Origin of domestic horses finally established

Origin of domestic horses finally established

origin domestic horses domestic horse
Origin of domestic horses finally established. Farmer catching horses in north-central Kazakhstan. © Ludovic ORLANDO / CAGT / CNRS Photothèque

Horses were first domesticated in the Pontic-Caspian steppes, northern Caucasus, before conquering the rest of Eurasia within a few centuries. These are the results of a study led by paleogeneticist Ludovic Orlando, CNRS, who headed an international team including l’Université Toulouse III - Paul Sabatier, the CEA and l’Université d’Évry. Answering a decades-old enigma, the study is published in Nature on 20 October 2021.

By whom and where were modern horses first domesticated? When did they conquer the rest of the world? And how did they supplant the myriad of other types of horses that existed at that time? This long-standing archaeological mystery finally comes to an end thanks to a team of 162 scientists specialising in archaeology, palaeogenetics and linguistics.

A few years ago, Ludovic Orlando's team looked at the site of Botai, Central Asia, which had provided the oldest archaeological evidence of domestic horses. The DNA results, however, were not compliant: these 5500-year-old horses were not the ancestors of modern domestic horses1. Besides the steppes of Central Asia, all other presumed foci of domestication, such as Anatolia, Siberia and the Iberian Peninsula, had turned out to be false.

We knew that the time period between 4,000 to 6,000 years ago was critical but no smoking guns could ever be found” says CNRS research professor Orlando.

The scientific team, therefore, decided to extend their study to the whole of Eurasia by analysing the genomes of 273 horses that lived between 50,000 and 200 years BC. This information was sequenced at the Centre for Anthropobiology and Genomics of Toulouse (CNRS/Université Toulouse III - Paul Sabatier) and Genoscope2 (CNRS/CEA/Université d’Évry) before being compared with the genomes of modern domestic horses.

This strategy paid off: although Eurasia was once populated by genetically distinct horse populations, a dramatic change had occurred between 2000 and 2200 BC.

That was a chance: the horses living in Anatolia, Europe, Central Asia and Siberia used to be genetically quite distinct” notes Dr Pablo Librado, first author of the study.

Then, a single genetic profile, previously confined to the Pontic steppes (North Caucasus)3, began to spread beyond its native region, replacing all the wild horse populations from the Atlantic to Mongolia within a few centuries.

The genetic data also point to an explosive demography at the time, with no equivalent in the last 100,000 years” adds Orlando. “This is when we took control over the reproduction of the animal and produced them in astronomic numbers.”

But how can this rapid population growth be explained? Interestingly, scientists found two striking differences between the genome of this horse and those of the populations it replaced: one is linked to a more docile behaviour and the second indicates a stronger backbone. The researchers suggest that these characteristics ensured the animals’ success at a time when horse travel was becoming “global”.

The study also reveals that the horse spread throughout Asia at the same time as spoke-wheeled chariots and Indo-Iranian languages. However, the migrations of Indo-European populations, from the steppes to Europe during the third millennium BC4 could not have been based on the horse, as its domestication and diffusion came later. This demonstrates the importance of incorporating the history of animals when studying human migrations and encounters between cultures.

origine cheval
Origin of domestic horses finally established. Horse mandible excavated from the Ginnerup archaeological site, Denmark, June 2021. (This site was included in the study.) © Lutz Klassen, East Jutland Museum

This study was directed by the the Centre for Anthropobiology and Genomics of Toulouse (CNRS/ Université Toulouse III – Paul Sabatier) with help from Genoscope (CNRS/CEA/Université d’Évry). The French laboratories Archéologies et sciences de l'Antiquité (CNRS/Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne/Université Paris Nanterre/Ministère de la Culture), De la Préhistoire à l'actuel: culture, environnement et anthropologie (CNRS/Université de Bordeaux/Ministère de la Culture) and Archéozoologie, archéobotanique : sociétés, pratiques et environnements (CNRS/MNHN) also contributed, as did 114 other research institutions throughout the world. The study was primarily funded by the European Research Council (Pegasus project) and France Genomique (Bucéphale project).

Some previous results of the Pegasus project:


1 Read this press release: Unsaddling old theory on origin of horses, 22 February 2018.
2 Genoscope is a department of CEA-Jacob.
3 The Pontic steppe is the western part of the Eurasian steppe. The home of the modern domestic horse is thought to be in the Don and Volga basins, east of the Dnieper.
4 For example, see this press release: 7,000 years of demographic history in France, 25 May 2020.


Press release from CNRS on the study, published on Nature, concerning the origin of domestic horses.

The new study on the origin of domestic horses, references:

Librado, P., (...), Orlando, Ludovic (2021). "The origins and spread of domestic horses from the Western Eurasian steppes". Nature, 20/10/2021. DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-04018-9


Horses were domesticated in the Northern Caucasus steppes and then spread across Asia and Europe


A large group of researchers have conducted the largest genetic study carried out to date, which has made it possible to determine that the horses from which all current domestic horses descend were first domesticated in the steppes north of the Caucasus and, from there, spread to other regions of Asia and Europe.

Researchers from the Milá y Fontanals Institution (IMF) and the Institute of Archaeology (IAM) of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), together with scientists from the Museum of Human Evolution (MEH), the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of the University of Extremadura (UEx), the UCM-ISCIII Joint Centre for Human Evolution and Behaviour in Madrid, the Laboratory of Prehistoric Archaeology of the University Jaume I of Castellón (UJI) and the Faculty of Geological Sciences of the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM)have participated in the largest genetic study carried out to date, which has made it possible to determine that the horses from which all current domestic horses descend were first domesticated in the steppes north of the Caucasus and, from there, spread to other regions of Asia and Europe.

This study brings to an end a long-standing debate about the location and chronology of the earliest documented evidence of domestication of the horses that gave rise to today's populations, as well as aswering questions about when this domestication process began to spread to other regions of the world, thus replacing other types of horses that existed at the time. The results have been published in the October issue of prestigious international journal Nature.

This conclusion was reached by a team of 114 institutions and 162 researchers specialising in archaeology, palaeogenetics and linguistics, led by Professor Ludovic Orlando, CNRS researcher and principal investigator of the ERC-PEGASUS project, which, together with France Genomique-Projet Bucéphale, financed the research. The study involved sequencing the genomes of 273 remains of horses that inhabited various regions of Eurasia in a chronological arc extending from 50,000 to 200 BC. All the genetic information was sequenced at the Centre for Anthropobiology and Genomics of Toulouse, CAGT (CNRS/University of Toulouse III-Paul Sabatier) and Genoscope (CNRS/CEA/University of Évry), before being compared to the genomes of modern domestic horses. Thanks to the large battery of statistical analyses carried out, it has been possible to establish that between 2,200 and 2,000 BC, a drastic change took place in which the genetic profile existing in the Pontic steppes began to spread beyond its region of origin, thus replacing in a few centuries all wild horse populations from the Atlantic to Mongolia.

