A team of French researchers studying horse DNA dated to between 40,000 BC and 700 AD claim that when horses were first domesticated there was no sex
A team of French researchers studying horse DNA dated to between 40,000 BC and 700 AD claim that when horses were first domesticated there was no sex preference but by 1,900 BC stallions outnumbered mares 3 to 1. From these findings the French scientists suggested that sexism and gender inequality was already a part of human society. But not everyone agrees that Bronze Age sexism in horses can be interpreted to mean there was sexism between men and women. Bronze Age sexism is certainly a controversial claim which needs to be more deeply examined.
Bronze Age Sexism in Daily Life? Fact or Fiction?
It is believed that horses were first domesticated by the Botai culture in prehistoric Kazakhstan and North Asia about 5,500 years ago. And a new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports says these people ‘had no gender preference.’ French researchers disagree!
The researchers from the Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse studied the DNA of 268 European and Asian horses dating from 40,000 BC to as recent as 700 AD and they say our ‘preference’ for male horses first began early as 3,900 years ago because ‘stallions were seen as masculine and strong.’ Note that the scientists say male horses were ‘seen as’ more masculine and stronger, and this hard to prove.
Lascaux Cave painting of a dun horse said to be 17,000 years old. (Andres / CC BY 2.0 )
The study shows that there was an even split of male and female horses throughout the later Stone Age , but 3,900 years ago there was a dramatic shift towards stallions over mares which the paper claims “closely mirrors the change in humans who had no clear binary gender structure during the Neolithic – but it became the norm by the Bronze Age.” And, according to a report in the Daily Mail , the French scientists say previous horse studies found “no meaningful difference in the capability of stallions or mares” despite experienced riders preferring male horses. Again, a hard viewpoint to prove.
Is This a Modern Need to Add Gender Issues To Prehistory?
The team of scientists observed that the oldest horse cultures had an equal balance of mares and stallions suggesting that the first people to domesticate horses had “no gender preference.” But by the Bronze Age, about 3,900 years ago, researchers found “three times as many stallion remains as mares” which represents what the authors call “a dramatic shift from Stone Age behavior.”
Attempting to explain this ‘dramatic shift,’ Antoine Fages, a paleogenomicist at Paul Sabatier University (Toulouse, France), said in the Bronze Age men were featured more frequently in artwork and buried differently to women. Dr Fages believes that a “new vision of gender” started during this period that had likely been sparked by “societal and technological changes.” And according to the scientists this alleged change in gender vision brought about “a rise in male status ” as long-distance trading networks and metal production created new social hierarchies.
Ancient Greece Bronze Age Ceramic Horses & Riders (Gary Todd / Public Domain )
If Bronze Age Sexism is the Start, the Proof is Hard to Find
Dr Fages goes further and says “Class divisions began to shine through between the metal workers, warriors and rulers which then led to distinctions between men and women,” and as society became more male dominated this ‘ likely’ applied to their horses and that people opted to ride stallions because male horses ‘may’ have had symbolic attributes associated with masculinity, mounted warriors and chariotry, such as ‘power, protection and strength’. In conclusion, Fages says that “ if this is true, ” referring to their work, it suggests ideas about gender status shaped human and animal worlds for thousands of years, causing an enduring ‘genetic legacy’ we experience today in the modern world.
Minerva and the Triumph of Jupiter showing the goddess Athena sitting at the right hand of her father Zeus while the goddess Demeter sits in the background holding a scythe (René-Antoine Houasse / Public domain )
If we were to leave this report here you probably start telling people how sexism and gender issues emerged in the Bronze Age, because of a ‘new vision of gender’ and a ‘rise in male status’ who forged ‘new social hierarchies’. But it must be pointed out that these are theories, and very difficult theories to find solid proof for. The French research paper consistently relies on vague language such as ‘likely’ and ‘if’ . . .
For the paper’s conclusions to stand up as new facts, there shouldn’t be any other alternative explanations, but there are and they both agree and disagree with the French study. And they come from the world of horse genetics and horse racing .
Do Horse Genetics and Racing Outcomes Agree With The Study?
An alternative explanation for the change from equal genders in horses to many more stallions, comes from horse geneticist Ernest Bailey from the University of Kentucky. He told Science that the reason for these apparent gender splits “could just be that earlier groups hadn’t perfected horse husbandry,” and that the equal mix of mares and stallions could be a sign that they hadn’t begun to control horses breeding on a large scale. He said all this without a mention of sexism or a new vision of gender or a rise in male status.
On the other hand, the French paper seems to contradict itself when it claims previous studies have shown ‘no meaningful difference in the capability of stallions or mares.’ It would be really interesting to know which studies are being referred to here as most people agree that stallions are much more muscular and therefore stronger than mares.
Horse racing experts and racing outcomes seem to support the French studies conclusions in terms of horse gender strength and speed. This old argument came up in 2013 when CNN attempted to establish ‘sexism’ in the horse world. And it was clearly backed up by Paul Rogers, spokesman for the British Horse Racing Authority . Rogers said, “At the top level, it does take a special filly to beat the boys,” and that in British flat racing, 63% of horses are male, while 37% are female. And it’s a similar story for the “overwhelming number of male winners – 67% compared to just 33% for the girls.” Furthermore, even in America’s most prestigious horse race, the Kentucky Derby, only three fillies (female horses less than 4 years old) have ever won in the competition’s 138-year-history.
Top image: Is sexism exhibited in Bronze Age horse selection? Source: ginettigino / Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie