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Sandra Olsen
By Christine H. O’Toole

You 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.

Earlier 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 10 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 analysis.

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 in 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 faces.

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 response?
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 of interest 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 together?
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.

We love 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 countryside.

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.

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