Indo-Aryan im/e-migration: Horse argument

Edwin Bryant ebryant at FAS.HARVARD.EDU
Sat Mar 21 02:22:47 UTC 1998

Well, we're on spring break so I have some time to catch up a bit on this
Indo-Aryan discussion.  I'll keep future postings shorter.

On Wed, 18 Mar 1998, George Thompson wrote:

> In response to Mary Storm's useful summary:>
> Much of this evidence was discussed on the RISA list back, I think, in
> October 1996. One could check the archives for specific references, but I
> recall that archaeologists had not come to a consensus about these possible
> horse remains at that time. Is this right, Edwin?

There have been a stream of reports over the years about horse bone
findings which have claimed dates from 4500 BCE in Bangor up to the late
Harappan period. Due to the fact that this animal is central to the Vedic
and IE world, it has become almost symbolic of this whole controversy and
accordingly "the most sought after animal in Indian archaeology."  This
quest became particularly highlighted when a world-renowned horse bone
expert, Sandor Bokonyi, verified that the Surkotada findings were indeed
those of Caballus Linn.  To be brief, Richard Meadows, here in Harvard,
has questioned all these reports, including Bokonyi's (who is,
unfortunately, no longer alive to defend his conclusions).  Some of these
reports *may* be those of horses (they have not necessarily been
*disproved* as such), but due to the technical difficulties in
differentiating between the bones of the equus species, and lack of
published material (photos, etc) of most of these reports, this cannot be
presently determined to the satisfaction of all, as George notes above.

I think it is relevant to note that just as horses were central to the
Vedic Indians they have always been central in Indian history, but *they
have always been imported into the subcontinent* from the Epic, Mauryan,
Mughal through to the British period.  So the horse has always been highly
prized despite not being indigenous to the subcontinent (although there is
an indig species of onager native in the NW).  So the non-indigenousness
of the horse need not a priori indicate the non-indigenousness of the
Indo-Aryans. It was an elite, imported animal used for sacrificial and
military purposes (not for food) and therefore not likely to show up in
great quantities in the arch record.  Indeed, even in the post-Harappan
period, when few would deny that the I-A 's were very much present in the
subcontinent, there is not exactly an explosion of horse bones in the arch
record.  To my knowledge, findings remain sparse in the late 2nd and early
part of the 1st millennium BCE (Hastinapur, etc).  More on this in the post
following this one.

I would like to submit a further point for consideration. IE'sts have
constructed a proto form *ekwos.  But some linguists have gone so far as
to point out that it cannot actually be determined whether this animal
was domesticated, or wild, or even what kind of an equid it was in the
*proto*-period.  It has been noted by a few linguists (troubled by the
over-prioritization of the horse evidence) that the identification of this
animal with Caballus Linn comes not from etymology, but from archaeology.
It seems to me that there is an element of circularity here: linguistics
cannot determine exactly what kind of an equid *ekwos refers to in the
joint proto-period: archaeology does.  But the archaeology of the
(commonly accepted) IE homeland is primarily situated in the Kurgan grave
area because Equus Caballus Linn was first domesticated there.  And
this is deemed conclusive (to a great, but not exclusive, extent) on the
authority of linguistic palaeontology and its identification of a proto IE
horse which is generally assumed to be caballus Linn. It seems to me this
could all be problematized.  Anyway, Gimbutas has her own detractors who
need not detain us here.  Allowing, along with most linguists, that *ekwos
does indeed refer to Caballus Linn (which I think is perfectly
reasonable), one last connected point.

We should perhaps focus attention, for a moment, on the assumption that
the area of the domestication of the horse is necessarily the area of
origin of the IE's (several IE'ists have questioned this assumption,
Gramkrelidze and Ivanov being the most recent). It is therefore not so
easy to counter the Indigenous Aryan  charge that the "horse could have
been very well known to the proto-Indo-Europeans in their original
homeland before their dispersal from it (which is the only thing indicated
by the facts), without the horse necessarily being a native of that
homeland, or they themselves being its domesticators" (Talageri, 158).
The logic, here, is that just as the horse has always been imported and
central to Indic culture right throughout the historic period, it could
likewise have similarly been imported and central in the proto-IA period
(for the Indig. Aryan School, and earlier still in the PIE period for the
Out-of-India school).
Regards,  Edwin Bryant

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