Animals and History: The Horse


Figure 1.--No other animal hs fired the human kimaginatio like the shorse. The horse was admired for both its speed and power. nd there is more cave art depicting the horse than any other animal. This images shows the wild horses depicted in the Hillaire Chamber, Chauvet Cave in the Ardeche region. There these magnificent images survived for millennia. There are more than 1,000 drawings dating back some 35,000 years (here archaeloists vary) to what is believed to be the first human culture in Europe. No other animal is so prominent in cave art. This was thousands of years before domestication. The sophisication of the depiction clarly shows not only a fully modern mind, but a level of reverence for the animals. Click on the image to see the horses in more detail.

The horse has a strange evolutionary history and one that is still being worked out. Scientists trace the origins of the horse, not to Eurasian Steppe but to the forests of North America. Here the first ancestor of the modern horse browsed leaves and fruits (about 50 million BP). There is some difference of opinion on the date. It was a rather small ancestor, only about 2 feet high. Scientists call it eohippus (dawn horse). The modern horse developed and florished on the steppe like grasslands of North America (about 1.5 million BP). Soon after in geological time, before the evolution of modern man, these animals migrated across a Bearing Sea land bridge into Asia (0.9 million BP). Just as humans migrated east across a later the Bearing Sea land bridge during the Ice Age, horse appear to have migrated east into Asia. Native Americans came in contact with horses and many other large mammals, but did not domesticate them. Horses given the climatic conditions of Siberia and Alaska would have been unfamiliar to the original Ice Age settler of North America. The animals disappeared in the Americas (about 7,000 BC). Anthropolgists today debate why this occurred. It may have been over-hunting, but climatic conditions may also have been involved. It was on the Europeam Steppe that men a horse first came in cotact. The horse would have appeared first on the Asian Steppe, but spread very rapidly to the European Steppe. (We know this because of the speed with which feral horses escaping from the Spanish spread out and colonized the North American prarie during the 16th century.) We know a great deal about this encounter. Early man at first hunted horses for meat. Escavations of paleolithic sites in Eurasia show that horses were butchered for meat. The extent of hoese bones suggest that they were an important source of meat. But something was different about the horse. The speed and spirit of the horse was unlike any other animal. They fired the imagintion of the nomadic people who encountered them. [Lobell and Powell, pp. 28-29.] This can easily be seen because no other animal appears so extensively in cave art. There were different horse species. As in the Americas, almost all of these species disappeared, especially the forrest species. Climate and habitat issues may have been involved. But on the Steppe, the modern horse flourished (Equus cabulus). And this is where human migrating out of Africa encounted them. By this time, man had already domesticated livestock (cattle and sheep). The step of domesticating horses was a natural step to a people already herding livestock. And the horse besides it innate appeal had real advantages did not develop in the Middle East. It was habituated to the Steppe, meaning it could survive by itself through winters while cattle and sheep had to be fed which meant work. As one archaeologist explains, "Horses are easier to feed through harsh winters than sheep or cattle. They are well adapted to winter on the steppe, and can break through ice and snow with their hooves to reach winter grass to feed themselves." [Anthony] Bone carvings suggest that the early Srepe people kept horses and cattle together, perhaps for this reason. Man begn domesticating horses on the European Steppe, in the Ukraine and southern Russia (about 5,000 BC). [Lobell and Powell, p.29.] Other sources suggest about 6,000 BC. The horse proved useful as a pack animal, but reserchers believe that from a very early point, men began riding them. There is strong evidence of riding behavior (3,500 BC). And chariots first appeared (about 2000 BC. With the invention of the chariot it became a major element in warfare. The invention of the stirup by the Scynthians made it an even more potent military weapon, allowing warriors to effectively yield weapons from a horse.

