A herd of horses on the Mongolian steppe, rainbow over the mountains behind

Research project

Horsepower: China, Mongolia and the steppe

Key project information

Duration

June 2023 – May 2029

Contact details

Email: asia@britishmuseum.org

Partners

University of Oxford
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS)
Leibniz-Zentrum für Archäologie (LEIZA)

Supported by

European Research Council
UKRI

Grant number

European Research Council Grant 101071707 
UKRI Grant EP/X042332/1

What can horses and metal tell us about the relationship between China and its northern neighbours?

From the second millennium BC, two great cultures formed, traded and fought across Eurasia – one based on horses and herding that stretched from Mongolia to the European steppe, and the other, to the south that consisted of established and newly formed states from the Middle East to the Chinese Central Plains. 

Horsepower: interactions between China, Mongolia and the steppe 2000–0 BC studies these relationships between China and neighbouring Mongolia and Central Asia by exploring the trade in horses. It also looks at objects made to ride or drive vehicles and the metal supply from China to further north and northwest. 

Combining scientific techniques in genetics, radiocarbon chronology and metallurgical analysis with theories of cosmology, aesthetics and performance plus archaeological excavation in Mongolia and China, this project examines early state formation in Mongolia and China from 2000 to 0 BC.

About the project

Working at the intersection of science and social science, this project cuts across linguistic and cultural boundaries (Chinese, Mongolian, Russian and English). It combines cutting-edge scientific approaches to analyse ancient horse DNA, examine metallurgy and undertake radiocarbon dating of well-targeted archaeological sites that will develop novel theories on the nature of leadership, wealth and power in two major states of the period − the Xiongnu in Mongolia and the Qin in China.

The Xiongnu arose around 209 BC and set the model for mobile horse-borne states through to the rise of the Mongols 1400 years later. Meanwhile the Qin unified China from 221 BC, a period that represents the start of an era which introduced the style of bureaucratic Chinese state recognised today. The formation of both states was heavily influenced by their local historical forces, but they were also substantially affected by their interaction with each other. This intricate relationship of political, economic and culture exchange was arguably a prototype for the Silk Road which connected the whole of Eurasia. 

Horsepower will show how the movement of horses south into China from the steppe and the trade of Chinese metals to the north became a critical exchange that ultimately shaped and defined one of the earliest known forms of state entity.

Aims

The aims of this project are to:

  • Apply advanced genetic analysis to ancient horse skeletons to explore patterns in the flow of horse trading, the extent of selective breeding to control horse numbers and characteristics that do not fossilise such as colour, speed and size.
  • Undertake new scientific analysis of metal objects from the Mongolia steppe including horse gear and chariot fittings within the Museum collection to identify and quantify the degree of mixing and recycling in the life history of metals in past societies.
  • Undertake archaeological excavation at a range of sites in Mongolia and China to understand the long-term history of the sacrificial economy of horses.
  • Supplement its academic investigations with an innovative programme of public engagement, art and popular science content through blogs, podcasts as well as exhibitions at the British Museum.

Meet the team

Ludovic Orlando standing in front of a building.

Ludovic Orlando

Principal Investigator
Centre for Anthropobiology and Genomics of Toulouse, CAGT (CNRS/University Paul Sabatier)

Headshot of Chris Gosden, foliage behind.

Chris Gosden

Principal Investigator
School of Archaeology
University of Oxford

Headshot of Ruiliang Liu, in the Great Court

Ruiliang Liu

Principal Investigator
Department of Asia
British Museum

Headshot of Ursula Brosseder, plain grey background.

Ursula Brosseder

Principal Investigator
Leibniz-Zentrum für Archäologie (LEIZA), Mainz

Project team and Acknowledgements

Project supporter

Project supporter

Supported by

EU and European Research Council (ERC) logos side by side with UKRI Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council logo underneath

Outputs

A view from the countryside: radiocarbon chronology for Zaolinhetan of the pre-Zhou culture in Early Dynastic China

JOURNAL ARTICLE

Xiaojian Li; Wei Liu; Yongxiang Xu; Haifeng Dou; Allen Mark Pollard; Ruiliang Liu

Radiocarbon

Published in 2024

Human-environment interaction systems between regional and continental scales in mid-latitude Eurasia during 6000–3000 years ago

JOURNAL ARTICLE

Guanghui Dong; Linyao Du; Ruiliang Liu; Yuejiao Li; Fahu Chen

The Innovation Geoscience 1(3)

Published in 2023