By Christine H. O’Toole
might say horses have taken Sandra Olsen all over the world—from
the United States, to Europe, and to northern Kazahkstan,
where she will make her 10th journey this summer. Curator
of Anthropology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History since
1991, Olsen is one of the world’s leading experts
on the domestication of horses. Most recently, she’s
focused her research on the Botai, a culture that herded
early horses more than 5,000 years ago in what
is now northern Kazakhstan. A native of Wichita, Kansas,
she received her Ph.D. from the University of London, returning
to the states for post-doctorate study at Johns Hopkins
University before joining Carnegie Museums. Olsen is married
to the museum’s head of the Section of Vertebrate
Paleontology, Chris Beard, and the duo are teaming up with
two other museum scientists to design and teach a new course
on the natural sciences and medicine at the University
of Pittsburgh Medical School.
Yours wasn’t a typical
career choice. Did you plan to be an archaeologist?
Growing up, I first wanted to be a paleontologist, but
by third grade I had settled on becoming an archaeologist.
However, as a zooarchaeologist, I do specialize in the
analysis of animal bones from ancient sites. Paleontology
looks at the evolutionary process—I’m looking
at a more recent period of time, and I’m most interested
in studying the animal bones and artifacts that I find
in order to learn more about the lives of humans.
in my career I spent five years analyzing horse bones
from a paleolithic (Old Stone Age) site in southwest
France, where over 30,000 horses were killed between
32,000 and 12,000 years ago. I was stationed in an
old 16th-century house alone for five summers, spending
hours a day working on horse bones! In paleontology,
you can analyze one tooth and find a whole new species.
In zooarchaeology, our collections are anywhere from
10,000 to 100,000 bones. It can take years to do the
What research topic are you currently working on?
For the past 13 years, I’ve focused my research on
early horse domestication—where, when, and how it
happened. The Botai culture, which I’ve been closely
studying, is a Copper Age culture (circa 4,000-2,000 BC)
located in northern Kazakhstan, and it had a horse-based
economy. They had permanent houses and settlements, but
no agriculture. That’s unusual—to sustain a
large, permanent settlement, you usually need agriculture.
The Botai kept horses and depended primarily on horsemeat
and probably horse milk as well. However, they existed
only for a short interval in time. We’re not sure
where they came from or went, but we do know much about
their religious beliefs and lifestyle.
One of my side interests
is the antiquity of violence in humans, which is depicted
even in French cave paintings
that are more than 20,000 years old. What we find is
that violent behavior is linked to technology. In the Bronze
Age, you see the escalation of warfare and the development
of increasingly more deadly weaponry. By the Iron Age,
about 900 BC, large conquering cavalries were amassed
Eurasia, and from that time forward violence keeps accelerating.
You’ve spent a lot of time
in Kazakhstan. What are conditions like there now?
Kazakhstan struggled for a few years immediately after
the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it’s thriving
now. The country is now led by a very forward- looking
president; they are developing their valuable oil resources;
and I believe that Kazakhstan will play a very important
role in the world in the near future.
I always say that
a large number of my best friends are in Kazakhstan. I’ve
spent six field seasons there, and I feel like they’re
family. The Kazakhs are a hardworking, honest, very hospitable,
and reliable people.
Many Kazakhs have facial features that resemble Navajos,
so you could easily mistake them for American Indians.
They have the same kind of power and strength in their
You were very involved with the public programs around
The Mysterious Bog People exhibit, which just closed in
January. Were you surprised by the great public and scientific
It’s been so exciting. In many ways, I hated to see
it leave the museum. Coincidentally, years earlier I had
worked alongside some of the researchers studying Lindow
Man [an Iron Age body discovered in a British peat bog
in 1984] at the British Museum, so I knew it was going
to be a fascinating exhibit.
I’m not a native Pittsburgher,
but one thing you notice once you’re here is that
there are lots of European immigrants in Pittsburgh—and
many still have strong connections to Europe, and a lot
in their heritage. My own background is Dutch, Irish, German,
and English. Those Bog People could have been my ancestors—that’s
true of a lot of us. So I could understand the great public
response to this exhibit.
As co-workers, do you and your husband conduct research
We’ve always wanted to collaborate. One day we might.
I’ve been in the field with him, and he with me.
We relate very well on that level. Our favorite leisure-time
activity is hiking. We also travel a lot, recently to Oaxaca,
Mexico, and southwest France. Wherever we go, I want to
check out the museums and the local archaeology.
to observe wildlife. We live in rural Butler County and
practically have our own herd of deer. That’s
why I love western Pennsylvania—you can work in the
city, but it’s easy to get away to the beautiful
Will you spend the rest of your career on the Botai?
No. I’ve been working on this since 1993. I plan
to publish my research, then perhaps move onto the next
time period in Kazakhstan, the Bronze Age. This was a time
when the people of the steppes became nomadic pastoralists.
I’m interested in examining their human remains in
order to learn more about their lifestyle, their health,
and how they died.
I’m also wrapping up Horses and
Humans: The Evolution of the Equine-Human Relationship,
an edited volume. And
after that, I have a lab full of thousands of horse bones
from the Botai
waiting to be studied!
You seem to have a real fondness for horses and other
animals. Any pets?
Just two cats—with the way we travel, other pets
aren’t possible! I do ride a little in Kazakhstan,
but I’ve never owned a horse of my own.