The make up of the modern horse: a history of the biological changes introduced by human management

pegasus-erc (website)

The horse provided us with rapid transportation, an almost unrivaled secondary product that tremendously impacted the politico-economical trajectory of our societies, revolutionizing the circulation of ideas, people, languages, religions and communication. Horse chariotry and cavalry also changed warfare and beyond the battlefield new equestrian technologies have stimulated agricultural productivity. However, the 5,500 year long history of horse domestication and management, which transformed the natural evolutionary trajectory of wild horses into the more than 625 domestic breeds living today, is difficult to reconstruct from archaeology, history and modern genetics alone. Yet, with archaeogenetics, one can access the genetic information from past individuals and track in great detail past population trajectories. In this project, we propose to build on the latest advances in the analysis of ancient DNA molecules to gather new genomic, epigenomic and metagenomic information from ancient horses. This will be integrated with archaeozoological, isotopic and historical data to enhance our understanding of the multiple processes underlying the transformation of the animal that perhaps most impacted our history. Starting from the characterization of pre-domestic populations of wild horses, we will evaluate the genomic and dietary impact of early domestication stages and will explore whether horses were independently domesticated in Iberia and the Pontic-Caspian steppe. We will follow how the emergence of chariotry and the development of heavy cavalry impacted the horse’s behavioural, physiological and biological makeup. We will reveal the horse characteristics that were preferred in various historical contexts and will investigate a diversity of management strategies and husbandry conditions to reveal their impact on horses, from classical and late antique periods until the recent creation of modern breeds by means of intensive selective breeding.

Main coordinator : L Orlando, CAGT