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The Akhal-Teke, golden horse

DNA tests reveal rare golden horse buried in 2,000-year-old Chinese tomb


Archaeologists in China have carried out DNA tests on five horses found in a Western Han Dynasty tomb complex in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and discovered that one of the horses was a very rare golden color with white mane and tail.  A number of ancient tapestries found in Asia, depict the almost mythical golden horse, but no one really knows the place of origin of the unique coloring.

According to Xinhuanet, the finding was made by archaeologists with the Chinese Academy of Social Science (CASS), who carried out the analyses.

"Though it's not the first archaeological discovery of a golden horse, such geno-variation is very, very rare," said Zhao Xin, lead researcher of the project [via Xinhuanet].

The horse remains were first uncovered in 2006 in a tomb complex dating to between 400 and 120 BC. The horses, along with other animal remains, had been buried as sacrifices for three different people, who are believed to have belonged to a nomadic community.

The five horses varied in their coloration. Most of the horses were buried, along with other animals, in an animal vault. However, the golden horse was buried in the same chamber as its owner, along with pottery and vessels made from bronze, gold, silver, and stone.

"Obviously, its conspicuous and unique appearance made it precious," Zhao Xin said.

Horse burials were common in ancient China and often reflected the status of the tomb owner. Just last week, archaeologists uncovered an elaborate 2,500-year-old tomb in Henan province, possibly royal, alongside a burial pit with six chariots and 13 complete horse skeletons.

Burial pit found last week containing 13 complete horse skeletons.

Burial pit found last week containing 13 complete horse skeletons. Credit: People’s Daily 

Origins of the Golden Horse

Horses with a golden color and silver-white mane and tail are referred to as palomino horses. Their origin is not known with any certainty, but it is believed the coloring may have first emerged in the Middle East thousands of years ago, where it subsequently spread through trade and conquest to China and Europe.

“It is popularly thought the palomino may have occurred as an adaptation camouflaging wild horses against the desert sands,” writes Danielle de la Mont in her article ‘Horses of Gold: The Palomino in History and Folklore. “Indeed the Coast Guard in the United States used palominos to patrol beaches during World War II precisely because they blended seamlessly with the sandy environment, making them indistinguishable by enemy warships at sea.”

The nomads of China’s Gobi Desert may have used the palominos for the same purpose some 2,000 years ago.

Palomino horse coloring ranges from deep gold to a golden cream color with white mane and tail

Palomino horse coloring ranges from deep gold to a golden cream color with white mane and tail (Bordesley Palomino Stud)

Mythology and Folklore

Numerous ancient cultures, including the empires of Rome, Greece, Persia, Mongolia, China, and Japan, have folk stories and mythological tales revolving around a golden horse, and this is reflected in ancient tapestries and artworks.

“The immortal Xanthus, meaning 'golden' pulled the chariot of Achilles in Homer's Iliad and was gifted speech by the gods,” writes de la Mont. “Statuary has survived from Imperial China of horses featuring the palomino colouration, clad in tack coloured the distinctive blue reserved for royalty, suggesting the palomino was privileged to those of high social status.”

Golden-colored horses can also be seen in the Bayeux tapestry, which depicts the famous Battle of Hastings, which took place on English soil in 1066.

A golden-colored horse seen in the Bayeux tapestry

A golden-colored horse seen in the Bayeux tapestry (public domain)

The rare and beautiful golden palominos were favored by Queen Isabella of Spain, who famously pawned her jewels to fund the explorations of Christopher Columbus. Queen Isabella is known to have kept hundreds of palominos in her personal stables and banned anyone but royalty or nobility to possess one of the golden horses.  When the New World was ‘discovered’, Isabella sent a shipment of her prized palominos to her viceroy in Mexico. From there, they eventually spread to North America. 

Featured image: The Akhal-Teke, golden horse (

By April Holloway



the usual low standards -- use of "unique" for distinct or rare. Padding verbiage. If Queen Isabel had many of them they were far from unique. & Who does the absolute monarch in an Inquisition dominated country "pawn" her jewels to? Does a drunk write these articles?

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April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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