Evolution

The horse has a strange evolutionary history and one that is still being worked out. Scientists trace the origins of the horse, not to Eurasian Steppe but to the forests of North America. Here the first ancestor of the modern horse browsed leaves and fruits (about 50 million BP). There is some difference of opinion on the date. It was a rather small ancestor, only about 2 feet high. Scientists call it eohippus (dawn horse). The modern horse developed and florished on the steppe like grasslands of North America (about 1.5 million BP). Soon after in geological time, before the evolution of modern man, these animals migrated across a Bearing Sea land bridge into Asia (0.9 million BP).

Bearing Sea Land Bridge

Bearing Sea Land bridges allowed hoses to cross to Asia and humans croos to the america. Just as humans migrated east across a later the Bearing Sea land bridge during the Ice Age, horse appear to have migrated east into Asia.

North America

Native Americans came in contact with horses and many other large mammals, but did not domesticate them. Horses given the climatic conditions of Siberia and Alaska would have been unfamiliar to the original Ice Age settler of North America. The animals disappeared in the Americas (about 7,000 BC). Anthropolgists today debate why this occurred. It may have been over-hunting, but climatic conditions may also have been involved. br>

Eurasian Steppe

It was on the Europea Steppe that men a horse first came in cotact. The horse would have appeared first on the Asian Steppe, but spread very rapidly to the European Steppe. (We know this because of the speed with which feral horses escaping from the Spanish spread out and colonized the American prarie during the 16th century.) We know a great deal about this encounter. Early man at first hunted horses for meat. Escavations of paleolithic sites in Eurasia show that horses were butchered for meat. The extent of horse bones suggest that they were an important source of meat. It was in the European part of the Seppe that the domestication of the horse first occurre, bit of course rapidly spread east to the Asian Steppe. The horse would revolutionalize the lives of the Steppe people and give them the ability to attack the rich agricultural civilizations to the south. Not only did this affect Chin and the Middle ea, but over time Europe as well. When times when China was strong, the Steppe tribes were deflected west toward Europe. The steppe people were the driving forced behind the Germanic (Barbarian) tribes which flooded into the Roman Empire.

Special Animal

Early man hunted horses for meat on the Steppe. There was, however, something was different about the horse. The speed and spirit of the horse was unlike any other animal. They fired the imagintion of the nomadic people who encountered them. [Lobell and Powell, pp. 28-29.] This can easily be seen because no other animal appears so extensively in cave art. There were different horse species. As in the Americas, almost all of these species disappeared, especially the forrest species. Climate and habitat issues may have been involved. But on the Steppe, the modern horse flourished (Equus cabulus). And this is where human migrating out of Africa encounted them.

Domestication

Humans by the time they encountered horses on the Steppe had already domesticated Middle ast livestock (cattle and sheep). The step of domesticating horses was a natural step to a people already herding livestock. And the horse besides it innate appeal had real advantages did not develop in the Middle East. It was habituated to the Steppe, meaning it could survive by itself through winters while cattle and sheep had to be fed which meant work. As one archaeologist explains, "Horses are easier to feed through harsh winters than sheep or cattle. They are well adapted to winter on the steppe, and can break through ice and snow with their hooves to reach winter grass to feed themselves." [Anthony] Bone carvings suggest that the early Srepe people kept horses and cattle together, perhaps for this reason. Man began domesticating horses on the European Steppe, in the Ukraine and southern Russia (about 5,000 BC). [Lobell and Powell, p.29.] Other sources suggest about 6,000 BC. Interestingly, there was a horse-like animal in the southern hemishphere--the zebra. Africans nevere suceeded in domestivating the zebra. we are not sure why, oerhaps the genetic make up of th zebra did not lead to domestication. Or perhaps the climate was different. The domesticated horse was important for many of the same reasins cattle are valuable. In additin, it was also valuable as a pack animal, but reserchers believe that from a very early point, men began riding them, perhps children first. No one knows when the first human rode a horse. Researchers believe that riding ing horses was faily common (about 4000-3500 BC). Archaeologists have encountered evidence of early bridles in the Ukraine and southern Russia. Cheekpieces and toggles for soft mouthpieces mde from antlers were found north of the Black Sea.

