The Stirrup Is One of History's Most Important Inventions — Here's Why

When it comes to inventions that changed the world, a few devices always come up — the wheel, the telephone, the panini press. But the stirrup is usually not included on that list, and maybe it should be. Here's why.

Horsemanship Before the Stirrup

The stirrup has popped up in many different forms in many different places around the world. But horses have been domesticated for much longer than stirrups have been around. Even Alexander the Great's legendary companion cavalry rode into battle gripping heavy spears in their hands and their horses between their thighs. They had to remember to release the spear just before it hit its target, or they'd be thrown off the back of the horse by the momentum. In Egypt, meanwhile, they deployed a chariot with room for two — a driver and an archer — but sacrificed a great deal of mobility in the process. Anywhere else, an archer on horseback would have needed to be a physical specimen of the highest order, with the upper body strength to shoot a bow and the beefy thighs to hold on to a horse. But even a great battalion of such warriors would face a serious challenge against a comparable army of riders with stirrups.

So it's no surprise that pretty much every time such a clash did unfold, the survivors from the non-stirruped side went home and started making stirrups. The earliest stirrups discovered so far are from second-century B.C.E. India, and consisted of tiny loops just meant for the toes. China is generally credited with the first true stirrup, invented around 100 C.E. and designed to support the entire foot while riding. By the year 700, the knight upon his stirrupped steed had become the centerpiece of European militaries. But even the knights of yore weren't using the most influential stirrups of all time — that is, the stirrups that would change the very genetics of humanity.

A Seat Fit for the Khan

By 1200 C.E., the stirrup had spread pretty widely across the world. But there was a new innovation on the horizon. Out of the Mongolian steppes roared a force like never seen before on Earth — the horde of Genghis Khan. Rightly recognized for their unparalleled horsemanship, the Mongols had a secret weapon in the form of metal stirrups. The sturdier design allowed riders to stand up in the saddle, steer their mount without using their hands, and keep up their assault of arrows whether they were charging forward or feinting back. They spread from the Pacific Coast all the way to Eastern Europe. There's a reason why millions of modern men have a bit of Genghis in their DNA, and that little chunk of metal played a bigger role than you might have guessed.

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Learn more about the role horses played in human history in "The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World" by David W. Anthony. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas May 18, 2017

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