Public Release:  Mystery of the domestication of the horse solved

Research reconciles competing theories about the origin of the domestic horse

University of Cambridge

New research indicates that domestic horses originated in the steppes of modern-day Ukraine, southwest Russia and west Kazakhstan, mixing with local wild stocks as they spread throughout Europe and Asia. The research was published today, 07 May, in the journal PNAS.

For several decades scientists puzzled over the origin of domesticated horses. Based on archaeological evidence, it had long been thought that horse domestication originated in the western part of the Eurasian Steppe (Ukraine, southwest Russia and west Kazakhstan); however, a single origin in a geographically restricted area appeared at odds with the large number of female lineages in the domestic horse gene pool, commonly thought to reflect multiple domestication "events" across a wide geographic area.

In order to solve the perplexing history of the domestic horse, scientists from the University of Cambridge used a genetic database of more than 300 horses sampled from across the Eurasian Steppe to run a number of different modelling scenarios.

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.

Dr Vera Warmuth, from the University of Cambridge's Department of Zoology, said: "Our research clearly shows that the original founder population of domestic horses was established in the western Eurasian Steppe, an area where the earliest archaeological evidence for domesticated horses has been found. The spread of horse domestication differed from that of many other domestic animal species, in that spreading herds were augmented with local wild horses on an unprecedented scale. If these restocking events involved mainly wild mares, we can explain the large number of female lineages in the domestic horse gene pool without having to invoke multiple domestication origins."

The researchers provide the first genetic evidence for a geographically restricted domestication origin in the Eurasian Steppe, as suggested by archaeology, and show that the tremendous female diversity is the result of later introductions of local wild mares into domestic herds, thus reconciling evidence which had previously given rise to conflicting scenarios.

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The research was funded by the BBSRC, German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), and the Leverhulme Trust.

For additional information please contact:
Vera Warmuth, University of Cambridge
Mob: +44 (0) 7900 520252
*Office: +44 (0) 01223 767129
Email: vmw23@cam.ac.uk

* Please note that Monday is a holiday in the UK

Notes to editors:

1. 'Reconstructing the origin and spread of horse domestication in the Eurasian steppe' will be published in the journal PNAS on 07 May 2012.

2. About BBSRC

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond. Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £445M, we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes

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