Digging Deeper into the Life of Equine Archaeologist Sandra Olsen

April 22, 2019 | by Emily Reardon, BBRM Equine Management student

Dr. Olsen will lead us on a marvellous journey through Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas over 3.6 million years to illuminate the integral role horses have played in human cultural development

Sandra_Olsen-photo by Ric Evans
Photo by Ric Evans

Dr. Sandra Olsen is a renowned scientist and zooarchaeologist who has focused much of her research on the development of horse-human relationships throughout time and the impact of equine domestication on society. Dr. Olsen first began studying archaeology at Wichita State University before moving to the University of Arizona to focus on American Southwestern archaeological fauna. After moving to the University of London to complete her PhD on bone artifacts, Olsen began work on reindeer bones in a French cave site, which included some horse remains. This sparked her interest to work on horse bones at the only known Paleolithic horse kill site in France, Solutré. She then had the opportunity to work in Botai, Kazakhstan, which to this day is the site of the oldest evidence of equine domestication and where the majority of Dr. Olsen’s research focus lies. She also spent time in Saudi Arabia recording Arabian horse images in rock art. Dr. Olsen further explores her interest in the area of horse-human relationships by creating horse exhibits for places such as the American Museum of Natural History, the Kentucky Horse Park, and British Museum.

Dhabiya, Shamli, Hail, Saudi Arabia
Photo by Richard T. Bryant

Dr. Olsen is a professor at the University of Kansas and also the author of numerous published works including both books and scientific papers such as A Gift from the Desert: The Art, History, and Culture of the Arabian Horse and Horses and Humans: The Evolution of the Human-Equine Relationship. From her many works, Dr. Olsen finds her 2006 chapter in Horses and Humans is the most comprehensive as it is where she ties up all the lines of evidence for horse domestication. She is currently working on a book about her excavations and findings supporting the evidence of domestication of the horse in Kazakhstan. Olsen has taught numerous courses such as human osteology, museum anthropology, zoo archaeology, and evolutionary biology at a variety of universities including University of London, John Hopkins University, and the University of Kansas. For further details on more of her published works or teaching experience, click here.

Al Naslaa, Tayma, Saudi Arabia
Photo by Richard T. Bryant

Although the lifestyle of a travelling archaeologist is not the most conducive to horse ownership, Dr. Olsen has had many incredible personal equine experiences including riding in Mongolia, Kazakhstan, China, and the United States as well as being able to observe wild mustangs in the summer in Wyoming. Her career path also allows her to appreciate these gracious animals in a whole new sense as she is constantly discovering and learning about their evolutionary progress and their significant impact on humans throughout history.

Dr. Olsen is one of the plenary speakers at the ISES2019 conference being held in Guelph, ON from August 19-21. Her talk on the evolution of our relationship with horses will set the context for all of the presentations throughout the conference. She will lead us on a marvellous journey through Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas over 3.6 million years to illuminate the integral role horses have played in human cultural development.


Registration is now open for the 15th annual ISES conference. Don’t miss the early bird deadline of June 1 for conference registration. For all the details and links to registration and accommodations, visit the Equitation Science website or the Horse Portal.


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