The First 1 Percent

Horses may be the source of humans’ oldest social stratifications.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Mitt Romney’s Oldenburg mare, Rafalca, is off to London for Olympic dressage. Stephen Colbert has declared “competitive horse prancing” his Sport of the Summer, pointedly mocking the presumptive Republican presidential nominee for looking like a 1 percent aristocrat. After all, though Rafalca’s price is undisclosed, when the Romneys bought the horse in 2006, dressage prospects of her caliber cost as much as, if not more than, an average American home. Her annual overhead of more than $77,000 is double that of the average American family’s. No wonder the elite equestriennes gracing this month’s Town & Country are all billionaire princesses. Even at sub-Olympian levels, the animals are expensive.

(Full disclosure: I own a horse, but I am not a billionaire princess.)

The association between horses and wealth was forged millennia ago. In fact, the first people known to celebrate hierarchies of power, whose inequalities of wealth were integral to their society and culture—the people you could call the first 1 percent—were the first people to ride horses.

Horse domestication occurred before written history and left few clear archaeological remains. Based on Sumerian seals with the earliest known depictions of people on horseback, riding has traditionally been dated to the Bronze Age, around 2000 B.C., in Mesopotamia.

But new evidence is pushing the origins of horse domestication deeper into the past and farther to the north, on the steppes between Kazakhstan and Ukraine, where wild horses were plentiful after the end of the last Ice Age. Excavations in Botai, Kazakhstan, during the 1990s unearthed an amazing 300,000 horse bones (and a few dogs). The researchers also found horse-fat residue on pottery. They concluded that the Botai people were sedentary pastoralists, much like modern-day ranchers, who lived in permanent settlements and herded horses for mares’ milk as early as 3500 B.C. People were riding the animals, too: The researchers found horse teeth that had been ground down by bits, the bars placed in horses’ mouths that make it possible to control them while on horseback.

The Botai people were not alone. Horseback riding also appeared around the same time on the steppes near the Dnieper River in what is now Ukraine and the on the Volga River in southern Russia, among Copper Age people who had recently switched from hunting and gathering to herding cattle and sheep.

The very first mount, however, probably appeared many centuries earlier. Genetic studies suggest modern horses may have just one founding father. It might have been an unusually docile stallion, perhaps an orphaned foal raised among people.

Research published in May suggests that domesticated horses were taken from that first homeland, wherever it was, into new areas. But these horses couldn’t supply enough offspring for everyone, at least in the beginning, so wild mares were captured for riding and for breeding with early domesticated stallions to satisfy the demand. Modern horses have as many as 77 ancestral mothers.

Horse sense was critical for exploiting this new resource, and it would have been hard to come by. Like their modern descendants, ancient horses were big—standing more than 5 feet tall and weighing up to 800 pounds—powerful and skittish animals whose first instinct was to run. People aren’t born knowing how to handle or ride them, and doing it wrong can maim or kill you. Doing it right takes observation, experimentation, practice, and a lot of work.

(I observed the challenge an introduction to horses can pose while I was working in Ukraine. Since the 2000s, there has been a fad among the nouveau riche to present one another with gift horses—even though none of the recipients know how to ride. At the stable where I boarded, a poor little rich mare, expensively maintained, was completely ignored by her owner after his first and only riding lesson taught him that the horse doesn’t do all the work.)

“Green plus green equals black and blue,” goes the old saying. Putting a beginner rider on an inexperienced horse can injure both of them. Many heads must have cracked back in 3500 B.C. during the steep-learning-curve phase of horse domestication. Like Ukraine’s involuntary horse owners today, not everyone in 3500 B.C. would have wanted to climb onto the explosive animals.

But those who did gained enormous advantages over everyone else. Pushing other people around was easier from horseback. So was long-distance travel for trading and raiding. The early horse riders weren’t Huns, gathered in vast armies (although the Huns did make lethal use of horses in the 300s A.D.). They were probably more like gangs. And just a few horsemen can wreak havoc on a pedestrian village.

