4. Miscellaneous aspects of the Aryan invasion debate
4.4. The Horse Evidence
4.4.1. The horse and IE expansion
Horses are prominent in the traditions of every known branch of the ancient Indo-Europeans. In 731 AD the Pope had to prohibit the consumption of horse meat in order to help the conversion effort among the horse-revering Germanic heathens, who used to ritually eat horse meat As consecrated food (prasAda) after the horse sacrifice. Horse domestication is commonly taken to have triggered the unprecedented Indo-European expansion, with a revolution in the lifestyle of the IE tribes (paralleled by the military, political and economic revolution which the horse caused among Native Americans in the 17th-18th century) as the first stage.
In Mesopotamia, horse trade made its appearance in about 2000 BC along with IE communities. The Sumerian sign for ‘horse’ was apparently borrowed from Elamite, which was spoken on the northern (now Iranian) coast of the Persian Gulf, half-way between Sumer and the Indus Valley. Linguists have argued that the Sumerian word si-si, ‘known in Sumerian since the fourth millennium BC’, and the derived Semitic words (Hebrew sUs), were borrowed from Indo-Iranian aSva, eventhough ‘the chronology has to be stretched to make this comparison acceptable’.1
If we accept an Indian Urheimat, the chronological problem disappears: since Vedic and related dialects of Old Indo-Aryan were spoken in the Indus basin in the 4th millennium BC, their term for ‘horse’ may have been imparted to Sumerian in that very period.
But: according to the first archaeological surveys, there had been no horses in the Harappan cities. By contrast, plenty of horse remains have been found in Ukraine and South Russia, including bridle-scarred horse teeth dated to 4300 BC.2 Is that not proof enough that horses are a foreign import into India, and that the momentous step of horse domestication was taken far outside India?
Even if there had not existed any horses in Harappan India, it would still be conceivable that Indians had domesticated the horse outside India. The idea of domestication may have been brought to the horse-rich steppes from a more advanced area where donkeys and oxen were already being used as beasts of burden or even to pull carts. It is often claimed that horses were first used for the same purpose before becoming mounts; other scholars reject this hypothesis, considering that bare-back riding is not much more difficult and dangerous than the whole process of harnessing a horse to a cart. But this makes little difference for our argument, among other reasons because both the horse and the wheeled cart are part of the common IE heritage, as shown by their presence in the common PIE vocabulary.
For an explanation of the Aryans’ remarkable expansion, it is not necessary that they were the first to domesticate the horse; it is sufficient that they were the first to use the advantages of domesticated horses to the fullest. Compare: gunpowder was invented by the Chinese, but used to the best effect by the European colonizers, even in their confrontations with the Chinese. Nor is it necessary that they domesticated the horse before their expansion began.
No case should be built on eager but unconfirmed hypotheses that the horse was domesticated in India, but the more popular hypothesis that it was first domesticated in Central Asia or Eastern Europe will do just fine even for an Indian Urheimat hypothesis. The first wave of IE emigrants, in pre- or early Vedic times, may have reached the Caspian Sea coasts and domesticated the horse there, or learnt from natives how to master the horse. They communicated the new knowledge along with a few specimens of the animal to their homeland (supposing it was indeed unknown or nearly unavailable in India itself), and along with the appropriate new terminology, so that it became part of the cultural scene depicted in Vedic literature. Meanwhile, the IE pioneers on the Caspian Sea coast made good use of the horse to speed up their expansion into Europe.
4.4.2. The absence of horse remains
The possibility of horse domestication inside India should not be dismissed too quickly: we insist that, in the presence of other types of evidence (the familiarity with domesticated horses literarily attested since the earliest Vedic hymns), the seeming absence of archaeological evidence should not be treated as positive counter-evidence. For a striking example of the discrepancy between abundant reality and meagre archaeological testimony, let us not forget that the Harappan seal inscriptions have yielded only a few thousands of lines of text, though they are obviously the tip of an iceberg of a vast literary tradition.