Ancient Chariot Warfare

The impact of the horse on history is difficult to over estimate. One historian tells us, "I think that the most important developmnt in history with respect to animals was the adoption of thehorse as awepon of war." [Fagan] The first military use of the horse was to power chariots first appeared (about 2000 BC). With the invention of the chariot it became a major element in warfare. The first chariots seem more like carts with solid wooden wheels, but gradually they developed into fast moving weapns platforms. Technological development like spoked wheels and metal bits decreased the weight of the chariot and gave the driver greater control. The charot began to dominate the battlefields of the Near East and Egypt (1500 BC). This is also when we have historical records of battles. Several fctors were involved here. The flat, dry terraine was important. Chariots and horses were expensive, much more so than infantry, but the effectivenes of mobile warfre made them essential to the ancient battlefied. The chriot was a fast-moving platform for archers nbd spear throwers. We have great detail on the horse because that its rise was within the era of human history. The best sources is a cuiform text from Mitani, a Middle Eastern state that competed with the Hittites and Egyptians. [Kilkkuli Text] The chariot for nearly a millenium dominated the ancient battlefield. This began to shift just before the rise of the classical era (About 850 BC). Several developments brought the era of the chariot to an end. Perhaos the mot importantwas the rise of the calvalry. Nothing better shows this than the battle of Gaugamela when Persian chariots were stopped by caltrops and effective infantry weapons and tactics and weapons and Alexander's calvalry played a winning role (331 BC). The chariot, however. did not disappear given its long history. It continued to be used into Roman times as a prestige vehicle and for cermenoies. Victoriouscommanders would be granted the honor of a triumph. A Roman triumph (triumphus) was a civil ceremony and religious rite, It ws granted to publicly celebrate and sanctify the success of a military commander after a great victory. The victorious commander would make his way through Rome in a magnificent chariot. And of course along with gladitoorial games, chariot races were the most popular Roman diversions--a passion shared throughout the Empire.

Troy

The horse became a trade item of enormous value. And located beween the steppe which produced horses and the Mediterranean world thatwanted horses was Troy. In the ancient world, Troy lacec a similar role to Byzantium in the medevl era. It wasa city of great wealth, much of it was due to the trade in horses. And Tru became intrinically asociated with harses. Scholars believed for centuries that Homer's great epic, 'The Trojan wars' was only lengendary. We now know that Troy existed and Homer was describing an actual war. There is no evidence to prove that the Trojan Horse Homer described was real, but given the importance of horses to Troy, it may well be.

Calvalry

Calvalry, essentially mounted soldiers, were the next step in the military use of the horse. The chariot was the forst step. Two technological steps were required to take the next stp of riding the horse rather than having the horse pull a weaponspns platform. First, the invention of the stirup by the Scynthians made it an even more potent military weapon, allowing warriors to effectively employ weapons from a horse. The stiruip seated the soldier more firmly on the saddle as well as gave him leveragein using weaons like bows and swords. Second horse breeding in the Mediterranean world also created taller and stronger horse capable of carrying an adult with his armor and his weapons. This made possible the modern cavalry which provd a more effective use of the horse than the chariot. Infantry shields and armour improved giving them important defenses against chariot-born archers and spear throwers. Cavalry could attack the chariots. A single horse without a chariot to pull was faster and more maneuverable than a wheeled chariot with 2-3 horses. The locus of civilization changed from the flat, Middle East to the Meditranean world and the rise of Europe. Chariots were ideal for battles fought on flat territories. Cavalry was better suited for broken terrain and when mountains and rivers had to be crossed. The first cavalry soldiers appeared on the steppe (about 800 BC). Away from the Steppe clvalry was an expensive militay force to maintain. In addition to the horses themselves, they had to be trained, fed, and quarterd. Very quickly calvalry was adopted in civilization centers, including China and Mesopotamia (650 BC). Becuse of the cist away from the steppe, calvalry was a relatively small part of an army. Calvalry tended to be the prestige arm of an army. Commonly rich men of nobel birth formed the calvalry as often the individual was expected to supply his mount. Common men fought onfoot, We begin to see calvalry in the classical world (about 500 BC). It was the Chinese who first had to face the armed men of the Eastrn Steppe. Thus the Chinese formed very large calvalry formations (300 BC). Classical (Greek and Roman) armies had much smaller calvary formations. Classical battles were settled primarily by foot soldiers, Greek hoplites or Roman legioneers. Horses were expensive and not that effective against well-trained and equipped infantry who could form formifable defensive lines. Inexpensive devices likee caltrops could stop a calvalry charge--if the commander knew where the charge wold come. That said, in important battles the calvalry not incommonly played important roles.

