Image: Prehistoric cave art of a horse in Lascaux, France
Hulton Archive  /  Getty Images
A prehistoric painting inside a cave near Lascaux, France, shows the head of a horse.
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updated 1/30/2012 9:44:43 PM ET 2012-01-31T02:44:43

The domestication of wild horses had a profound effect on human history — offering nutrition, transportation and a leg up in warfare, among other advantages. But there are still many unanswered questions about when and where our species began its long love affair with horses.

A new genetic study offers some clues. Through the first complete analysis of equestrian mitochondrial DNA — a kind of genetic material that is passed directly from mother to offspring — an international group of scientists was able to trace all modern horses to an ancestor that lived about 140,000 years ago.

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After horse domestication began about 10,000 years ago, the study also discovered, horses diverged into at least 18 distinct genetic lines. Those findings suggest that, unlike cows and other animals, horses may have been tamed independently in many different places around Europe and Asia.

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The new research could help scientists decode the genetic secrets of modern horse breeds and top racehorses.

“Horse domestication had major cultural, socioeconomic, and even genetic implications for the numerous prehistoric and historic human populations that at different times adopted horse breeding,” said Alessandro Achilli, a geneticist at the University of Perugia in Italy. “Thus, our results will have a major impact in many areas of biological science, ranging from the field of animal and conservation genetics to zoology, veterinary science, paleontology, human genetics and anthropology.”

Cows, sheep, and goats had simple beginnings as livestock, with evidence suggesting that a small number of animals of each species were domesticated in just a few places between about 8,000 and 10,000 years ago. Today, genetic diversity among these creatures remains low.

Horse DNA tells a different story, according to a new paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. After analyzing mitochondrial DNA from a wide range of horse breeds across Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the Americas, and then using the known mutation rate of this kind of DNA as a sort of clock, Achilli and colleagues were able to connect all modern horses to a common ancestor that lived between 130,000 and 160,000 years ago. By comparison, modern humans first evolved about 200,000 years ago.

Previous research focused only on limited regions of mitochondrial DNA in horses. But by looking at the entire mitochondrial genome, the new study was able to categorize horses into at least 18 different groups that evolved independently.

One possible explanation for those findings is that many different groups of people independently discovered the dramatic benefits of taming wild horses thousands of years ago.

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“The very fact that many wild mares have been independently domesticated in different places testifies to how significant horses have been to humankind,” Achilli said. “It means that the ability of taming these animals was badly needed by different groups of people in different regions of Eurasia, from the Asian steppes to Western Europe, since they could generate the food surplus necessary to support the growth of human populations and the capability to expand and adapt into new environments or facilitate transportation.”

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Results also showed that horses managed to survive in modern-day Spain and Portugal during a glacial period more than 13,000 years ago, when horses, humans and other mammals disappeared north of the Pyrenees. The area has shown to be an important refuge during that time for people, who later went on to repopulate Europe when conditions improved. The new study suggests that horses may have followed a similar pattern.

The new findings offer another potential explanation for the origins of domesticated horses, said Alan Outram, an archaeologist at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. Horses may have been originally domesticated in one area, he said, such as the central Asian steppe. Then, people could have transported tamed stallions to other cultures in other places, where they were bred with local, wild mares. That scenario would also create multiple distinct female genetic lines.

Either way, the new study adds important context to the puzzle of how horses infused themselves into people’s lives.

“One thing that is clear is that the domestic horse revolutionized human life, making us much more mobile, changing our trade patterns and modes of warfare,” Outram said. “Such changes affected the whole way in which societies were organized and interacted with each other.”

© 2012 Discovery Channel

Explainer: Ancient rock art from around the world

  • AP

    Even 15,000 years ago, humans were compelled to decorate the interior walls of their abodes. Back then, in the Stone Age, home was often no more than a cave, but the artwork was sophisticated and sublime. The Altamira Cave in northern Spain contains some of Europe's best known and best preserved Paleolithic rock art, including the painted ceiling shown here. Scholars consider the paintings, primarily of bison and other wildlife, masterpieces of creative genius. Click the "Next" label to see seven more examples of rock art from around the world.

