Archaeology Professor awarded research grant

Ashley Yeaman

A Baylor study, funded by a research grant from the National Geographic Society, will seek to disprove a common theory held by researchers on the origins of domesticated horses in the Near East.

Researchers have long believed that domesticated horses were first brought to the Near East from Central Asia, in the modern regions of Kazakhstan and Mongolia.

However, new evidence and research being collected by the Baylor researchers indicates that horses could have been domesticated within the Near East in Turkey.

Leading the research project is Dr. Benjamin Arbuckle, assistant professor for archaeology at Baylor. Arbuckle’s study will focus on three key sites in Turkey where horse bones have been discovered.

Arbuckle worked at two of the three sites this summer, and his findings illustrate a close connection humans had with wild horses.

“They understand how these animals are functioning, and they know how to raise other animals,” Arbuckle said. “The question is, when did they cross the line and start to breed horses?”

Along with bones, ceramics have also been discovered, showing humans chasing foals and horses with arrows in hand.

“Now we have wild horses in the northern edge of the Near East. We know horses came from the mountainous regions. The earliest texts on horses in Mesopotamia call them the ‘donkeys of the mountains,’” Arbuckle said. “They’re coming from the mountains, so the mountains from the north are the best bet, and that’s Turkey.”

After the bones are gathered from the site, they are closely studied using radiocarbon dating as well as a new research method, which uses ancient DNA. Researchers will be testing to see if local mares could have been domesticated from wild horse populations.

“We can take horse bones and send them to a paleogenetics lab, and we can actually compare the wild horses that I’m recovering from sites and compare them to later horses that we know are domesticated and see if they are related,” Arbuckle said.

The new technique aids in archaeological work when genetic comparison is essential.

“It’s totally changing how we do archaeology and how we address these questions” Arbuckle said. “We can actually tell and look into the genome of these animals and trace their lineage and see where they’re coming from. It’s amazing.”

Final results for the project will likely be available in a year and have the potential to be documented by several media outlets within the National Geographic Society.

Arbuckle was recently contacted on the possibility of his research being included in a documentary on the rise of civilization in the Near East. Significant results could also be chosen for inclusion in National Geographic magazine.

“Right now, he’s at the forefront of his field,” Dr. Lori Baker, associate professor in physical anthropology, said. “He’s on the cutting edge, and National Geographic is going to be interested in what he finds.”

The department of anthropology, forensic science and archaeology at Baylor applauds the accomplishments and continued research of their fellow colleague.

“We’re excited. We’re excited for all of us. It always confirms your legitimacy when you get a grant from a national institution, and we all know that National Geographic has a great reputation,” Dr. Sara Alexander, anthropology department chair, said. “And hopefully he’ll find out something absolutely fantastic.”

The concluding results of the study will “add a significant new chapter in this process” of horse domestication in the Near East, Arbuckle said.

“It’s important because horses are not just another bit of livestock,” Arbuckle said. “They totally transformed how the ancient world functioned – the economy, how politics worked. It was kind of like the Industrial Revolution equivalent for the ancient world, which is why it’s a question worth looking at.”