By Published: June 11, 2024

In his upcoming book, ‘Hoof Beats: How Horses Shaped Human History,’ William Taylor writes that today’s world has been molded by humans’ relationship to horses

Nearly a million years ago in what is now southern England, human ancestors called Homo heidelbergensis were creating tools from horse bones. Fast forward to about 30,000 years ago, and humans across Europe and northern Eurasia were regularly painting horses on cave walls and carving their likenesses from bone and ivory.

“The connection between people and horses is among the most ancient connections that we have with the animal world,” says William Taylor, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Boulder and curator of archaeology for the CU Boulder Museum of Natural History.

But Taylor says it’s what happened about 4,000 years ago that really changed things. That’s when people living in the grasslands near the Black Sea first domesticated horses.

William Taylor

William Taylor, a CU Boulder assistant professor of anthropology and curator of archaeology for the CU Boulder Museum of Natural History, notes that "the connection between people and horses is among the most ancient connections that we have with the animal world.”

And when that happened, Taylor says the effect on the world and the centuries that followed was not a gradual development “but a sudden jolt, a shock to the system” that influenced nearly every aspect of human life―revolutionizing things like transportation, agriculture and warfare.

“After domestication, horses spread like wildfire, stampeding into new societies, creating new partnerships with people that shook up the structure of the ancient world almost everywhere they went,” he explains. 

It’s just one of the many insights in Taylor’s new book Hoof Beats: How Horses Shaped Human History, available Aug. 6. Taylor’s book also has received the spring 2024 Kayden Book Award from the CU Boulder College of Arts and Sciences, with a $5,000 award given annually to a book representing excellence in history and the arts.

In the book, Taylor offers a broad swath of the horse-human connection along with new findings based on more than a decade of researching horse domestication and archeological fieldwork around the globe―in places like the Eurasian steppes, the mountains of inner Asia, the pampas of Argentina and the Great Plains of North America.

“These are places and cultures that have had a tremendous impact on human history, but factors like low population densities, tough weather, difficult fieldwork, lack of written records and bias from written records that do exist have all helped keep that story from being properly integrated into the bigger picture,” Taylor says.

Breaking new ground

Taylor is helping break new ground with his scientific perspective on horse domestication, the timing and origins of which scholars have argued over for decades. Taylor says his book tells “a very different narrative” about the origins of horse domestication, one that’s grounded in interdisciplinary science. 

One of the book’s main threads, he says, is to understand that nearly all of the most important facts about horses can be told well only by combining other kinds of information with archaeology.

Hoof Beats cover

William Taylor's book Hoof Beats: How Horses Shaped Human History has received the spring 2024 Kayden Book Award from the CU Boulder College of Arts and Sciences.

“The book relies first and foremost on the archaeological record, and to pair the most cutting-edge and up-to-date scientific information with all the other insights we gain from things like ecology, evolutionary biology, oral traditions, historical records and everything in between.”

The book connects this new understanding of horse domestication with new insights into the timing of key innovations, including the origins of horse cavalry and equipment like the saddle and stirrup, which seem to be “closely intertwined with cultures from the steppe,” Taylor says. 

One of Taylor’s newest findings is the role ancient people in Mongolia played in innovating the saddle and the stirrup, two technologies that Taylor says most people take for granted today, but which really revolutionized what people could do while mounted.

“Saddles and stirrups allowed folks to do all sorts of things on horseback that were harder before, like staying mounted with heavy armor, bracing for impact with heavy weapons like lances or standing in the saddle for archery. Our recent collaborative scholarship shows that Mongolian cultures were doing this by the 4th or 5th centuries.”

To understand Taylor’s interest in horses, he says it helps to look at his own history. “I first became interested in the human-horse story as a way of understanding my family and their own past,” he says.

His grandfather was a cowboy, and Taylor’s dad grew up with horses, too. Taylor is from the first generation in his family that didn't grow up with horses.

“So, when I started studying the ancient world, I was immediately drawn to understanding horses. One of my first experiences as a student was getting to study the skeleton of a 2,500-year-old horse. That’s when I became really curious about all the things we could learn about people through the study of horse remains. Living in places like Montana or Colorado today, we are still in a legacy horse culture.”

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