Several weeks’ ride to the west of the Dneiper River is the Danube Basin, where a multitude of culturally sophisticated—but horseless—agricultural societies had been thriving since Mediterranean farmers herding cattle and sheep migrated northeast 8,000 years ago. Collectively termed Old Europe, they had split into a variety of related but distinct cultures by 4000 B.C.

The Old Europeans boasted dazzling copper craftsmanship and painted pottery rich with symbols of animals, dancers, abstract whorls, meanders, snakes, and watching eyes. These people helpfully left us scale models of their two-story houses and a multitude of female figurines testifying to the worship of a goddess deity.

They were completely unprepared when Dnieper steppe people penetrated the Danube Basin as early as 4200 B.C. Within a few hundred years, 600 villages were burned and abandoned in what has been called “a catastrophe of colossal scope.” Anthropologist David Anthony argues in his 2007 book, The Horse, The Wheel and Language, that the marauders arrived on horseback, pushing the first riding date even deeper into the past, perhaps as early as 4500 B.C. on the Volga River.

Anthony also argues that the first horse riders were the mysterious speakers of proto-Indo-European, the mother tongue of many of the world’s languages, including English. Scholars have been looking for the source of those original speakers since the 18th century, when they discovered the similarities among Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek.              

The Danube invaders, like prehistoric Bain Capital-ists, rewarded themselves handsomely for their plunder. Old European copper and fine pottery had great value back in the steppe, as did rustled livestock. Some of the primordial Indo-European myths are about cattle raiding. In addition to wealth, successful raiders and warriors won “fame everlasting” and the honor of starring in their own epic poem. These tales were declaimed by bards at feasts for so many centuries that some endured into historical times, in ancient texts like the Iliad and Rig Veda.

It’s hard to believe today, but naked self-aggrandizement was a new development. We know this in part from graves, which reflect a person’s station in life. For nearly all of prehistory, the graves that have been found were communal and equal. No person stood out. (There are a few exceptions, such as a man and two children buried with thousands of ivory beads near Moscow 24,000 years ago.) 

Old Europe didn’t leave many graves, but nearly all of those were collective.  Inequalities in life surely existed: Some dwellings had finer pottery and tools than others, for instance. A collection of sumptuous gold burials in Varna, Bulgaria, from about 4300 B.C. demonstrated inequalities in the possession of precious metal. But necessities like land, timber, and labor were evidently freely shared.

The last of the Old European cultures built giant towns on the west bank of the Dnieper River around 3500 B.C., apparently in defense against the horse riders. The towns contained up to 7,000 people—more than any settlements on Earth at the time. But all of the dwellings were the same size. If there were social inequalities, they were downplayed. One theory holds that the Old European goddess religion frowned on displays of personal wealth. 

East of the Dnieper, in the steppes, the horse riders’ society evidently demanded the opposite. Flaunting wealth—measured in the quantity of baubles and the size of herds of cattle, sheep, and horses—became de rigueur.

Rich chiefs were buried in individual graves, marked with earthen mounds called kurgans and filled with polished stone maces shaped like horse heads, ornaments of tusk and bone, and Old European pottery and copper. (The steppe people had no demand for the Old Europeans’ goddess figurines. Their gods were male.)

The giant towns didn’t prevent Old Europe’s eventual extinction. Bronze Age kurgan makers carried their culture and their Indo-European dialects across Europe and as far as China and India, where rich men were buried alongside horse and cattle sacrifices. Even their wives were sacrificed, in the earliest known examples of the patriarchal practice of suttee.

Anthony speculates that the earliest chiefs kept large herds of livestock to build status by giving away meat at feasts, where the heroic poems were recited and much beer and mead were drunk. They may also have loaned out livestock when someone from the 99 percent needed it for survival, creating one of the earliest forms of debtor relations. 

Still, he sees a big difference between the 1 percent then and now. “Then, they were supposed to give it away and be generous in proportion to their wealth. Feasting and gift-giving were the paths to power. Now, it’s not done that way.”

Actually, that is how it’s done, except today’s 1 percent invite only one another to parties and give their gifts to super PACs. And they still display their wealth with ostentatiously expensive hobbies. But even if horses are the original source of social stratification, please, don’t hold it against them.

Go, Rafalca!