According to L. Orlando, "this replacement in the genetic composition of Eurasian populations is associated with significant genomic differences between this new type of horse and the horses of the populations that disappeared. On the one hand, this new type of horse from the steppes of the northern Caucasus had a more docile behaviour and, on the other hand, a more robust constitution in the vertebral skeleton".

The researchers suggest that these characteristics triggered the successful selection of these animals, at a time when horse travel was becoming widespread in Eurasia.

According to Pablo Librado (CNRS), first author of this research, "this study has also shown that the distribution of this new type of horse in Asia coincides with the appearance of light carts and the spread of Indo-Iranian languages. In contrast, the migration of Indo-European populations from the steppe zone to the heart of Europe during the third millennium BC did not use this new type of horse as a vector for its expansion. This result demonstrates the importance of also incorporating the genetic history of animals when analysing the dimension of human migrations and intercultural contacts".

The individuals analysed include equids from various sites on the Iberian Peninsula, including Casas del Turuñuelo (Guareña, Badajoz) and Cova Fosca (Alt Maestrat, Castelló).

The Cova Fosca was excavated by Francesc Gusi and Carmen Olaria. According to C. Olaria, professor of Prehistory at the UJI and co-author of this study,

"Cova Fosca has a very rich Holocene archaeozoological record. We were able to identify horse remains in ancient Neolithic levels, a very rare taxon in Iberian sites from this period. This uniqueness allowed us to publish years ago, together with Jaime Lira Garrido and Juan Luis Arsuaga, the first mitochondrial sequences of horses from this site".

According to J. L. Arsuaga, scientific director of the Museum of Human Evolution, professor of Palaeontology at the UCM, director of the UCM-ISCIII Joint Centre and co-author of this study,

"in Cova Fosca we found a unique mitochondrial lineage exclusive to Iberia that currently appears in very few horses, all of which are Iberian or of Iberian origin. In this new study we aimed to unveil the genomic secrets of the Cova Fosca".

Building Tartessos and Casas del Turuñuelo

origin domestic horses horse
A new study on the origin of domestic horses.View of animal slaughter documented in the courtyard of the building at Casas del Turuñuelo

Casas del Turuñuelo is one of the most impressive discoveries in peninsular archaeology in recent years. Its excavations are being carried out under a project directed by the IAM-CSIC and are being co-directed by Esther Rodríguez González and Sebastián Celestino, also researchers at the IAM-CSIC.

According to Esther Rodríguez González, co-author of this new study, "Turuñuelo is an architectural complex from the middle of the first millennium BC belonging to the Tartessos culture where we have found the largest hecatomb documented to date in a site of Mediterranean protohistory. This mass slaughter is notable for the large number of equids that have been differentiated in the courtyard of this site. For this study we selected Equid 4".According to Sebastián Celestino, also co-author of this research, "a multidisciplinary team of specialists from the humanities and biosciences has been created around Turuñuelo, which is generating a constant exchange of information and ideas, thus offering a great multidisciplinary approach to the study of this site".

Among the lines of research of "Construyendo Tartessos" [Building Tartessos], the genetic study of these slaughtered equids stands out. Jaime Lira Garrido (UEx/Centro Mixto UCM-ISCIII), who is a co-author of this study, explains that

"this latest work led by Professor Orlando has also allowed us to delve deeper into the evolutionary history of Iberian horses. In a previous study, Orlando and his team discovered that a genomic lineage developed on the Iberian Peninsula that is now extinct and very different from the rest of the ancient and modern Eurasian horse lineages described to date. The evolutionary origin of this lineage and the causes that led to its disappearance are still unknown. However, we have been able to identify in the Neolithic sample from the Cova Fosca the oldest evidence of this extinct lineage and that the Turuñuelo Equid 4 was, nevertheless, a descendant of this new type of horse that was so rapidly distributed throughout the known world some 4.000 years ago".

This study has been funded mainly by the European Research Council (PEGASUS project) and France Genomique (Bucéphale project).


Press release from Asociación RUVID on the new study on the origin of domestic horses.


South Ural State University (SUSU) scientists and their foreign colleagues have continued study devoted to the time and place of horse domestication. A research group has established where exactly the focus of domestication is located in Eurasia. The results of the work have been published in the highly rated journal “Nature” (Top 10%).

The identical signs have been found in the genomes of domesticated horses in Eurasia. Specialists have noticed that remains of these animals have a strong spine. Probably, this is the reason for domesticated horses popularity and global spreading of horse travels.

The research group which includes PhD, SUSU professor Andrey Epimakhov has established the Pontic-Caspian steppes, northern Caucasus, is the centre of horse domestication. The process has occurred between 2000 and 2200 BC (the Bronze Age). Horses are distinct i n different presumed foci of domestication such as Anatolia, Siberia and the Iberian Peninsula, but several ages later the common genome has spreaded from the Atlantic to Mongolia within a few centuries.

Our research group that is led by paleo-geneticist Ludovic Orlando, National Center for Scientific Research (France), has analysed the genomes of 273 horses that lived between 50,000 and 200 years BC. The study has covered the whole of Eurasia to research presumed territories to be considered as primary foci of domestication. However, all of the territories have turned out to be false. For instance, the site of Botai, Central Asia, has provided the oldest archaeological evidence of domestic horses. Nevertheless, the DNA results are not compliant: these 5500-year-old horses are not the ancestors of modern domestic horses. On the contrary, the Ural 4000 years old samples don’t raise doubts in horse exploitation and chariot teams,” Andrey Epimakhov explained.

Research has also demonstrated that the horse spread throughout Asia at the same time as spoke-wheeled chariots and Indo-Iranian languages.

Remind that dental calculus research has helped scientists to determine the time and place of horse domestication. There are dairy diet markers that have been detected in samples found in the Volga region. Milk has been a part of people's ration since animal domestication.


Press release from the South Ural State University on the new study on the origin of domestic horses.

