The horse, ass, and onager, all members of the genus Equus, family Equidae, order Perissodactyla (odd-toed ungulates), are found in the ancient Near East both as wild and domestic stock. The equids were secondary domesticates—chronologically later additions to husbanded sheep, goat, cattle, and pig—apparently more valued for their labor than for meat, milk, fiber, or hides. The wild ass, Equus africanus, is known from Nubia and the eastern desert of Egypt; it recently was identified in southwest Asia. Previously thought to have been domesticated only in Egypt, it now appears that this could have occurred in the Syro-Arabian region as well. Remains of the domestic ass, E. asinus, appear in fourth-millennium deposits in both areas. Among the earliest remains from Israel are those in Early Bronze I–II levels at Arad. In all periods after the beginning of the second millennium BCE, the ass was the most common equid, used for plowing and as the primary beast of burden.

Remains of caballine wild horse, E. ferus, are known from Pleistocene sites in the Levant. Once thought to have disappeared from there at the end of the Ice Age, recently identified remains from a Chalcolithic deposit in the northern Negev have provisionally been identified as E. ferus. This would mean that the species persisted later into the Holocene and farther south than previously thought. Current opinion on the domestication of the horse, E. caballus, places it on the Eurasian steppe in the late Neolithic. From there it spread to various regions, reaching the ancient Near East in the first half of the third millennium. The earliest archaeological evidence places the domestic horse in Mesopotamia in about 2300 BCE. The domestic horse in Israel is noted from a slightly earlier context, again from Early Bronze I–II levels at Arad. [See Arad, article on Bronze Age Period.]

In greater Mesopotamia the onager, or half ass, E. hemionus, ranged from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Seas. During the Neolithic, according to evidence from such sites as Umm Dabaghiyeh in Iraq, the animal was hunted for its meat and skin. It was once thought that the onager had been domesticated in Mesopotamia, but recent summaries of the phiological, osteological, and behavioral evidence make clear that onagers were and are intractable. Onagers were used as studs to produce hybrids with donkeys during the early dynastic period in Mesopotamia. However, this practice seems to have died out with the arrival of the horse. Mules (hybrids produced by crossing a horse with an ass) have been attested on the basis of bone finds; the earliest are from Iran at the end of the third millennium BCE.

Equids figured in ritual activity. In Mesopotamia, equids were interred with humans and even wheeled vehicles, beginning in the late fourth and continuing until the first half of the second millennium BCE. Among the western Semites, as documented at Mari, asses were sacrificed to conclude a covenant. During the Middle Bronze Age both asses and horses were buried by western Asiatics in southern Canaan and the Egyptian Delta in ritual contexts. At Tell el-῾Ajjul, near ancient Gaza, horses and asses were interred with human remains. At the Hyksos capital of Avaris in the Delta, asses accompanied some human burials. This was repeated at other sites in the southern tier of Canaan and the Delta as well. The Canaanite material also may have been sacrificial meals, for many of the equid skeletons are missing limbs or pelvic parts. At Tell el-῾Ajjul and nearby Tell Jemmeh in southern Canaan, equids were also used as foundation deposits. In Egypt, outside the time and sphere of Asiatic influence, equids were occasionally interred with humans as part of the great Egyptian preoccupation with providing familiar and necessary items for the deceased's afterlife. [See ῾Ajjul, Tell el-; Jemmeh, Tell.]

Throughout the ancient Near East, horses were always associated with elite classes, most often in their capacity to draw light chariots and, later, in the development of mounted cavalry. The equipment used to handle equids seems to have derived from that used for cattle. The earliest true bits appear in the sixteenth century BCE, but earlier evidence of mouth gear is known from marks left on teeth. Because they conferred considerable prestige on their owners, horses were highly prized. The horse is one of the few animals for which there is a demonstrated ancient interest in selective breeding. Horse texts from second- millennium Nuzi record genealogies, a parallel component of modern breed maintenance. [See Nuzi.] Mid-second-millennium Ugaritic texts include a discussion of veterinary issues in horse husbandry.

[See also Animal Husbandry; Cult; Ethnozoology; Leather; and Paleozoology.]


  • Azzaroli, Augusto. An Early History of Horsemanship. Leiden, 1985. Includes extensive discussion of Near Eastern traditions of horsemanship.
  • Boessneck, Joachim. Die Tierwelt des Alten Ägypten: Untersucht anhand Kulturgeschichtlicher und Zoologischer. Munich, 1988. Presents summaries of the Egyptian evidence by a zoologist who studied the faunal remains from hundreds of sites throughout the ancient world.
  • Clutton-Brock, Juliet. Domesticated Animals from Early Times. Austin, 1981. Global summary of the equids, with a useful review of their biology and behavior.
  • Meadow, Richard H., and Hans-Peter Uerpmann, eds. Equids in the Ancient World. 2 vols. Wiesbaden, 1986–1991. Important studies of the philology and osteology of the Old World equids by J. N. Postgate, Uperpmann, Pierre Ducos, Juris Zarins, Juliet Clutton-Brock, and Meadow.

Paula Wapnish and Brian Hesse