    — By John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Lascaux cave drawings threatened by fungus

    Pierre Andrieu  /  AP

    The famed Lascaux caves in France have been shuttered since 1963, when green algae and mosses began to cover the 15,000- to 17,000 year-old murals of bulls, horses, and other creatures. The deterioration was blamed on chemical reactions with visitors' breath. As a consolation, the government built a replica cavern nearby, which remains a top tourist draw. But the spread of fungus in the original cave hasn't stopped, thanks in part to global warming, researchers said at a recent meeting about the artwork. Ideas to fight the fungus include the use of biocides and an elaborate climate control system.

  • Uranium traces help date oldest rock art in Britain

    Sergio Ripoli

    Rock art in Britain appears to date back at least 12,800 years, according to scientists who used minute traces of radioactive uranium in a limestone crust to date the rock art. The crusts formed over the etchings of bison and other creatures, so the dates set a minimum age for the work. The finding helps round out a picture of Ice Age Ice-Age hunter-gatherers occupying the caves each spring to find horse, reindeer, and other wildlife for meat, hides, and fur. This overdrawn image here shows a stag engraving in the biggest cavern at Creswell Crags.

  • Earliest oil paintings in Afghan cave

    National Research Institute for

    The world's earliest known oil paintings are found in a series of intact - albeit weather-beaten and looter-ravaged - caves in Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley. Archaeologists dated the paintings to the mid-seventh century, which is several hundred years before the painting technique emerged in Europe. The murals depict Buddhas and mythical creatures and were made with what appear to be walnut and poppy-seed oils, scientists say. The site of the paintings is perhaps more infamously known as where the Taliban blew up two giant stone Buddha statues in 2001.

  • South African rock reveals history of the San

    Image: Aerial view of Nyirangongo
    Alexander Joe  /  AFP/Getty Images

    Painted walls and overhangs in South Africa are helping scholars piece together the millennia-long history of the San, a group of hunter-gatherers who became extinct after European colonization in the 19th century. More than 40,000 paintings in 500 rock shelters have been discovered. They depict animals such as the eland - a type of spiral-horned antelope - and hunters and are thought to represent religious beliefs of the San. Researchers hope that by firmly dating the paintings, they can see how the people changed over time.

  • Rock depicts supernova

    John Barentine  /  Apache Point Observatory

    The star symbol right of center in this rock carving may represent the fiery death of an ancient star in the year 1006. If so, it would be the first North American representation of a celestial event, previously known from astronomers' records in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The supernova of 1006 was likely as bright as the quarter moon, according to computer simulations. This piece of rock art was discovered in the White Tank Regional Park outside of Phoenix, Ariz.

  • Rock art under siege in Nevada

    Debra Reid  /  AP File

    Figures and shapes etched into rocks all around Nevada hint at stories of people who roamed the land centuries to millennia ago. But rock art enthusiasts fear vandals and looters will destroy the etchings before scientists have sufficient tools and knowledge to comprehend the historical record. The problem, according to groups mobilizing to protect the ancient artwork, is Nevada's rapid growth, which is putting people much closer to sites such as the petroglyphs shown here in the Pah Rah Mountain Range near Reno.

  • Gas caught between rock and an art place

    Douglas C. Pizac  /  AP

    The more than 10,000 carvings and paintings of bulls, sheep, hunters, the hunted, warriors and wildlife all etched and stroked onto the cliff walls along Utah's Nine Mile Canyon make up what is known as the world's longest art gallery. The rock art dates to between A.D. 700 and 1300 and archaeologists believe it is the creation of the Fremont people, who were the ancestors of modern-day Utes. But the rock isn't the only draw to the remote stretch of Utah: It's also rich in oil and gas. A rush to exploit the natural resources has raised concerns that dust kicked up by industrial truck traffic could harm the artwork.

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