Homo sapiens "Linya" lived in the northeast of the Iberian Peninsula 14,000 years ago

Homo sapiens "Linya" lived in the northeast of the Iberian Peninsula 14,000 years ago

Researchers from the Centre for the Study of Archaeological Heritage (CEPARQ-UAB) working at the Cova Gran de Santa Linya have discovered the remains of a Homo sapiens female living in the eastern Pre-Pyrennees during the Upper Palaeolithic period, around 14,000 years ago. There is a scarcity of prehistoric remains of modern humans in the Iberian Peninsula. The study of Linya, as she has been named, will allow delving deeper into what is known about them and how hunter-gatherers lived in the northeastern part of the peninsula.

Homo sapiens Linya
Homo sapiens "Linya" lived in the northeast of the Iberian Peninsula 14,000 years ago. Photo Credits: CEPARQ-UAB

16/06/2021 The cave known as Cova Gran (Avellanes-Santa Linya, Noguera) preserves countless vestiges within its sediments, which allows researchers to reconstruct over 50,000 years of history of those living in the Pre-Pyrennean region (Lleida province), from the Neanderthals to the the first Homo sapiens as well as the hunther-gatherer-lifestyle to the first farmers and herders.

The research team at the Centre for the Study of Archaeological Heritage of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (CEPARQ-UAB) studying the Cova Gran since 2002 has found remains dating back from 45,000 to 4,000 years ago. But no bones of those living there had ever been discovered. Until last year’s dig campaign, in which the skeletal remains of a human, in partial anatomic connection, were found two meters below ground in a lateral excavation area. A location in which researchers would not have imagined finding these types of remains.

The set ofrecovered remains, which has been made public today, corresponds to a woman who has been given the name of “Linya, the woman from Noguera”. The bones include two femurs, one of them connected to the pelvis, as well as the long bones of the upper extremities (hummerus, radius/cubitus) and lower extremities (tibia and fibula), the metapodia and several phalanges. The skull and axial skeleton (vertebrates and ribs), although present, had little representation.

The dating of the stratum in which the remains were found and the dating of one of the bones have narrowed down the period in which she lived to around 14,350 and 14,100 years ago, which corresponds to the end of the Upper Paleolithic period, which also corresponds to the end of the Pleistocene.

“The remains of Linya open a new door that brings us closer to discovering the circumstances in which she died, but also details about her life and that of those she lived with in the region. And at the same time, she is a key figure in learning about the anatomy and genetic heritage of hunter-gatherer societies at the end of the Pleistocene in the northeastern part of the Iberian Peninsula”, highlights Rafael Mora, Chair Professor at the UAB Department of Prehistory and researcher at the CEPARQ. “The combination of different paleoanthropological, forensic, genomic and archaeological analyses currently underway will provide indicators which will enrich and rectify the current perspective of a discovery we only have preliminary information on thanks to the digs we are conducting”.

The state of conservation of the bones has made it necessary to apply stabilizing and preservation processes in views of future studies. These processes are being conducted now at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES).

Placed in a natural receptacle

The remains were found within what is considered to be a natural receptacle, delimited by various blocks of large dimensions fallen from the rockshelter. Researchers are currently investigating whether the extremities were moved towards the cubicle, while the axial skeleton and skull were protected under these large rocks. What researchers have been able to determine is that the location is where the person was lain once she was dead. According to the position of the femurs, she was lain directly on the ground in a supine position. The first paleoanthropological characterization conducted indicates that the pelvic girdle corresponds to an adult female, possibly of small stature.

The skeleton appeared at the base of an archaeological sequencing of 7 consecutive archaeological levels containing an abundance of lithic tools, faunal and carbon remains, all of which point to the use of the site as a living space. But the bed on which the body was lain did not contain any of those elements. Currently, the research team is looking for possible funerary offerings, which were very common in the burials of Homo sapiens. The sediment of the space marked out by the large blocks is now being sampled to recover micro residue that could indicate that the body was covered with animal skins or plant fibers. This would justify the way the body was lain on the ground, without the need of digging a burial space.

“We are aware of the need to be cautious when affirming that this is an intended burial site”, researcher at the CEPARQ Jorge Martinez-Moreno points out. He goes on to say that, “mortuary practices among hunter-gatherers point to different possibilities, ranging from an intentional burial to a secondary burial, the burial of part of the body, cannibalism, or an accidental death. We will need to evaluate these scenarios depending on the results of what we dig up in the area in which these remains appeared”.

Carbon-14 dating using fragments of the carbon found in the archaeological levels in which the remains appeared indicate that the sediment was formed in less than a millennium, from around 14,400 to 13,500 years ago. The explanation for why this sediment grew so much, and which was accompanied by the detachment of several massive blocks from the cave’s cornice, is being analyzed through the geomorphology and material that make up this part of the mountain’s slope.

A moment of ecological change

The time period in which Linya and her people lived was critical in climatic terms. Some 14,700 years ago, the world’s extremely cold and harsh climate conditions characteristic of the Last Glacial Maximum (approximately 30,000 to 15,000 years ago) suddenly changed and in a period of less than 100 years, transformed into a new climate regime similar to the one existing now. This event, known as the Bölling/Allerød warming, occurring some 14,700 to 12,900 years before the present, and was characterized by a rise in temperatures and rainfall, which produced relevant ecological changes.

Despite the fact that the impact of this event on the Pre-Pyrennees is not greatly known, some indicators recovered at the Cova Gran have allowed researchers to analyze this incident. Carbon dating analysis indicates that the human species living there during the Last Glacial Maximum only used European red pine (Pynus sylvestris) timber for fuel. In the sequence now being dug, in which the remains of Linya were discovered, other new taxon’s in addition to red pine carbon were identified, such the common juniper (Juniperus), cherry trees (Prunus) and buckthorn (Rhamus catharticus/saxatilis), a set of trees and shrubs belonging to milder climates, different to the harshness of the forests of the Last Glacial Maximum.

Very few remains of Homo sapiens in the Iberian Peninsula

The amount of human remains discovered in the Iberian Peninsula and corresponding to the Upper Paleolithic period (20,000 to 12,000 years ago) is scarce. In this sense, the Cova Gran will be key to learning more about their anatomy and where the Hunter-gatherer societies came from at the end of the Pleistocene.

A recent paleogenetic study conducted by the Max Planck Institute on remains recovered from the El Mirón Cave in Santander and the Balma Guilanyà rock shelter in Lleida indicates that the genome sequencing of the “Red Lady of El Mirón”, dating back 20,000 years, reveals close ties to human populations of Western Europe. A situation which changes in the remains found at the Balma Guilanyà rock shelter, dating 1,000 years later than the remains found at the Cova Gran, in which there is a continuation of genetic markers common to European populations, but also new markers which are present in the populations of the Italian Peninsula.

Therefore, in the interval of 20,000 to 13,000 years, the genome of Pyrenean populations registers contacts with populations from the Mediterranean. “Maybe the new climate conditions of the Bölling/Allerød warming facilitated regular contacts between these geographic areas?” researchers wonder. “The human remains at the Cova Gran will be key to evaluating the solidity of this interesting intuition”, they point out.

The CEPARQ team is convinced that the unexpected discovery of Linya will help to modulate the notions now sustained of the anatomy of those Homo sapiens, “of whom we have less precise knowledge than we do of Neanderthals”, researchers state. They also mention the fact that “the causes leading to the appearance of a space created by large blocks will aid us in learning about the behavior and decisions taken by those people regarding a transcendental and common event such as death: what ritual was followed by these people who are part of our collective, but are no longer present? The remains of Linya now pose several challenges, and we hope to solve them in the coming years”, they conclude.

The archaeological importance of the Cova Gran de Santa Linya

The Cova Gran de Santa Linya, discovered in 2002, is a site measuring over 2,500 square meters, considered key to the study of the presence of humans in the northeastern Iberian Peninsula.

It is one of the few sites of the Mediterranean region in which vestiges of a moment of “transition” have been found, such as those of the last Neanderthals (approximately 45,000 years ago) and the appearance of modern humans (some 37,000 to 30,000 years), their survival during the Last Glacial Maximum (20,000 to 15,000 years), and the appearance of the first farmers and herders (7,000 to 4,000 years ago).

The research conducted by the CEPARQ-UAB team at the Cova Gran de Santa Linya includes the financial support of the Spanish Ministry for Science and Innovation, the Archaeology and Palaecology Service of the Ministry for Culture of the Government of Catalonia, the Institute for Lleida Studies (IEI) of the Lleida Provincial Council, the Palarq Foundation, the Leakey Foundation and the City Council of Les Avellanes i Santa Linya.

Press release from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

El Provencio

First exhaustive study of the Paleolithic site of El Provencio

First exhaustive study of the Paleolithic site of El Provencio

The CENIEH researcher Davinia Moreno has co-led the publication of a paper on this Paleolithic site in the province of Cuenca, whose age, according to the ESR dating technique, is 830,000 years.
El Provencio
El Provencio site. Credits: Santiago David Domínguez-Solera, ARES arqueología

The researcher Davinia Moreno, a geochronologist at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), is the co-leader of a paper published in the journal Quaternary International about El Provencio, in which the first exhaustive study of this Paleolithic site in the province of Cuenca, situated in the La Mancha plain on the banks of the Záncara River, is conducted.

The geochronological analysis carried out at the CENIEH, applying the techniques of Electron Spin Resonance (ESR) and Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) has provided the first numerical datings in this region. The most recent and most ancient levels of the archaeological sequence were dated, yielding ages of 41,000 (OSL) and 830,000 years (ESR).

The rich archaeo-paleontological record of El Provencio exhibits stone tools worked in flint and quartzite catalogued as Modes 1, 2 and 3 (Oldowan, Acheulean and Mousterian), as well as bone remains from species characteristic of the Pleistocene such as horses, bisons and mammoths.

This study suggests that, over the last 800,000 years, groups of hunter-gatherers occupied this territory, undertaking a variety of activities recurrently and continuously, and it undercuts theories of a discontinuity in the center of the Iberian Peninsula and those contending that population was more intensive on the coast than in the interior.

Research and outreach project

The research work at El Provencio is part of a much larger project that got under way in 2013 and which, at the moment, covers dozens of locations throughout the province of Cuenca. This project, directed by Santiago David Domínguez-Solera, lead author of this study, through the company ARES (Arqueología y Patrimonio Cultural) is being conducted in close collaboration with the Junta de Comunidades de Castilla-La Mancha, the Diputación de Cuenca and the Ayuntamiento de El Provencio.

From the outset, this project has placed special importance on outreach for its scientific results: a classroom for schoolchildren and visitors has been set up, and documentary reportage, exhibitions and university courses (Universidad Internacional Menéndez Pelayo) in the municipality of El Provencio itself have been produced.

"As of several years ago, we have been opening up a window onto the prehistoric past, aligning it with the three natural zones making up what is today the province of Cuenca; La Mancha, Sierra and Alcarria, each with its particular features. This window offers a glimpse of an area little studied or overlooked up to now, and therefore unknown to science”, declares Domínguez-Solera.

Press release from CENIEH

The African affinities of the southwestern European Acheulean

A study highlights the African affinities of the southwestern European Acheulean

The CENIEH is the co-leader of a paper published in the Journal of Paleolithic Archaeology which presents a synthesis of human occupation in the Iberian Peninsula Atlantic margin during the Early and Middle Paleolithic
African Acheulean
Porto Maior site (As Neves, Pontevedra). Credits: Eduardo Méndez

The Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH) is the co-leader of a study published this week in the Journal of Paleolithic Archaeology which presents a synthesis of human occupation in the Iberian Peninsula Atlantic margin during the Early and Middle Paleolithic, and highlights the African affinities of Acheulean industry in southwestern Europe.

Over recent years, a team whose members include the CENIEH archaeologist Manuel Santonja, and Eduardo Méndez, leading author of the study trained at the CENIEH, has excavated and interpreted important archaeological sites on the banks of the Miño River, on both the Portuguese and Spanish shores, with singular Acheulean and Mousterian assemblages.

The chronology attributed to these sites, the second half of the Middle Pleistocene and the first part of the Late Pleistocene (between 50,000 and 400,000 years ago), and the characteristics of the knapped utensils recovered allow close parallels to be drawn with other regions of the Iberian Peninsula, and rule out any kind of time mismatch in these stages in the northwestern area, as had been proposed earlier.

Some of the sites excavated, and in particular the Acheulean one at Porto Maior (As Neves, Pontevedra), have produced unusual assemblages of large utensils, handaxes and cleavers, which make a decisive contribution to underlining the African affinities of that industry in the Iberian Peninsula and southwestern Europe, in contrast to Acheulean assemblages identified in the northernmost areas of the continent, where the distinctive technological features of the African Acheulean arrive less crisply defined.


