Finding Cowboys (Part 1)

This week I am down in Houston, TX with the Houston Society of the Archaeological Institute of America. This is the fourth year in a row I have trekked down here, and it is an incredible experience as always. Why am I here? To talk about cowboys, of course! The Houston Stock Show and Rodeo is in full swing and rodeo madness has gripped the city. What better time to visit classrooms to talk about the origins and history of cowboy culture and its traditions?
The American cowboy is an iconic image of the American west, but it is also one that has been propagated by Hollywood, mass media, and advertising (Marlboro Man, anyone?) This is not to say that our stereotypical cowboy image is wrong, but rather that it is only one very small part of a far more multi-cultural and global picture. This blog post is not a diatribe against the classic American cowboy, it is a stitching together of a more cohesive picture. After all, Equus caballus, the domestic horse, is not a native North America species, he was imported to the New World, and with him came a long standing cowboy tradition.
The story of the cowboy starts on the Central Asian steppe c.5500-5000 years ago. It is here that the horse was domesticated. The domestication of the horse and the subsequent discovery that they could be ridden was a boon for the nomadic peoples of the region, as it allowed them to cover greater expanses of territory and to manage much larger herds of livestock (their primary source of wealth ). And so, by being the first to climb on the back of horse and and use them to herd livestock, the nomads of Central Asia were, in essence, the first cowboys.
This was just the beginning. As the knowledge of riding moved west, so to did this proto-cowboy tradition. On the Thessalian Plain in Greece the horse flourished and became a mainstay of both the Thessalian economy and military. Horse breeding was big business in Thessaly, so much so that the image of a broodmare with her foal was stamped on Thessalian coins. Moreover, Thessaly was home to one of the first rodeo events: steer wrestling. Coinage from the region shows a very clear image of the event, in which a young man would leap from his galloping horse onto a steer, which we would grab by the horns and wrestle to the ground- much like the modern version of the sport.
Italy likewise plays a part in the cowboy tradition. The butteri of the Maremma can trace their origins back to the 14-15th century when the region was known for its mercenary cavlarymen. When not hiring themselves out to fight, these highly skilled horsemen worked for the semi-feudal landlords of Tuscany; breaking in horses and herding the long horned Tuscan cattle. The cavalry origins of the buttero can be seen in his herding tool of choice, the spear-like mazzrella, which he uses to maneuver cattle and horses. The skills of the butteri became well known, and they were put to the test when Buffalo Bill and his Wild West show rolled into Rome. Buffalo Bill invited the buttering to pit themselves against his troupe, and well, his guys lost! The traditions and customs of the butteri are honoured down to the present day: a festival celebrating the skills of the butteri is held every year on the first Sunday of August; the traditional butteri way of life is, however, sadly vanishing.