Wilkin, Shevan, Alicia Ventresca Miller, Ricardo Fernandes, Robert Spengler, William T.-T. Taylor, Dorcas R. Brown, David Reich, Douglas J. Kennett, Brendan J. Culleton, Laura Kunz, Claudia Fortes, Aleksandra Kitova, Pavel Kuznetsov, Andrey Epimakhov, Victor F. Zaibert, Alan K. Outram, Egor Kitov, Aleksandr Khokhlov, David Anthony, and Nicole Boivin (2021) Dairying enabled Early Bronze Age Yamnaya steppe expansions. Nature. Online First.
During the Early Bronze Age, populations of the western Eurasian steppe expanded across an immense area of northern Eurasia. Combined archaeological and genetic evidence supports widespread Early Bronze Age population movements out of the Pontic–Caspian steppe that resulted in gene flow across vast distances, linking populations of Yamnaya pastoralists in Scandinavia with pastoral populations (known as the Afanasievo) far to the east in the Altai Mountains and Mongolia. Although some models hold that this expansion was the outcome of a newly mobile pastoral economy characterized by horse traction, bulk wagon transport and regular dietary dependence on meat and milk, hard evidence for these economic features has not been found. Here we draw on proteomic analysis of dental calculus from individuals from the western Eurasian steppe to demonstrate a major transition in dairying at the start of the Bronze Age. The rapid onset of ubiquitous dairying at a point in time when steppe populations are known to have begun dispersing offers critical insight into a key catalyst of steppe mobility. The identification of horse milk proteins also indicates horse domestication by the Early Bronze Age, which provides support for its role in steppe dispersals. Our results point to a potential epicentre for horse domestication in the Pontic–Caspian steppe by the third millennium bc, and offer strong support for the notion that the novel exploitation of secondary animal products was a key driver of the expansions of Eurasian steppe pastoralists by the Early Bronze Age.