Full bibliographic information

Méndez-Quintas, E., Santonja, M., Arnold, L. J., Cunha-Ribeiro, J. P., Xavier da Silva, P., Demuro, M., Duval, M., Gomes, A., Meireles, J., Monteiro-Rodrigues, S., & Pérez-González, A. (2020). The Acheulean technocomplex of the Iberian Atlantic margin as an example of technology continuity through the Middle Pleistocene. Journal of Paleolithic Archaeology (0). doi: 10.1007/s41982-020-00057-2.
Press release from CENIEH

The landscape in the Pre-Pyrenees inhabited by Neanderthals

A CENIEH scientist analyzes the landscape in the Pre-Pyrenees inhabited by Neanderthals

Reconstructing how the landscape in this zone evolved is key to understanding the Neanderthal occupation patterns in this territory, which served as a nexus between the rest of Europe and the Iberian Peninsula, by connecting the highlands of the Pyrenees with the Ebro Basin
Pre-Pyrenees Neanderthals
Yacimiento de la Roca dels Bous. Credits: Alfonso Benito Calvo

The researcher Alfonso Benito Calvo, head of the Geomorphology and Formation Processes line of research at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH, is the lead author of a paper just published in the journal Quaternary Research, which analyzes the formation of the site of Roca dels Bous (Lleida, Spain), which was inhabited by Neanderthals, in relation to the evolution that took place of this landscape in the Pre-Pyrenees over the last 60,000 years.

In this paper, the processes that intervened during the Neanderthal occupation of this Mousterian site, lying in the gorge of the Segre River (Sant Llorenç de Montgai), were investigated using 3D geomorphological techniques based upon drones, as well as stratigraphic, statistical and Luminescence dating (OSL) techniques.

“The landscape we see today is very different from that inhabited by the Neanderthals. Roca dels Bous was not a vantage point overlooking the valley, as on the contrary, the data indicate that it lay next to the valley bottom, and the Neanderthals had the resources offered by the Segre River floodplain, which was wider than it is now, to hand”, explains Benito Calvo.

Reconstructing how the landscape in this zone evolved is key to understanding the Neanderthal occupation patterns in this territory, which served as a nexus between the rest of Europe and the Iberian Peninsula, by connecting the highlands of the Pyrenees with the Ebro Basin.

Full bibliographic information

Benito-Calvo, A., Arnold, L.J., Mora, R., Martínez-Moreno, J., Demuro, M., 2020. Reconstructing Mousterian landscapes in the southeastern Pyrenees (Roca dels Bous site, Pre-Pyrenees ranges, Spain). Quaternary Research 1–20. https://doi.org/10.1017/qua.2020.29
Press release from CENIEH

Neanderthals: pioneers in the use of marine resources

Neanderthals ate mussels, fish, and seals too

International research team with participation from University of Göttingen find it wasn't just Homo sapiens who sourced food from the sea -- impact on cognitive abilities suspected

Neanderthals marine
View on the Figueira Brava cave with its three entrances. Credits: João Zilhão

Over 80,000 years ago, Neanderthals were already feeding themselves regularly on mussels, fish and other marine life. The first robust evidence of this has been found by an international research team with the participation of the University of Göttingen during an excavation in the cave of Figueira Brava in Portugal. Dr Dirk Hoffmann at the Göttingen Isotope Geology Department dated flowstone layers - calcite deposits that form like stalagmites from dripping water - using the uranium-thorium method, and was thus able to determine the age of the excavation layers to between 86,000 and 106,000 years. This means that the layers date from the period in which the Neanderthals settled in Europe. The use of the sea as a source of food at that time has so far only been attributed to anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) in Africa. The results of the study were published in the journal Science.

Cracked-open and burnt fragments of pincers of the edible crab (cancer pagurus). Credits: João Zilhão

The cave of Figueira Brava is located 30 kilometres south of Lisbon on the slopes of the Serra da Arrábida. Today it is located directly on the waterfront, but at that time it was up to two kilometres from the coast. The research team, coordinated by the first author of the study, Professor João Zilhão from the University of Barcelona, found that the Neanderthals living there were able to routinely harvest mussels and fish, and to hunt seals. Their diet included mussels, crustaceans and fish as well as waterfowl and marine mammals such as dolphins and seals. Food from the sea is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and other fatty acids that promote the development of brain tissue.

Until now, it has always been suspected that this consumption increased the cognitive abilities of the human populations in Africa. "Among other influences, this could explain the early appearance of a culture of modern people that used symbolic artefacts, such as body painting with ochre, the use of ornaments or the decoration of containers made of ostrich eggs with geometric motifs," explains Hoffmann. "Such behaviour reflects human's capacity for abstract thought and communication through symbols, which also contributed to the emergence of more organised and complex societies of modern humans".

Neanderthals marine
Horizontal exposure of a mussel shell bed. Credits: João Zilhão

The recent results of the excavation of Figueira Brava now confirm that if the habitual consumption of marine life played an important role in the development of cognitive abilities, this is as true for Neanderthals as it is for anatomically modern humans. Hoffmann and his co-authors previously found that Neanderthals made cave paintings in three caves on the Iberian Peninsula more than 65,000 years ago and that perforated and painted shells must also be attributed to the Neanderthals.


Original publication: J. Zilhão et al., Last Interglacial Iberian Neandertals as fisher-hunter-gatherers, Science, 10.1126/science.aaz7943

See: https://science.sciencemag.org/cgi/doi/10.1126/science.aaz7943



Press release from the University of Göttingen


Science publishes study on Neanderthals as pioneers in marine resource exploitation

Neanderthals marine
Cracked-open and burnt fragments of Cancer pagurus pincer? Credits: José Paulo Ruas © João Zilhão

The journal Science has published a study led by the ICREA researcher João Zilhão, from the University of Barcelona, which presents the results of the excavation in Cueva de Figueira Brava, Portugal, which was used as shelter by Neanderthal populations about between 86 and 106 thousand years ago. The study reveals fishing and shellfish-gathering contributed significantly to the subsistence economy of the inhabitants of Figueira Brava. The relevance of this discovery lies in the fact that so far, there were not many signs of these practices as common among Neanderthals.

Regarding the consequences of this study, João Zilhão notes that "an influent model on our origins suggests the common consumption of water resources -rich in Omega3 and other fatty acids that favour the development of brain tissues- would have increased the cognitive skills of modern anatomy humans. That is, those humans who, in Africa, were contemporaries of Neanderthals and are usually regarded as the only ancestors of the current Homo sapiens". But the results of the excavation of Figueira Brava state that, if this common consumption of marine resources played an important role in the development of cognitive skills, it did so on the entire humanity, including Neanderthals, and not only the African population that spread later".

