About 6000 years ago, somewhere in the Eurasian grassland steppe, man started to capture and tame wild horses--at least that's what remains from archaeological sites in Ukraine and Kazakhstan tell scientists. Initially, people did not only use horses for transport, but also for food; at the time, dogs, cows, sheep and goats had already lived with humans for several thousand years. Now genetic evidence from modern and ancient horses, published in today's Science, completes the picture: the taming of horses did not occur in only one place, but in several, geographically distant locations.

Researchers from Sweden and the U.S. analyzed parts of the mitochondrial DNA of 191 domestic horses from ten different breeds, including the Icelandic Pony, the Arabian horse and the (American) Standardbred. They also included DNA sequences from 12,000 to 28,000-year-old horse bones found in Alaska and from 1,000 to 2,000-year-old horse remains from Northern Europe in the comparison. Mothers alone pass on mitochondria to their offspring, which is why the data represents only the maternal line. But the DNA samples from the modern horses differed so much from each other that they probably originated from several different groups of domesticated horses. And the genetic variation within each breed indicates that probably more female horses and only a few studs were used for breeding--a practice that continues today.

Rather than giving away domesticated horses, people in Eurasia probably taught each other techniques for capturing and keeping wild horses from their own area. That's why today's breeds still carry the genetic hallmarks of many different wild populations.