Middle Ages

With the fall of Rome, Europe decentegrated into small feudal fiefdoms. Even the new states that formed were not able to muster strong central control or the wealth needed to support well-trained standing armoes. As a result the well trained infantry forces like the Greek hopplites or the Roman legions no longer existed. Infantry forces that were assembled were poorly trained and equipped as well as undisciplined. In this environment, well trained and mounted forces became much more important. Improvements in stirrups and saddles also helped make cavalry more effective in fighting. The medieval era was not just a European phenomenon. The mounted knight and war horse campe to fominate European warfare after the early-medieval era or Dark Age. This became known as the age of chilvary, and nothing so defined it as the heavily armored mounted night. Indian armies were also using cavalry. The greatest threat to medieval Europe were the Mongols whose deployed mounted armies. They were light cavalry and defeated every one in their path, imckuding China, central Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. Only the death of Genghis prevented a campaign into Western Europe.

The Mongols (13th century)

The peak of calvalry power surely must be the Mongol outburst from the Steppe (13th century). The mounted Mongol army was without doubt the the dominant military force of the 13th century. It contrast to heavily armored European calvalry with their war horse, the Mongol wariors were not heavily armored and rode small ponies. Even so, they created reated the largest land empire in history. None of the freat empires such as the Persians and Romans came close to the size of the Mongol Empire. The Europens referred to them as the 'Mongol Hordes'. In fact, the Mongols consistently defeated much larger armies in China, Central Asia, the Middle ewast and Eastern Europe. It was the tactics, speed, and mobility that won battles for the Mongols. Unlike many armies they faced, they were disciplined and well trained. As they were a mounted force, they had a speed and mobility that other armies could not match. Not only could they move rapidly, they both adapted quickly to changing battlefield situations and formulated and pursued complex battle strategies. Contrary to the standard image, the core of Genghis's army and battlefield victories was only about 23,000 well-trained horsemen. They fought with composite bows and hand axes. They protected themselves with waterproof leather armor. Heavy armor wasot possible for most of the army because of their small ponies. The Mongols were, however, not limited to calvalry engagements. Fearing the Mongol calvalry, some armies declined field engagements and reytreated into their cities. As they surronded many fortified cities, they needed seige capabilities. Here they simply hired Chinese and Middle Eastern engineers who had technical skills and experience with catapults and other siege devises.

Late-medieval Era

Ironically as the mounted Mongol Army was sweeping everything before it, trends in the west were brining the age of the mounted knight and war horse to an end. Canon made the castle and this small feudal fiefdoms obsolete. The formation of the nation state with centralized govermnents meant that standing armies could once more be supported. and this meant better equipped and trained infantry. We begin to see well trained foot archers and pike men defeat magnificently equipped calvalry forces. We first see this in the Hundred Years War between England and France. A small English Army led by Henry V and supported by the Long Bow, virtually massacered an emormous French Army centered on heavy calvalry at Agincourt (1415). This both cut the heart out of the French nobility and ended the military dominabce of heavy calvalry. Heavy calvalry was very expensive to maintain in comparison to a bowman abd very quickly European rulers very quickly began to reformulate their armies. This also changed the domestic power balance and began a shift in power from the nobility to the yeomanry in England. France wa slower to adapt which would eventually lead to the Revolition. Muskets which appeared soon after Agincourt could penetrate the finest armor accelerating the sgift in military forces. This does not mean that the calvalry disappeared. While battles were primarily won by infantry, the calvalry played important roles in scouting, seoizing stratehic positions, protecting supply lines, and raiding the enemy. http://histclo.com/essay/war/swc/14/sw14-100.html And of course even though the role of calvalry declined, the horse remained of key importance in moving both supplies and artillery.