Zilhão member of the Prehistoric Studies and Research Seminar (SERP-UB), lists the research study in the line of "proof that accumulated over the last decade to show Neanderthals had a symbolic material culture". Two years ago, in 2018, the journals Science and Science Advances published two studies co-led by João Zilhão which showed that more than 65,000 years ago, Neanderthals made cave paintings in at least three caves in the Iberian Peninsula: La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales (Science). Furthermore, more than 115,000 years ago, they used perforated marine shells and with ocher remains, such as the ones from Cueva de los Aviones (Murcia, Spain), as pendants and shell containers with residues of complex mixes of pigment (Science Advances). These findings, the most recent one being the one in Figueira Brava, "support a view on human evolution in which the known fossil variants, such as Neanderthals' in Europe and its African anatomy contemporaries -more similar to ours-, should be understood as remains from our ancestors, not as different higher-lower species", notes Zilhão.

Pieces of clam Ruditapes decussatus, found in the site. Credits: Mariana Nabais © João Zilhão

A 50% of the diet of the inhabitants in Figueira Brava was built by coastal resources: molluscs (limpet, mussel and clams; crustaceans (brown crab and spider crab); fish (shark, eel, sea bream, mullet); birds (mallard, common scoter, goose, cormorant, gannet, shag, auk, egret, loon), and mammals (dolphin, seal). This was completed with the hunt of deer, goats, horses, aurochs and other small preys such as tortoises. Among the other carbonised plants were olive trees, vines, fig trees and other Mediterranean climate typical species, among which the most abundant was the stone pine -its wood was used as combustible. Pine forests were exploited as fruit tree gardens: mature pines, albeit closed, were taken from the branches and stored in the cave, where the fire could open them so as to take the pines.

The study also provides other results, such as the idea of the concept of Neanderthals as cold and tundra peoples, experts on hunting mammoths, rhinos, buffalos and reindeers, is biased. "Most Neanderthals would have lived in southern regions, specially in Italy and in the Iberian Peninsula, and its lifestyle would have been very similar to those in Figueira Brava", notes Zilhão.

Another important affirmation in the study is the familiarity of humans with the sea and its resources as something older and wider than what was thought. "This could probably help explain how, between 45,000 and 50,000 years ago, humans could cross the Timor Sea to colonize Australia and New Guinea, and then, about 30,000 years ago, the closest islands to the western Pacific", says Zilhão.


Article reference:

J. Zilhão, D. E. Angelucci, M. Araújo Igreja, L. J. Arnold, E. Badal, P. Callapez, J. L. Cardoso, F. d'Errico, J. Daura, M. Demuro, M. Deschamps, C. Dupont, S. Gabriel, D. L. Hoffmann, P. Legoinha, H. Matias, A. M. Monge Soares, M. Nabais, P. Portela, A. Queffelec, F. Rodrigues, P. Souto. "Last Interglacial Iberian Neandertals as fisher-hunter-gatherers", Science, 367, March 27, 2020.


Press release from the University of Barcelona


Neanderthals: Pioneers in the use of marine resources

Neanderthals slurping seashells by the seashore? This scene may startle those accustomed to imagining Homo neanderthalensis as a people of cold climes who hunted large herbivores. Yet an international team including scientists from three laboratories affiliated with the CNRS and partner institutions* have just demonstrated that Neanderthals hunted, fished, and gathered prodigious volumes of seafood and other marine animals: they discovered remains of molluscs, crustaceans, fish, birds, and mammals in a Portuguese cave (Figueira Brava) occupied by Neanderthals between 106,000 and 86,000 BCE. The diversity of marine food resources found there even exceeds that observed at other, much more recent Portuguese sites, dated to 9,000-7,500 BCE. The team's findings, published in Science (27 March 2020), suggest that many Neanderthal groups--living in Mediterranean climates far from the mammoth hunts of the frigid steppes--shared these dietary habitats.


Researchers from Centre de recherche en archéologie, archéosciences, Histoire (CNRS/Université de Rennes), from De la préhistoire à l'actuel : culture, environnement et anthropologie laboratory (CNRS/Université de Bordeaux/Ministère de la Culture) and Travaux de recherches archéologiques sur les cultures, les espaces et les sociétés laboratory (CNRS/Université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès/Ministère de la Culture).


Press release from the CNRS

Cordoba Iberian Roman

21st century archaeology has rediscovered historical Cordoba

21st century archaeology has rediscovered historical Cordoba

Cordoba Iberian Roman
This is the ancient geomorphology of the city of Cordoba. Credit: Antonio Monterroso-Checa

On the land where Cordoba is located in the 21st century, two cities coexisted in the past, each on a hill. An Iberian city was located where Cruz Conde Park lies today, and a Roman city, which was founded at a later time, was located about 500 meters away. Archaeology has had to depend upon geological studies up to now in order to determine how the city developed throughout history, but now, thanks to LiDAR technology, 3D images have been obtained that show what the land was like where Cordoba lies before humans arrived.

Antonio Monterroso, an Art History, Archaeology and Music Department researcher at the University of Cordoba, used data from a specific LiDAR flight for the first time. This flight was performed by the National Geographic Institute (abbreviated to IGN in Spanish) in 2016 and covered all of Spain. The data was used to analyze the morphology of an already built city. These data are publicly accessible and have led to the aerial detection of several archaeological sites outside of urban enclaves in Spain, but this tool's potential was underestimated when it came to analyzing historical cities.

Aerial laser LiDAR technology is a recent development. A small plane flies over an area and casts millions of points of light and uses them to calculate the height at which objects they collide with are located. These objects could be trees, mountains or buildings. This provides a three-dimensional image of the area being studied.

Cordoba is a built-up city, so these data apparently do not provide any archaeological information, due to the fact that most ruins are buried underneath new buildings. However, if these data are filtered and only the ones that hit the ground are chosen, while disregarding the points that collided with urban features, they can be used to generate a 3D picture of the actual land where the city lies.

In this way, Antonio Monterroso Checa was able to digitally recreate the geomorphology of the area where Cordoba is located before it was covered with buildings. In the images, one can clearly see how first the Iberian city and later the Roman one both took advantage of the shape of the land in order to build their settlements. The former was located on a hill, which is named Los Quemados Hill today, while the latter was built on a less steep hill farther to the northeast. The images also show how these two settlements were located next to the old Guadalquivir riverbed, which was farther north than it is today. In Roman and medieval times, once the river took its current shape, the city spread over what had once been the old riverbed, and high foundations and fortifications were built to avoid flooding.

