May 24, 2012

Neolithic culture found in Southern Arabia

Al Magar horse statue
The Al-Magar culture, dated to c. 5500-3500 BCE, belongs to a period more humid than today. It has some very beautiful art but, crucially, raises questions on the time and place of the first domestication of horses. 

Why? Because the art of the culture is full of what can be horses (wild or domestic) and other equids like the onager. Of course, equid skeletal remnants are also abundant.

While the source of this news snippet is very enthusiastic about the possibility that the area may have been home to a parallel horse-domestication event, no specific evidence is provided other than the statues there being thousands of horse remains (hard to drag from hunt site if these would have been wild) and the ability of those early "Arabs" to build large sedentary settlements. Nothing conclusive... but suggestive indeed.

Source: Horsetalk.

Edited on May 25th (new text in red, removed text slashed out).

9 comments:

  1. Thousands of horse remains? I'm sorry but I thought the thousands of bones mentioned were from Botai. The article states that fragments of burnt bone from al-Magar were used to carbon date the site. There is no explicit claim that they were horse remains, though.

    The significance, at least to my mind, is the prospect of obtaining an archaeological sequence, comparable to that of Mehrgarh, near the ancient Najran-Gerrha trade route.

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    1. You seem to be right. The rhetoric of article is such that muddies everything, coming from Arabia to Botai and then the Magdalenian caves and not sure where else in a quite chaotic manner without even a subheader in between.

      But on second read the "thousands of horse bones, found in 150 house pits" seems to refer to Botai, not Al Magar.

      ...

      By Mehrgarh, do you mean the Neolithic city of Pakistan? What's the connection?

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    2. I read the article thinking that they'd found actual horse remains as well, but when I looked more closely it was sort of bait-and-switch.

      The Saudis have historically taken little, if any, interest in their ancient history. Hyping the possibility of ancient horse breeding on the peninsula is just a way to make archeology appear sexy in Arabian eyes, I suspect. Personally, I think it unlikely and even if these equids do turn out to be horses, it seems extremely unlikely that they were breaking and riding horses on the Arabian peninsula 9,000 bp.

      There is no direct connection that I can see, between Mehrgarh and western Arabia.

      The connection to my mind is rather conceptual. Like Mehrgarh, the stratigraphic sequence may extend as deep as the pre-pottery Neolithic and the beginnings of village life, something that is always exciting. Also like Mehrgarh, al-Magar appears to sit on a major pre-historic rade route.

      I expect the horse question to be the least of it, really. This site could change much of what we know about the pre-history of the Arabian peninsula in the same way that Mehrgarh revolutionized our understanding of the Indus Valley Civilization.

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  2. "I read the article thinking that they'd found actual horse remains as well, but when I looked more closely it was sort of bait-and-switch".

    Thanks for clarifying that. I was a little suspicious of horse remains in Arabia that ancient although I did think that perhaps 'equid' meant 'onager'.

    "While the source of this news snippet is very enthusiastic about the possibility that the area may have been home to a parallel horse-domestication event, no specific evidence is provided other than the statues"

    Arabia is outside the natural range of the horse. The native equid is the onager so domestication of the horse is unlikely to have taken place in Arabia. It seems that the first equid domesticated was the Northeast African donkey. Domesticated donkeys all descend from it, not the onager.

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  3. "Arabia is outside the natural range of the horse. The native equid is the onager so domestication of the horse is unlikely to have taken place in Arabia."

    The possibility exists that the range of the horse may have been extended more than 5000 years before present and that it narrowed with rising aridity. The case that the horse was domesticated only once is pretty weak. And, the archaeological record in Arabia is poorly studied enough that it wouldn't surprise me at all if evidence of a native equid was overlooked.

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  4. "The possibility exists that the range of the horse may have been extended more than 5000 years before present and that it narrowed with rising aridity".

    That is a possibility, but I have never read of any evidence for it.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horse

    Quote:

    "By about 15,000 years ago, Equus ferus was a widespread holarctic species. Horse bones from this time period, the late Pleistocene, are found in Europe, Eurasia, Beringia, and North America".

