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Early evidence for mounted horseback riding in northwest China

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Taylor,  William Timothy Treal
Archaeology, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Max Planck Society;

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Boivin,  Nicole
Archaeology, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Max Planck Society;

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Citation

Li, Y., Zhang, C., Taylor, W. T. T., Chen, L., Flad, R. K., Boivin, N., et al. (2020). Early evidence for mounted horseback riding in northwest China. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 117(47), 29569-29576. doi:10.1073/pnas.2004360117.


Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0007-8755-1
Abstract
This study provides insights into the emergence and adoption of equestrian technologies in China. Analysis of ancient horse bones from Shirenzigou and Xigou in eastern Xinjiang demonstrates that pastoralists along China’s northwest frontier practiced horseback riding and mounted archery by the fourth century BCE. This region may have played a key role in the initial spread of equestrian technologies from the Altai region into the heartland of China’s early settled states, where they eventually facilitated the rise of the first united empires in China and triggered extensive social, political, and economic exchanges between China and its neighbors on the Eurasian Steppes.Horseback riding was a transformative force in the ancient world, prompting radical shifts in human mobility, warfare, trade, and interaction. In China, domestic horses laid the foundation for trade, communication, and state infrastructure along the ancient Silk Road, while also stimulating key military, social, and political changes in Chinese society. Nonetheless, the emergence and adoption of mounted horseback riding in China is still poorly understood, particularly due to a lack of direct archaeological data. Here we present a detailed osteological study of eight horse skeletons dated to ca. 350 BCE from the sites of Shirenzigou and Xigou in Xinjiang, northwest China, prior to the formalization of Silk Road trade across this key region. Our analyses reveal characteristic osteological changes associated with equestrian practices on all specimens. Alongside other relevant archaeological evidence, these data provide direct evidence for mounted horseback riding, horse equipment, and mounted archery in northwest China by the late first millennium BCE. Most importantly, our results suggest that this region may have played a crucial role in the spread of equestrian technologies from the Eurasian interior to the settled civilizations of early China, where horses facilitated the rise of the first united Chinese empires and the emergence of transcontinental trade networks.All horse skeletons unearthed from Shirenzigou and Xigou were collected on site during the excavations and are currently housed in the Zooarchaeology Laboratory of the School of Cultural Heritage at Northwest University, as part of permanent collections for teaching and research. All data are available in the main text and SI Appendix.