Up until now, the traces of this old Guadalquivir riverbed had only been revealed by means of archaeologial studies that detected signs of flooding in the area and the presence of underground sand. Thanks to Monterroso's research, we can now see this evidence digitally in a clearer and more graphic way.

This is the first part of a much broader scope of research that Antonio Monterroso is performing on the province of Cordoba. He is currently immersed in studying LiDAR data from the IGN around the Medina Azahara historical site and its surroundings. The aim of this work is to continue to uncover new information about the world heritage that the historical city of Cordoba holds.


Monterroso, Antonio. Geoarchaeological Characterisation of Sites of Iberian and Roman Cordoba Using LiDAR Data Acquisitions. Geosciences. 10.3390/geosciences9050205


Press release from the University of Cordoba

The Neolithic precedents of gender inequality

The Neolithic precedents of gender inequality

Researchers from the University of Seville have published an ambitious study of gender inequality in prehistoric Iberia


Neolithic gender inequality Iberian peninsula Iberia
Dolmen near Moià in Catalonia. Picture by Vincent van Zeijst, CC BY-SA 3.0

Researchers from the Department of Prehistory and Archaeology at the University of Seville have studied the archaeological evidence of prehistoric societies in the Neolithic Period in the Iberian Peninsula from the perspective of gender. According to the results of their work, which address the analysis from the point of view of bioarchaeology and funerary archaeology, it was in the Neolithic that gender differences first appeared which meant male domination in later periods of history.

To arrive at these conclusions, the researchers have analysed two groups of indicators. On the one hand, life conditions and demographic aspects; and, on the other, funerary practices. In the first group, they studied factors like the sexual ratio (the demographic proportion of men to women), diet, genetic data, movement, the most common diseases and the detected stress markers. In the second, they considered data like the type of burial, the primary or secondary character of the deposit, if it was individual or collective burial, the spatial organisation of the site, the position and orientation of the bodies, the funerary goods that were placed in the tomb or the "funerary movements" (signs of manipulation of the bodies, pigmentation or alteration caused by the heat).

The study concluded that inequality between men and women was not generally consolidated or widely spread in Iberia during the Neolithic. However, situations progressively appeared that indicate dominance of men over women. The authors point to four important lines in which inequality between men and women can be investigated through successive historical periods: their access to funeral rites, the material conditions of their existence, the appearance of specific social roles for each of the genders and the growing association of men with violence.

It is precisely this last aspect that is most evident in this study. The arrow wounds on male bodies, the depositing of projectiles in their tombs or the pictorial representations (cave paintings) of men hunting and fighting have no equivalent parallel in women. Therefore, the authors point to the birth of an ideology that connected men with the exercise of force. In this sense, they highlight that the creation of different roles according to gender and other forms of gender inequality played a fundamental role in the growth of social complexity, a factor that has not always been well understood in previous research projects.

The study, which stems from the University of Seville doctoral thesis of Marta Cintas Peña, was carried out by the teacher Leonardo García Sanjuán, and it is the first time that this period has been dealt with from the perspective of gender and considering multiple variables. The study's conclusions mean the archaeological confirmation of the proposal of anthropologist Gerda Lerner, who in the book The Creation of Patriarchy proposed the hypothesis that it was the Neolithic societies that saw the beginning of inequality between men and women.


Press release from the University of Seville

Rare fossils provide more detailed picture of biodiversity during Middle Ordovician

Rare fossils provide more detailed picture of biodiversity during Middle Ordovician

Middle Ordovician
Maine fossils from Portugal are shedding light on Middle Ordovician, where there had been a gap in the fossil record. Credit: Julien Kimmig / KU News Service

LAWRENCE -- A clutch of marine fossil specimens unearthed in northern Portugal that lived between 470 and 459 million years ago is filling a gap in understanding evolution during the Middle Ordovician period.

The discovery, explained in a new paper just published in The Science of Nature, details three fossils found in a new "Burgess Shale-type deposit." (The Burgess Shale is a deposit in Canada renowned among evolutionary biologists for excellent preservation of soft-bodied organisms that don't have a biomineralized exoskeleton.)

"The paper describes the first soft-body fossils preserved as carbonaceous films from Portugal," said lead author Julien Kimmig, collections manager at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum. "But what makes this even more important is that it's one of the few deposits that are actually from the Ordovician period -- and even more importantly, they're from the Middle Ordovician, a time were very few soft-bodied fossils are known."

Kimmig and his KU Biodiversity Institute colleagues, undergraduate researcher Wade Leibach and senior curator Bruce Lieberman, along with Helena Couto of the University of Porto in Portugal (who discovered the fossils), describe three marine fossil specimens: a medusoid (jellyfish), possible wiwaxiid sclerites and an arthropod carapace.

"Before this, there had been nothing found on the Iberian Peninsula in the Ordovician that even resembled these," Kimmig said. "They close a gap in time and space. And what's very interesting is the kind of fossils. We find Medusozoa -- a jellyfish -- as well as animals which appear to be wiwaxiids, which are sluglike armored mollusks that have big spines. We found these lateral sclerites of animals which were actually thought to have gone extinct in the late Cambrian. There might have been some that survived into the Ordovician in a Morocco deposit, but nothing concrete has been ever published on those. And here we have evidence for the first ones actually in the middle of the Ordovician, so it extends the range of these animals incredibly."

Kimmig said the discovery of uncommon wiwaxiids fossils in this time frame suggests the animals lived on Earth for a far greater span of time than previously understood.

"Especially with animals that are fairly rare that we don't have nowadays like wiwaxiids, it's quite nice to see they lived longer than we ever thought," he said. "Closely after this deposit, in the Upper Ordovician, we actually get a big extinction event. So, it's likely the wiwaxiids survived up to that big extinction event and didn't go extinct earlier due to other circumstances. But it might have been whatever caused the big Ordovician extinction event killed them off, too."

According to the researchers, the soft-bodied specimens fill a gap in the fossil record for the Middle Ordovician and suggest "many soft-bodied fossils in the Ordovician remain to be discovered, and a new look at deep-water shales and slates of this time period is warranted."

"It's a very interesting thing with these discoveries -- we're actually getting a lot of information about the distribution of animals chronologically and geographically," Kimmig said. "Also, this gives us a lot of information on how animals adapted to different environments and where they actually managed to live. With these soft-body deposits, we get a much better idea of how many animals there were and how their environment changed over time. It's something that applies to modern days, with changing climate and changing water temperatures, because we can see how animals over longer periods of time in the geologic record have actually adapted to these things."

