IBE (CSIC-UPF): Scythians already practiced the genetic improvement of horses 2,300 years ago

IBE (CSIC-UPF): Scythians already practiced the genetic improvement of horses 2,300 years ago

News from IBE (CSIC-UPF)

Nomad Scythian herders roamed vast areas spanning the Central Asian steppes during the Iron Age, approximately from the 9th to the 1st century BCE (Before Common Era). These livestock pastoralists left their mark in the history of warfare for their exceptional equestrian skills. A new study published in Science now reveals the suite of traits that Scythian breeders selected to engineer the type of horse that best fit their purpose. This study has been led by Professor Ludovic Orlando in Copenhagen and has involved 33 international researchers from 16 universities, including Tomas Marques-Bonet, from the IBE (CSIC-UPF) and CRG/CNAG and Inna Povolotskaya, Aitor Serres and Lukas Kuderna from the same institute.

The study took advantage of exceptionally preserved horse remains in royal Scythian burials, such as the site of Arzhan, Tuva Republic, where over 200 horses have been excavated but also at Berel’, Kazakhstan, where no less than 13 horses were preserved in a single, permafrozen funerary chamber. Applying the latest methods in ancient DNA research, the researchers could sequence the genome of 13 Scythian stallions. 

Importantly, none of the ancient horses analyzed in the study were inbred, which suggests that Scythian breeders succeeded in maintaining natural herd structures and did not perform selection through a limited number of valuable lineages. This contrasts with modern management practice where single stallions can be used to father hundreds of offspring. Patterns of genetic variation along the genome also revealed a total of 121 genes selected by Scythian breeders, most of which are involved in the development of forelimbs. This is reminiscent of the morphological indices measured on bones, and indicates that Scythian breeders selected horses showing more robust morphologies.

More information:
IBE website

Reference article:
Librado et al. 2017. Ancient Genomic Changes Associated with Domestication of the Horse. Science