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One small steppe for man: Are all modern horses descended from one herd 6,000 years ago in the Russian plains?

One small steppe for man: Are all modern horses descended from one herd 6,000 years ago in the Russian plains?

access_time May 8, 2012 chat_bubble_outline 0 comments
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  • One herd tamed in steppes shared by Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan could be ancestors
  • Horses first domesticated 6,000 years ago
  • Research follows 16 years of collecting hair samples
  • Genetic study of more than 300 horses from Eastern Europe to Asia

By Rob Waugh

PUBLISHED: 08:00 EST, 8 May 2012 | UPDATED: 08:38 EST, 8 May 2012

The information was revealed in a new genetic study of horses across Eastern Europe and Central Asia - which dated domestication to around 6,000 years ago, and a far narrower area than previously thought

The information was revealed in a new genetic study of horses across Eastern Europe and Central Asia – which dated domestication to around 6,000 years ago, and a far narrower area than previously thought

One herd of horses tamed in the wide-open grasslands shared by Ukraine, southwest Russia and Kazakhstan could be the ancestor of all modern horses.

The information was revealed in a new genetic study of horses across Eastern Europe and Central Asia – which dated domestication to around 6,000 years ago, and a far narrower area than previously thought.

The research followed 16 years of collecting hair samples from more than 300 horses in Russia, China, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Lithuania – areas where horses were the first to be domesticated and weren’t too heavily bred.

Researchers generally date domestication to about 6,000 years ago, but genetic evidence taken from modern-day horses has suggested a wide variety of ancestors, raising the possibility that horses were tamed independently in several different places.

The University of Cambridge’s Vera Warmuth said she and her colleagues had used a combination of genetics and maths to narrow down the origin of horse domestication to the ‘western Eurasian steppe’ – an area now shared by Kazhakstan, southwest Russia and Ukraine.

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The research followed 16 years of collecting hair samples from more than 300 horses in Russia, China, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Lithuania – areas where horses were the first to be domesticated and weren’t too heavily bred.

Warmuth said that fellow researchers took hair samples from ‘local village-type horses,’ simple animals whose genetic profiles would be less likely to have been deformed by inbreeding or crossbreeding typical of their Western European cousins.

She said the horses’ genetic profiles were compared to various scenarios plugged into established mathematical models that measure how populations spread and change over time.

The results suggested that the wide diversity of horse DNA could be explained by the frequent breeding of domesticated male horses with wild mares brought in by early horseback riders because ‘breeding with existing stock was too slow,’ Warmuth said, speculating that early societies might have used wild females ‘because they’re a bit more tractable.’

A horse on the Russian plains today - researchers said ALL horses might be descended from a herd in the Russian steppes

A horse on the Russian plains today – researchers said ALL horses might be descended from a herd in the Russian steppes

Researchers generally date domestication to about 6,000 years ago

Tributary leading a horse, relief, Assyrian, from Palace of Sargon II (who ruled 721-705 BC): Researchers generally date domestication to about 6,000 years ago

Mark Thomas, a professor of evolutionary genetics at University College London who wasn’t involved with the research, said he believed the methodology was sound.

The research, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was funded by Britain’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the German Academic Exchange Service, and the London-based Leverhulme Trust.

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