The fossils were discovered in the Valongo Formation in northern Portugal, an area famed for containing trilobites. Credit: Julien Kimmig / KU News Service

Co-author Couto discovered the fossils in the Valongo Formation in northern Portugal, an area famed for containing trilobites. When the animals were alive, the Valongo Formation was part of a shallow sea on the margin of northern Gondwana, the primeval supercontinent.

"Based on the shelly fossils, the deposit looks like it was a fairly common Ordovician community," Kimmig said. "And now we know that in addition to those common fossils jellyfish were floating around, we had sluglike mollusks roaming on the ground, too, and we had bigger arthropods, which might have been predatory animals. So, in that regard, we're getting a far better image with these soft-bodied fossils of what these communities actually looked like."

According to the KU researcher, scientists didn't grasp until recently that deposits from this period could preserve soft-bodied specimens.

"For a long time, it was just not known that these kinds of deposits survived in to the Ordovician," Kimmig said. "So, it is likely these deposits are more common in the Ordovician than we know of, it's just that people were never looking for them."

Kimmig led analysis of the fossils at KU's Microscopy and Analytical Imaging Laboratory to ensure the fossils were made of organic material. Leibach, the KU undergraduate researcher, conducted much of the lab work.

"We analyzed the material and looked at the composition because sometimes you can get pseudo fossils -- minerals that create something that looks like a fossil," Kimmig said. "We had to make sure that these fossils actually had an organic origin. And what we found is that they contain carbon, which was the big indication they would actually be organic."


Press release from the University of Kansas

horse genetic history

A genomic tour-de-force reveals the last 5,000 years of horse history

A genomic tour-de-force reveals the last 5,000 years of horse history

horse genetic history
This image shows a herd of Kazakh horses in the Pavlodar region of Kazakhstan in August 2016. Credit: Ludovic Orlando

Each year on the first Saturday in May, Thoroughbred horses reach speeds of over 40 miles per hour as they compete to win the Kentucky Derby. But the domestic horse wasn't always bred for speed. In fact, an international team now has evidence to suggest that the modern horse is genetically quite different from the horses of even just a few hundred years ago.

Their work, appearing May 2 in the journal Cell, constructs the genetic history of the domestic horse across the world over the last 5,000 years by using the largest genome collection ever generated for a non-human organism. The findings identify two new horse lineages that are now extinct and suggest that familiar traits such as speed were only selected for more recently in their history.

"The horse has impacted human history like no other animal," says Ludovic Orlando (@LudovicLorlando), a research director with CNRS and the University of Toulouse and a Professor of Molecular Archaeology at the University of Copenhagen. "If you look at the historical record from the Bronze Age onward, horses are always part of the equation up until very recent times, connecting civilizations and impacting transportation, warfare, and agriculture. Our goal was to understand how humans and their activities transformed the horse throughout history to fit their purposes--and how these changes in biology influenced human history."

The team responsible for this project consisted of 121 collaborators, including geneticists, archaeologists, and evolutionary biologists from 85 institutions around the world, and examined genome-scale data from 278 horse specimens from across Eurasia over the last 42,000 years.

"Such a large collection of data means that we can build a much more precise understanding of horse domestication and management through space and time," Orlando says. "But it was truly an interdisciplinary effort because of course it takes a lot more than just DNA to understand such a story. We had to integrate all these social, historical, and geographical aspects."

This graphical abstract summarizes horse genetic history over the last 5,000 years. Credit: Fages et al./Cell

Overall, the team's findings suggest that equine history was much more complex than was previously realized. Today, there are only two known lineages of horses, the domestic horse and the Przewalski's horse. But the researchers here identified two additional now-extinct lineages of horses, one from the Iberian Peninsula and one from Siberia, both of which still existed 4,000-4,500 years ago. "We found two lineages of horses at the far ends of Eurasia that are not related to what we call the domestic horse today, nor to the Przewalski's horse. They are a sort of horse equivalent of what Neanderthals are to modern humans," Orlando says.

The researchers also found a major shift in the genetic makeup of horses in Europe and Central Asia in the 7th to 9th centuries and say this shift probably corresponds to Islamic expansions. The horses common in Europe before that time are now only found in regions such as Iceland; the new European horses after that time were much more similar to horses found in Persia during the Sassanid Empire. When the team performed a scan to identify genes that had been selected for in these Persian horses, they found evidence of selection in genes associated with body shape.

"It was a moment in history that reshaped the landscape of horses in Europe. If you look at what we today call Arabian horses, you know that they have a different shape--and we know how popular this anatomy has been throughout history, including in racing horses. Based on the genomic evidence, we propose that this horse was so successful and influential because it brought a new anatomy and perhaps other favorable traits," he says.

The researchers found that there have been additional significant and recent changes in the domestic horse. Similar selection scans indicate that only in the last 1,500 years did traits such as ambling and speed over short distances become more actively sought. And when they looked at the overall genetic diversity of the domestic horse, the researchers found a sharp decline in the last 200 to 300 years. They believe this decline corresponds with new breeding practices that were introduced with the rise of the concept of "pure" breeds.

"What we picture as a horse today and what we picture as a horse from a thousand years ago or two thousand years ago was likely actually very different. Some of those traits that we are most familiar with are only a modern invention, and in the last few hundred years, we have actually impacted the horse genome a lot more than in the previous 4,000 years of domestication," says Orlando.

This map shows the locations of the archaeological sites where horse remains were found. Credit: Fages et al./Cell

He believes that this research can tell us a lot about both the past and the present. "Our findings show that the past is a lot more diverse than we thought it was and that it cannot be imagined or inferred through modern-day variation. But ancient DNA tells us a lot about today as well, because it teaches us about the consequences of some shifts in breeding practices," he says. And that, he believes, can also affect the way we think about conservation and modern agricultural practices.

Of course, our understanding of the domestic horse's history is far from complete. Orlando acknowledges that there are geographic and temporal gaps in his story. Perhaps mostly glaringly, we still don't know when and or where the horse was domesticated. "Horse domestication is central to human history, and in 2019, we still don't understand where it started. That's mind-blowing," he says.

He looks forward to filling in those blanks. "Whenever I'm asked about what finding I'm most excited about, I always say, the next one. Because this research opens the door for so many possibilities to be studied now."

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