Even stranger: there are practically no Leftovers of writing from the centuries between the abandonment of the Harappan cities and the Maurya empire, more than a thousand years during which numerous important works in Sanskrit and Prakrit were, shall we say, composed. Does this prove that writing was absent from India during those centuries (as has been claimed in all seriousness by accomplished scholars), and that the grammarians including Panini had to do their path-breaking research without the aid of a literary corpus or written notes? Of course not: the inability of archaeologists to find Leftovers from what we know to be a highly literate stage of Indian civilization, simply proves that the archaeological record in India falls short of the historical reality to a vastly greater extent than in Egypt or West Asia. In the case of artefacts, this may be due to a greater availability of organic, perishable materials to build with or to write on. In the case of bodies, it is mostly cultural: unlike the Egyptians who embalmed their pharaohs as well as their Apis (bull-god) temple’s sacred bulls, Indians had no inclination to preserve mortal entities for a day longer than their allotted life-span. For the rest, the most important factor is climatological, with India’s damp heat leading to a faster decay of the available relics.
That the presence of horses in Harappa may well be out of proportion to the meagre archeological testimony of horse bones, has unwittingly been confirmed by Marxist historian Romila Thapar. All while affirming that ‘the horse is an insignificant animal in the Indus cities’, apparently referring to the paucity (but not absence) of horse bones in Harappan ruins, she neutralizes this oft-used argument for the non-Aryan character of Harappa by also telling us: ‘Excavated animal bones from Hastinapur in the first millennium BC when the use of horses was more frequent, indicate that horse bones make up only a very small percentage of the bones.’3 In today’s India, cows are vastly more numerous than horses, as future archaeologists are bound to discover in their turn, yet on ceremonial occasions like army parades you get to see whole regiments of horses with riders but not a single cow. This, as archaeology has confirmed, was also the situation in Hastinapur: horses were rare in absolute figures, though very prominent on ritual occasions of the kind recorded in the vedas.
And likewise in Vedic culture: ‘From the Vedic texts onwards the horse is symbolic of nobility and is associated with people of status.’4 So, the Vedic attention paid to horses was quite out of proportion with their percentage in the domesticated animal population. Compared with Russia, India was relatively poor in horses, and on top of that, it was by far not as good in preserving what much of horse bones it had, for reasons outlined above. Therefore, the paucity of horse remains is only to be expected; it is not as strong an argument against ‘Vedic Harappa’ as it once seemed to be.
4.4.3. The presence of horse remains
Meanwhile, in several Harappan sites remains of horses have been found. Even supporters of the AIT have admitted that the horse was known in Mohenjo Daro, near the coast of the Arabian Sea (let alone in more northerly areas), in 2500 BC at the latest.5 But the presence of horses and even domesticated horses has already been traced further back: horse teeth at Amri, on the Indus near Mohenjo Daro, and at Rana Ghundai on the Panjab-Baluchistan border have been dated to about 3,600 BC. The latter has been interpreted as indicating ‘horse-riding invaders’6, but that is merely an application of invasionist preconceptions. More bones of the true and domesticated horse have been found in Harappa, Surkotada (all layers including the earliest), Kalibangan, Malvan and Ropar.7 Recently, bones which were first taken to belong to onager specimens, have been identified as belonging to the, domesticated horse (Kuntasi, near the Gujarat coast, dated to 2300 BC). Superintending archaeologist Dr. A.M. Chitalwala comments: ‘We may have to ask whether the Aryans ( ) could have been Harappans themselves. ( ) We don’t have to believe in the imports theory anymore.’8
Admittedly, the presence of horses in the Harappan excavation sites is not as overwhelming in quantity as in the neolithic cultures of Eastern Europe. However, the relative paucity of horse remains is matched by the fact that the millions-strong population of the Harappan civilization, much larger than that of Egypt and Mesopotamia combined, has left us only several hundreds of skeletons, even when men sometimes had the benefit of burial which horses did not have.
