Guard dogs and horse riders

From Philadelphia, at the annual meetings of the Society for American Archaeology and the Paleoanthropology Society

From around 5,700 to 5,100 years ago, a group known as the Botai populated the harsh Asian terrain of what is now northern Kazakhstan. Researchers know little about daily life or spiritual beliefs among the Botai.

Ongoing excavations at a Botai settlement indicate that these hardy people embraced certain mythological themes and ritual practices that became widespread in later Eurasian cultures as far away as India.

For example, the Botai people probably used dogs to guard their homes—large, covered cavities in the ground known as pit houses—and treated deceased dogs as spiritual guardians of their households, says project director Sandra L. Olsen of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.

Among the remains of 60 pit houses at a Botai site, her team has uncovered more than a dozen Samoyed-size dog skeletons buried separately on the west side of structures.

Historical texts from Bronze Age and Iron Age groups in Eurasia that came after the Botai culture often tell of deceased dogs protecting their masters from evil spirits emanating from portals to the netherworld located in the west.

Other Botai finds with links to later cultures in the region include a clay death mask and evidence of sacrificed horses in human burial sites, Olsen says.

Microscopic study of pottery fragments from the site has uncovered impressions of a wide variety of woven fabrics, reports the Carnegie Museum’s Deborah Harding. Botai potters used rope- and cloth-covered tools to press designs into wet clay. Harding plans to characterize Botai weaving styles for comparison with fabric remains at later Eurasian sites.

Researchers disagree about whether the Botai people, who hunted wild horses, also domesticated them. Cheek teeth from 12 of 42 horse skulls examined so far at Olsen’s Botai site exhibit enamel wear usually produced by regularly biting down on a harness’ rope bit, report Dorcas R. Brown and David W. Anthony, both of Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y.

“It’s not clear if these horses had been tamed, but we have good evidence that they were ridden,” Brown says.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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