When it comes to how women have been treated throughout history, it should come as no surprise that in ancient history even female horses were second-class citizens. New research out of France has discovered, or rather uncovered, ancient bones of some 268 horses and analyzed the DNA. The remains dated from approximately 40,000 BC to 700 CE and ranged across Eurasia and were unearthed at dozens of sites.
The earliest humans, who hunted horses for food, made no distinction between the sexes of their prey. And even the earliest evidence of domestication, around 5,500 years ago, suggest no gender bias in horse selection. However, that all changed around 3,900 years ago, where DNA from the era provided French researchers with evidence of three times as many stallions as mares.
This finding coincides with the Bronze Age, which occurred between 3000-1200 BC, and the time when the notion of “male status” in society took hold. According to the original paper, which was published in the Journal of Archeological Study, “Bronze Age men are consistently adorned, buried, and depicted in artwork differently from women—a pattern not seen among their Neolithic predecessors. Many researchers interpret these signs as evidence that male status rose as long-distance trading networks and metal production spurred new social hierarchies. As class divisions between metalworkers, warriors, and rulers grew, so did distinctions between men and women.”
The research suggests that as societies became more male “based,” they may have also felt the same about the stallion as a symbol of strength or as more “capable” than a mare. According to the study’s abstract, “The human representation and use of horses became gendered at the beginning of the Bronze Age, following the emergence of gender inequalities in human societies.” One could also surmise that the masculine Bronze Age man preferred to ride a horse that was “intact” and therefore also a symbol of virility. However, one scientist who read the study said the findings could also suggest that there were more stallion bones because they were “disposable” and mares were instead kept for breeding. There is even a suggestion of a mare burial site that could one day be found to prove this.
Or perhaps, like many modern riders, the Bronze Age male found mares too moody to ride into battle. However, science also throws cold water on the myth of mares being more “difficult” than a gelding or stallion: according to one study published earlier this year, “there was no evidence of sex-related differences associated with behaviour when ridden.”