Native Americans

Although the horse originatd in North America, they disappeared in North America long with other mega-fauna soon after the arrival of humans over the Bearing sea ice bridge. Proto-Indians may have hyunted horses, but they never domesticted them. It was on the Great Planes that the Native Americans acquired horses. The Plains cultural area was the immense prairie laying between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, meaning modern day Canada south to the Gulf of Mexico. Their culture and life style before the arrival of the Europeans was very different. They were spoke Siouan, Algonquian, Caddoan, Uto-Aztecan and Athabaskan languages. They lived fairly settled lives, hunters and farmers. The first Europeans they contacted were pamnish explorers and traders. As Coronado (1510-54) found out, there were no great empires or developed sources of gold (16th century). The Spanish thus showed like interest in the Great Plains. The Spanish, however, had a huge impact on the Plains peoples. The Spanish brought horses back to the New World where they originated and had gone extinct. They were domesticated, but over time some escape and a wild population began to develop on the Plains. And these horses began to tranform the lives of the Plains Indians. They became much more nomadic. Horses gave them the capability of moving long distances. This process was well underway (18th century). Not only did it transform the people of the Plains, but it gave them a military capabilty that Native Americans dis not formerly possess. For those reason the Spanish and the Mexicans thay followed them did not settle on the Plains or Southwest. These were the people that Americas came in contct with after the Louisian Pirchase (1803), beginning with the Lewsis and Clarke Expedition. As late as the mid-19th century, the region was still poplated primarily by Native Amerians. Mexicans were limitd to a few small settlements and missions. Tribes like the Arapaho. Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Comanche, Crow, Sioux, and others used their horses to follow vast herds of buffalo across the prairie and to war with each other. Until they had horses, hunting buffalo was a daunting undertaking. They lived in cone-shaped teepees, bufalo-skin tents that could be heasily disassembled and noved using their horses as they followedthe herds. The Plains Indians alo used buffallo hides for clothing and feathers for decorative head wear. They became the image of Native americans that we seein modern books and movies--all except for the feathers due to the borse.

Modern Wars

The calvalry had played a major role in modern warfare. It was a major force in the American Civil War, a important war of sweeping movements. It was, however, the last major War in which calvalry played an important role. The Confederat calvalry at first was highly effective, but like other forces could not compete with the superior resources of the the North. To the surprise of all combatants, the leathality of modern weaponry meant that calvalry did not prove a major factor in combat, especially on the Western Front which descended into trench warfare. Horses continued to be important asdraft animals. Here American trucks began to make a difference. World War II is commonly seen as a mecanized war, but even here horses contibued to be used a draft animals. They were important to the Germans throughout the war. This was because the Germans did not have the industial capacity to build the tricks they needed, nor did they have the petroleum-based fuel that they needed to conduct the war.

Sources

Anthony, David W. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World (Princeton University Press).

Fagan, Brian. The Intimate Bond: How Animals Shaped Human History.

Kikkuli Text. This ws a Mitani cuniform text. Kikkuli was a horse trainer wo described in detail a 184-day training cycle.

Lobell, Jarrett A. and Eric A. Powell. "The story of the horse: How its unique role in human culture transformed history," Archaeology (July/August 2015), pp. 28-33.






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Created: 10:55 AM 10/10/2015
Last updated: 3:35 PM 10/18/2015