William Taylor has spent years excavating ancient sites. But some of his career’s most telling finds weren’t glittering sarcophagi or mysterious idols. They were teeth.
An archaeozoologist, the Missoula native studies humanity’s past through animal remains. Examining horse skulls that had lain beneath Mongolia’s plains for more than 3,000 years, Taylor and his colleagues “started to come across these real strange teeth that looked like they’d been partially cut off.”
“If that’s the case,” they wondered, “why might that be?”
A recent paper written by Taylor posits an answer: Mongolia’s horsemen pioneered equine dentistry, a skill that meshed with other advances in handling these animals and that enabled centuries of horse-powered migration, agriculture and war.
Taylor’s Montana ranching family is a part of that legacy, and the Loyola Sacred Heart High School graduate has spent the past seven years probing horsemanship’s origins on the steppes of Central Asia.
“Going to Mongolia, to be dropped in the middle of essentially the world’s oldest and most famous horse culture, was a fascinating thing for me,” he recalled.
Genghis Khan and his Mongol armies rode horses to superpower status, building an empire that stretched from Korea to eastern Europe in the 13th century. But the skills they used date back much further — to the second millennium B.C. and a mysterious group of Mongolian horse graves.
Their horses, Taylor explained, “came from north-central Mongolia, and they were buried around these stone monuments that were called deer stones … they’re often carved with these deer images.”
Hundreds and even thousands of horses have been found buried around these stones — one of early Mongolia’s few lasting traces. “For essentially the first thousand years of Mongolia’s nomadic pastoral history, there’s no historical record, there’s nothing like what you would consider classical archaeology” — the tombs and houses filled with bits of ancient life.
In their absence, “we have to develop ways to look at the material we did have and find our answers, and it turns out that the biggest source of material that we have are these horse burials.” The oldest teeth, he said, dated back over 3,100 years.
Taylor, a Fulbright scholar and postdoctoral research fellow at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, estimates he spent four to five years excavating these sites, gaining a feel for the landscape through long pack journeys and nights in yurts. Then, in summer 2015, two of his colleagues at the National Museum of Mongolia, Jamsranjav Bayarsaikhan and Tumurbaatar Tuvshinjargal, unearthed the cut-down teeth.
A full year passed, he said, before the researchers began their analysis. But once they did, a story of early horse care revealed itself.
When a horse’s teeth develop incorrectly, they can cause pain for the animal— and difficulty for the humans trying to manage it with bits. Mongolia’s horsemen were starting to use these tools around 3,000 years ago, the approximate age of the oldest teeth in the study.
These were deciduous teeth, similar to baby teeth in humans, and were subjected to what Taylor calls “crazy tooth modifications.”
“They were doing so in a way that was pretty inefficient. They were cutting off at the gum line.”
But “in the space of a few hundred years they developed a much clearer sense of the shape of the tooth.” X-ray analysis of skulls from the early- to mid-first millennium B.C. showed that handlers had extracted entire wolf teeth, a premolar from horses' ancestors that the animals still sometimes develop, even though it's no longer needed.
Handlers would have needed to pull them, Taylor explained. When wolf teeth grow in, “they fit right in the space where the mouthpiece of a bridle or a bit would go. … Today one of the main aspects of horse dentistry is extracting these.”
Their study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, describes these pulled and cut teeth as “the earliest evidence of equine dentistry.” This seemingly-obscure craft was vital to a much larger shift in human history: Gaining mastery over horses.
“We determined that people were experimenting with new ways to deal with dental problems that can influence young horses [and] would have introduced trouble in trying to train them for riding,” Taylor said.
The paper’s authors concluded that the period of these tooth modifications by the Deer Stone-Khirigsuur culture, which lasted from about 1300 to 700 B.C., “was also when people were figuring out … how to ride horses in a reliable way.”
While urban, agrarian societies like Egypt and China are often viewed as the ancient world’s cradles of innovation, Taylor said that the team’s findings “kind of turns this idea on its head.”
“It was horse culture, cowboy culture, in Mongolia … that people figured out some pretty sophisticated dental procedures that determined how long a horse could live, how long you could ride it and what kind of equipment you could control it with.”
That knowledge eventually journeyed with the horse to the New World, and Taylor sees a new application for these research methods closer to home.
“The world that we live in today in Montana, and the world that I grew up in, that Native folks grew up in … it really is shaped by the horse, and a lot of that story is missing.” The wordless, but very real teeth and bones of horses, he believes, could reveal more about their history in the Americas.
Already, he’s found familiar territory through his research.
“The Mongolian countryside is not all that different from the Montana countryside,” he reflected. “There’s a hospitality culture, there’s a lot of meat, there’s a lot of good food. … Mongolia is incredibly beautiful: wide-open plains, mountains, singing songs around the fire every evening.
“It’s an adventure for sure,” he said of his work, “but it’s not all that far off from what a summer might be like in Montana.”
“But,” he added, “there’s not a lot of hotels.”