (Olsen et al. 2006). Botai and related Eneolithic/Early Bronze Age sites in the north-central steppe date from roughly 3500-3000 BC and reveal faunal assemblages extremely rich in horse remains--often more than 99 per cent of all fauna. These lopsided figures illustrate that horses were undoubtedly the most important animals for northern steppe populations from the mid-fourth to the third millennium BC. Currently, debates continue as to whether these horses were all or mostly wild, all or mostly domesticated, or some combination of the two (Levine 2004, 2005; Olsen 2006; Anthony 2007). Recently published data from Botai, demonstrate that considerable numbers of the Botai horses were domesticated and used for procuring secondary products, specifically mare's milk (Outram et al. 2009). Morphological divergence in metacarpal size between Botai horses and Palaeolithic wild horses, physical evidence of bitting, and horse milk residues on ceramics further illustrate that Botai's horses were already being controlled and employed in numerous domestic contexts by 3500 BC (Olsen 2003).

These data suggest that horses were likely to have been ridden at this time as well (Anthony 2007).

The polemic surrounding the timing and nature of northern-steppe horse domestication and riding has left a key point overlooked in broader discussions of pastoralism and animal domestication on the steppe. Namely, the steppe economy generated by the so-called Botai horse-culture takes a radical shift at the start of the third millennium BC and by 2500 BC a decidedly different mobile pastoralist strategy dominates on the steppe. Specifically, the base of mobile pastoralist societies at this time became more heavily dependent upon domesticated sheep/goat and cattle (Benecke & von den Driesch 2003). Early Bronze Age sites in both the western and eastern steppe zones provide solid evidence for the rapid adoption of a sheep/cattle-based herd structure in the mid-third millennium BC and later (Antipina 1997; Kalieva & Logvin 1997; below). Yet in spite of the fact that many Bronze Age settlements have been excavated across the steppe, few provide a long-term continuous record of the development of such regional pastoralist economies. As a result, we are left to imagine Bronze Age steppe societies defined by horse riding, thereby evincing extensive and efficient mobility as the mechanism underpinning their land use, regional interaction and cultural diffusion.

Recent excavations at the pastoralist settlement of Begash, located in Semirech'ye (SE Kazakhstan) (Figure 1), provide well-stratified assemblages of domesticated animal remains spanning from the Early Bronze Age to later historical periods (c. 2500 BC-AD 1900). The start date for Begash is conservatively dated here to c. 2500 BC (calibrated [sup.14]C). One [sup.14]C sample from Begash's lowest levels provides limited evidence for an earlier date for the foundation of the site, likely at about 2900-2700 cal BC (first sigma range 3100-2450 cal BC; Frachetti & Mar'yashev 2007). …