Horses for the Dead: Funerary Foodways in Bronze Age Kazakhstan

Article excerpt



From the Palaeolithic onwards, the archaeology and cultures of Kazakhstan were heavily influenced by people's changing relationships with one particular animal species, the horse. Horses shift from being a quarry, to become a herded economic mainstay, a source of military power and, up to the present, a symbol of Kazakh culture and prestige. It is therefore unsurprising to find that horses feature heavily in the rituals, culture, art and cuisine of the region. This paper examines the role of horses in ritual from their domestication in the Eneolithic to the end of the Bronze Age, a time period which saw major economic and social changes. We focus, in particular, on the changing role and significance of horses in Bronze Age mortuary rites, drawing on evidence from new analyses of faunal assemblages from funerary and domestic contexts, and lipid residue analyses of ceramics deposited both on settlements and in graves.


The sequence of horse culture in Kazakhstan

Since the 1980s, when excavations commenced at the Eneolithic settlement of Botai (Zaibert et al. 2007) (see Figure 1 for location), there has been great interest in the role of horses at the site and within its eponymous culture. The Botai culture of northern Kazakhstan has an extreme focus on the exploitation of horses, with very low representation of other species (Levine 1999; Olsen 2006a & b; Anthony 2007). At the start of this culture, in the mid fourth millennium BC (Levine & Kislenko 2002; Outram et al. 2009), the mobile hunter-gatherers in the region, described as Neolithic because of their ceramic use, settled down in substantial and at least semi-sedentary villages (Olsen et al. 2006) and focused economic attention upon horses. Opinion has been strongly divided between those who have argued that this was the specialised hunting of horses (Levine 1999, 2004; Benecke & von den Driesch 2003) and those who have suggested that the Botai horses were domesticated and ridden, and probably used in the hunting of other wild horses (Anthony & Brown 2003; Olsen 2006a & b; Anthony 2007). However, recent zooarchaeological and lipid residue analyses (Outram et al. 2009) point strongly towards Botai horses being domestic and exploited for secondary products, through both harnessing and milking, though additional hunting need not be discounted. These new lines of evidence for horse domestication at Botai have been further strengthened by independent research on ancient DNA markers for horse coat colour that seem to indicate the likely domestication of horses in this general region some time prior to 3000 BC (Ludwig et al. 2009).

Given this early economic interest in horses, which now appears to have involved a developed form of pastoralism, it is not surprising to find evidence for the ritual use of horses at Botai culture sites. Botai houses are semi-subterranean structures (Olsen et al. 2006; Zaibert et al. 2007) frequently surrounded by sizeable pits. These pits rarely appear to contain random domestic refuse; instead they are filled with placed deposits of carefully selected materials. In particular, there is a significantly high number of pits that contain horse skulls, sometimes with accompanying articulated cervical vertebrae (Olsen 2003, 2006b) and there is some evidence that horse frontal bones have been modified to form masks (Olsen 2003). Pits to the west side of houses commonly contain either whole dogs or dog skulls in association with horse skulls, necks, pelves or foot bones (Olsen 2006b). With regard to foot bones, horse phalanges are frequently decorated with incised marks (Olsen 2003; Zaibert et al. 2007) and a cache of phalanges has been found within a house at the Botai culture site of Krasnyi Yar.

Botai culture human burials are very rare (Olsen 2006b) and only two burial features are known, both from Botai itself. …