Quirks & Quarks

Whoa Nelly! Modern horses come from ancestors we improved 4,000 years ago

Scientists have determined that the ancestors of modern horses were bred on the steppes of central Eurasia.

Scientists figured out exactly when and where the ancestors of modern horses were bred

Horses running in the steppes of Inner Mongolia, China in July 2019. (Ludovic Orlando)

Settling a long standing debate in science about exactly when and where the ancestors of modern domestic horses came from, scientists studying DNA of ancient horses finally have an answer.

All the horses alive today descended from horses that came from a region known as the Pontic Caspian Steppe, which covered parts of what we know today as Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan, and this lineage appeared about 4,000 years ago.

The domestication of horses played a huge role in the development of human civilization by making it easier to travel, wage warfare and facilitate agriculture. 

An international team of researchers studied the genomes of 273 horses that lived across Eurasia between 52,000 to 2,200 years ago. They found that as of about 5,000 years ago, there were many horse populations in the area.

Ludovic Orlando, a paleogeneticist at the Université Paul Sabatier in Toulouse, France, and the research director at the French Centre for Scientific Research, said that within a thousand years, those many different types of horses were replaced by a single lineage that gave rise to all the horses in the world today.

Orlando told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald that his colleagues discovered two differences in the genomes of these domesticated horses from the Pontic Caspian steppe that likely played a key role in why they were so successful.

One gene is likely associated with the horses developing a sturdier back and the other would have given them a calmer temperament. Both of these traits would have been desirable for breeders and horse owners.


Produced and written by Sonya Buyting. Click on the link above to hear the interview with Prof. Ludovic Orlando.

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