    'Holarctic' doesn't sound as though it includes Arabia. And:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onager

    Quote:

    "The onager (Equus hemionus) is a large member of the genus Equus of the family Equidae (horse family) native to the deserts of Syria, Iran, Pakistan, India, Israel and Tibet.[2] It is also known as the Asiatic wild ass,[3] Asian wild ass or wild Asian ass (in which case the term 'onager' is reserved for the E. h. onager subspecies,[3] more specifically known as the Persian onager)".

    That suggets that the geographic range of the two species does not overlap. That is hardly surprising as it is normal that closely related species do not share a geographic range.

    "The case that the horse was domesticated only once is pretty weak'.

    And unlikely. Dienekes had a recent post on the subject:

    http://dienekes.blogspot.co.nz/2012/05/horse-domestication-mystery-solved.html

    Quote:

    "Their research shows that the extinct wild ancestor of domestic horses, Equus ferus, expanded out of East Asia approximately 160,000 years ago. They were also able to demonstrate that Equus ferus was domesticated in the western Eurasian Steppe, and that herds were repeatedly restocked with wild horses as they spread across Eurasia".

    "And, the archaeological record in Arabia is poorly studied enough that it wouldn't surprise me at all if evidence of a native equid was overlooked".

    Until such time as evidence is discovered I'll go with the majority. Any incomplete evidence of an Arabian equid is very likely to be onager rather than horse though.

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  5. I've just noticed something interesting on the artifact reproduced. It has some sort of stripe on its shoulder. From the link re. onager:

    "Equids were used in ancient Sumer to pull wagons circa 2600 BC, and then chariots on the Standard of Ur, circa 2000 BC. Clutton-Brock (1992) suggests that these were donkeys rather than onagers on the basis of a 'shoulder stripe'.[4] However, close examination of the animals (equids, sheep and cattle) on both sides of the piece indicate that what appears to be a stripe may well be a harness, a trapping, or a joint in the inlay".

    Perhaps the 'stripe' on the Al Magar horse statue is some sort of harness, but it may be an attempt to show the NE African donkey's shoulder stripe. In which case it doesn't represent a horse, but a donkey.

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    1. Can you provide an image of that NE African donkey's shoulder stripe. All I see in the photos I could find of wild African asses (or donkeys) is zebra-like stripes on the white legs and an homogeneous light grey upper half.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African_wild_ass

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  6. Most domestic donkeys have a shoulder stripe and many have a few zebra-like stripes on their legs. The photograph in your link is evidently a Somali wild ass (E. a. somaliensis), and it has far more stripes on its legs than I've ever seen, and no shoulder stripe. But from the description in the link:

    "There is a slender, dark dorsal stripe in all subspecies, while in the Nubian wild ass E. a. africanus, as well as the domestic donkey, there is a stripe across the shoulder.[citation needed] The legs of the Somali wild ass E. a. somaliensis are horizontally striped with black, resembling those of a zebra".

    So the type of animal in the photograph is not the ancestor of the domestic donkey.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nubian_wild_ass

    Quote:

    "The Nubian wild ass (Equus africanus africanus) is a subspecies of the African wild ass, and probably the ancestor of domestic donkeys,[citation needed] since both have a stripe across the shoulder".

    Here are some photographs of Nubian donkeys:

    http://www.biologie.uni-rostock.de/wranik/socotra/pictures/9.6.JPG

    http://www.mustangs4us.com/New4/Nubian%20Wild%20Ass.jpg

    http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/chat/2560540/posts

    From the last:

    "Nearly all of the domesticated donkeys that I ever saw in East Africa, plus many of the donkeys I've seen in the USA, have the narrow, wedge shaped dark brown stripe running down from the shoulder as shown in the photo of an 'African Wild Ass'".

    Finally here is a huge page of domestic donkeys:

    https://www.google.co.nz/search?hl=en&q=nubian+wild+ass&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_qf.,cf.osb&biw=1153&bih=519&wrapid=tlif133842095339010&um=1&ie=UTF-8&tbm=isch&source=og&sa=N&tab=wi&ei=8K7GT_vKJsXYigf0u8mACg#um=1&hl=en&tbm=isch&sa=1&q=donkey&oq=donkey&aq=f&aqi=g10&aql=&gs_l=img.3..0l10.16343.17812.0.19515.6.6.0.0.0.0.469.829.3-1j1.2.0...0.0.a2s04RIjZ74&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_qf.,cf.osb&fp=35c57f3021f7855b&biw=1153&bih=519

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