By William Taylor
From the steppes of Central Asia to the Great Plains of North America, domestic horses have had an incredible impact on human societies—changing the way we eat, organize, and interact on a nearly unprecedented scale.
In no place is this significance more apparent than in modern Mongolia. In the still nomadic countryside, horses are essential to daily life, while even the urbanized capital of Ulaanbaatar falls under the shadow of the great mounted empires of Genghis (in Mongolian, Chinggis) Khan and his grandson Khubilai. Nonetheless, archaeologists still know precious little about when, how, and why horsemanship was first adopted in the Mongolian steppes.
Supported by a grant from the National Geographic Society this summer, a small team of researchers from the National Museum of Mongolia and I set out for the far northern reaches of Mongolia’s Darkhad Valley. This large basin sits at the border between the great grasslands and the vast expanses of Siberian taiga forest to the north.
A physical and geographic crossroads, it also boasts some of the earliest evidence for domestic horses in Mongolia: small burial mounds containing the head, neck, and hoof bones of sacrificed horses.
From the capital, a two-day journey led us over winding dirt tracks and mountain roads to our primary study site, Zeerdegchingiin Khushuu.
The site is nestled on the north shore of beautiful Tsagaan Nuur (“White Lake”), and boasts a Bronze Age burial mound known as a khirigsuur. The burial mound is ringed on nearly all sides by horse burial features.
These ritual features are found near stone burial mounds and standing stones belonging to the late Bronze Age culture known as the Deer Stone-Khirigsuur Complex (ca. 1300-700 BCE). Although scholars suspect that this “DSK Complex” may have been the earliest horse-riding nomads in Mongolia, precious few man-made artifacts are available to help us evaluate this idea.
Through excavation and study of ancient horse remains, we hoped to shed some new light on how these animals were used. Were they bred and managed along with other livestock? Were they used for chariots or horseback riding? These are questions with major implications for our understanding of the ancient world.
Over a two-week study period, we carefully mapped the site and several others nearby, excavating five horse heads from six small mounds (see a site before and after excavation below). In the lab, we were able to assess the sex and age at death of each horse using its teeth, while physical distortions to the skull helped us assess which horses might have been harnessed and used for transport.
During the dig, we also unearthed what may be the first true artifact associated with the Deer Stone-Khirigsuur Complex: a beautiful bronze knife with an elaborate design, perhaps a clan symbol called a tamga. Combining this new data with a large sample from museum collections, our project results support the idea that horses, particularly adult males, were used to pull chariots or in mounted horseback riding.
Work at Zeerdegchingiin Khushuu also corroborates earlier suggestions that transport horses were buried in a special location: along the east/southeast edge of burial mounds, where they might face the rising sun.
This means that for Bronze Age Mongolians, horses played important roles not only as livestock and in transportation, but also in funerary practices and beliefs—signs that this was a true “horse culture,” perhaps one of the first in the Eastern Steppes of Eurasia.
The author would like to extend a special thanks to his collaborators and mentors T. Tuvshinjargal, J. Bayarsaikhan, the National Museum of Mongolia, Dr. Julia Clark, and Bryce Lowery of the University of Chicago for their guidance and effort, along with the many others who contributed to this project.