Science

The origins of domestic horses finally revealed

Like a galloping horse. The expression may seem innocuous, it is essential to understand the expansion of man on the surface of the globe. However, the question of their domestication has divided prehistorians for decades. Most of the animals that surround us (dogs, cows, pigs) come from Neolithic breeding, 9,000 to 10,000 years ago. And the equines?

A slow search for the origins

Its domestication seems much later, about 5,500 years ago with no explanation. Just as the researchers did not know in which region of the world this key stage in the development of societies had occurred. In recent years, they had set their sights on the Iberian region (Spain), then on Anatolia (Turkey), then on the steppes of Central Asia (Kazakhstan). The latter, more precisely in the surroundings of Botaï (in the north of the country), houses about 300,000 bones that made it an ideal “home of domestication” for archaeologists. However, in 2018, Ludovic Orlando, a CNRS researcher at the Laboratory of Molecular Anthropology and Synthetic Imaging (CNRS / Toulouse III University – Paul Sabatier / Paris Descartes University) and his colleagues, sequenced the genomes of 20 of these specimens. Conclusion: they are not the origin of current domestic horses and, on the contrary, they turned out to be the direct ancestors of the Przewalski horses that we today consider the last wild horses on Earth.

Somewhere between the Volga and Don rivers

This same team, associated with dozens of other international researchers (162 in total), but also CEA and the University of Evry, then tried to expand the field of research as much as possible to all of Eurasia, that is, from Portugal to Siberia via Mongolia. The results of this work were published on October 20 in the prestigious journal Nature. “In total, we sequenced the genomes of 273 horses that lived between 50,000 and 200 years before our era, explains Ludovic Orlando. Before comparing the results with the genomes of modern domestic horses.” And bingo! Thanks to this exhaustive mapping, the scientists pointed to a genetic profile first confined to the Pontic steppes (North Caucasus) between two rivers, the Volga and the Don, which then spread everywhere from the Atlantic to Mongolia. “This species has replaced all wild horse populations in just a few centuries. Which is dizzying,” sums up Ludovic Orlando, who sees in this discovery of the origins of domestic horses almost fifteen years of work rewarded.

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All modern horses are descended from the same species.

How then to explain this “great replacement”? In their study, paleogeneticists reveal a spatial and temporal map of Europe that shows in many colors and vividly the genetic differences between horses in a period between 5,000 and 4,000 years ago. And from 4000 years (or between 2000 and 2200 BC) one color will prevail. “Based on natural selection, only one type prevails,” Orlando continues. The researchers carefully studied their results and the sequences between the genome of this horse and those of the populations it replaced. “In my opinion, two genes are at the origin of this demographic boom. The first could have developed a lumbar syndrome, that is to say a stronger back and a natural aspiration to locomotion; the second, is a kind of” gene of the docility “. which has already been studied in the laboratory in mice,” says Ludovic Orlando. These two characteristics may explain the success of this species at a time when horseback riding was widespread throughout the Earth.

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Extreme precision in time: a sudden change between 2000 and 2200 BC. C. JC – also opens up new perspectives on human migrations: the last great wave of European settlements are the Yamnayas, a people who arrived en masse from the northern edge of the Black Sea 5,000 to 4,700 years ago. And we have in our genes 30 to 40% of the genetic sequences of this Yamna culture. Yet these people are often portrayed as having “invaded” Europe at lightning speed. Often, too, these men were portrayed as a growing horde at the rear of the guns. However, this study shows that the domestication of the horse finally takes place around 500 years later. This people of the steppes of which we are heirs were not, therefore, so arrogant.

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