The implication for the question of the horses is that any finds of horses are good enough to make the point that horses were known in India, and that they were available to a substantially greater extent than a simple count of the excavated bones would suggest. The cave paintings in Bhimbetka near Bhopal, perhaps 30,000 years old (but the datings of cave paintings are highly controversial), showing a horse being caught by humans, confirm that horses existed in India in spite of the paucity of skeletal remains.9 There is, however, room for debate on whether the animals depicted are really horses and not onagers. Other cave paintings, so far undated, show a number of warriors wielding sticks in their right hands and actually riding horses without saddles or bridles.10
The fact that both the Austro-Asiatic and the Dravidian language families have their own words for ‘horse’ (e.g. Old Tamil ivuLi, ‘wild horse’, and kutirai, ‘domesticated horse’) not borrowed from the language of the Aryans who are supposed to have brought the horse into India, should also carry some weight. Partly because of the uncongenial climate, horses must have been comparatively rare in India (as they would remain in later centuries, when Rajput forces were attacked by Turkish invaders with an invariably superior cavalry), but they were available.
The evidence concerning horses remains nonetheless the weakest point in the case for an Indian Urheimat. While the evidence is arguably not such that it proves the Harappan culture’s unfamiliarity with horses, it cannot be claimed to prove the identity of Vedic and Harappan culture either, the way the abundance of horse remains in Ukraine is used to prove the IE character of the settlements there. At this point, the centre-piece of the anti-AIT plea is an explainable paucity of the evidence material, so that everything remains possible.
This is true both at the level of physical evidence and on that of artistic testimony: the apparent absence of horse motifs on the Harappan seals (except one)11 can certainly be explained, viz. by pointing at the equally remarkable absence of the female cow among the numerous animal depictions on the seals, eventhough the cow must have been very familiar to the Harappans considering the frequent depiction of the bull. A taboo on depictions of the two most sacred animals may well explain the absence of both the cow and the horse. However, it is obvious that a positive attestation of the horse on the Harappan seals would have served the non-invasionist cause much better.
The linguists arguing in favour of this IE-Sumerian connection are T.V. Gamkrelidze and V.V. Ivanov; in reply to two Russian articles of theirs, I.M. Diakonov wrote: ‘On the Original Home of the Indo-Europeans’, Journal of Indo-European Studies, spring 1985, p.92-174. The quotations are Diakonov’s, p. 134. ↩
The story of horse domestication and its social effects is told by David Anthony, Dimitri Y. Telegin and Dorcas Brown: ‘The Origin of Horseback Riding’, Scientific American 12/1991. ↩
Romila Thapar: ‘The theory of Aryan race and India’, Social Scientist, January-March 1996, p.21. ↩
Romila Thapar: ‘The theory of Aryan race and India’, Social Scientist, January-March 1996, p.21. ↩
E.J.H. Mackay and A.D. Pusalker, quoted in Talageri: Aryan Invasion Theory, a Reappraisal, p.118; see also K.D. Sethna: KarpAsa, p. 13-15. ↩
Cited in Harry H. Hicks & Robert N. Anderson: ‘Analysis of an Indo-European Vedic Aryan Head, 4th Millennium BC’, Journal of Indo-European Studies, fall 1990, p.425-446, specifically p.437. ↩
S.P. Gupta: The Lost Sarasvati and the Indus Civilization, p. 193-196, with full references. ↩
Interviewed in: ‘Aryan civilization may become ‘bone’ of contention’, Indian Express, 10/12/1995. ↩
These paintings have been reproduced in, among others, Klaus Klostermaier: Survey of Hinduism, p.35. ↩
Dated to la nuit des temps, ‘the night of time’, in Science Illustree, May 1995. ↩
Reproduced in N.S. Rajaram: From Harappa to Ayodhya, inside the front page. ↩