June 2014

By Carolyn Willekes, PhD

The domestication of the horse sometime in the 4th millennium BCE altered the future not only of equines, but of humans as well.  The horse turned out to be a pretty useful animal.  Given the impact of the horse on cultural, technological and military evolution, you might think that the horse was one of the first animals to be domesticated, but that was not the case.lascaux

The horse-human relationship is a very old one, dating back to at least 30,000 years ago.  This early relationship is recorded with great detail in Paleolithic cave art from Southern France, Northern Spain and Northern Portugal carved and painted between 30,000 and 8,000 BCE.  These dramatic, often larger than life murals are found deep inside labyrinthine caves at places like Altamira, Lascaux and Chauvet. The equines carved and painted on the cave walls of southern Europe were very much wild animals, and remained so for over 20,000 years.  Given the long human fascination with equines, it is perhaps surprising to discover that the horse was one of the last major animals to be domesticated – an event that took place thousands of years later than the initial period of Neolithic domestication that brought cattle, sheep, goats and pigs under human control.  When it did happen, however, the domestication of the horse had an unprecedented and unimaginable impact on human history.

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