Horse argument

Michael Witzel witzel at FAS.HARVARD.EDU
Wed May 20 13:19:25 UTC 1998

On Sun, 10 May 1998, Vidhyanath Rao wrote:

> Firstly, the similarities in the rituals cannot be taken as proof that
> the rituals go back to PIE days.

how so? the Roman and the Indian horse sacrifice and the W. Ural (Volga)
horse burials have a lot of items in common that put the "asvamedha" back
to 1700 BC at least. Add the myths... The Celtic (Irish)  ritual is
somewhat different but it has the same "royal" intentions.

> True chariots cannot be dated back before
> 1800 BCE. [the Shintasha vehicle cannot have been very maneuverable:
> See Littauer and Crouell, Antiquity '96] .

This is just one example dug up, so far. But it is important to note that
the narrow width of the axle still indicates origins from the older load
bearing wagon (which cannot have a wide axle!) and thus not from a
*supposed* (see below)  more developed Near eastern chariot. Also, the E.
Ural case may be archaic (relict) while other areas may have advanced
more. More evidence on chariots, for the time beeing, in Kuzmina (South
Asian Archaeology 1993, ed. by A. Parpola et al., Hesinki 1994)

Importantly not only do we find a chariot at Sintashta, East of the
Urals, but we should also note the combination with "Indian/Roman type"
horse sacrifice and the Vedic Dadhyanc motif (bones of human body with
horse head) in one grave near Kujbyshev, West of the Urals, near the
Volga. That is AT LEAST suggestive for IE/Vedic-related ritual and

The wheel ( IE *kwekwelo- from Sumerian gilgul?) may have been invented in
Mesopotamia, but note how carefully Littauer & Crouwell phrase their
statement about a Near Eastern origin of the chariot:

"Does it not seem more likely that the horse's introduction to draught in
the Near East stimulated the local wheel-wrights to invent a lighter wheel
for the long existing two-wheelers than a people without a history of
two-wheeled vehicles and with an already superior personal conveyance -
the mounted horse - should find reason suddenly to invent such a vehicle
in its entirety?"

In other words, they don't know.

Many scenarios are possible to explain the sudden occurence of the
two-wheel, spoke-weeled vehicles in the steppes. One has been given:
development from pre-existing 4 wheel ox wagon (with solid wheels, Skt.
anas). Others include adaptation and improvement fom a Near Eastern
solid-wheel status "chariot" (Tell Agrab, is it from c. 2800 BC??), which
in C.-L.'s publication looks more like a bike than a chariot -- and is NOT
drawn by horses! The earliest non-steppe chariot picture comes from
Kultepe, Turkey, c. early 2nd mill. BC, thus roughly from the same time as
Sintashta. It has 2 horses(?) and spoked wheels (with 4 spokes).

Importantly, -- and that is always neglected in the discussion -- not all
Vedic chariots will have been status symbols, though the later,
post-Rgvedic RITUAL chariot was so vulnerable that it had to be
transported on a wagon before use, just like our race cars.

But there also was the vipatha chariot for rough, cross-country driving!
And how do you account for the traffic accident in Jaiminiya Brahmana in
which a boy was dismembered and killed: some people must have driven at
high speed through a settlement...

Obviously we need much more evidence to settle all these  questions.

> So the similarities in how
> chariot races were integrated into rituals cannot go back to PIE days,
> but must instead be ascribed to diffusion or parallel evolution.

The Greek one (in the Iliad) is too close to the Indian ones to be simply
diffused across a lot of space and time (descr. in Max Sparreboom,
Chariots): At least Late COMMON IE (note the many grammatical
correspondences in Greek and Vedic/Old Iranian - also by "diffusion" from
India??). There is of course much more to it: the uneven number of turns
with the Mitanni, the COUNTER-clockwise turning (continued, this time
probably via Rome, to this day in our sport stadiums)  etc. : all by

 > Why should other details related to horses be any different?

But note that the word for chariot is a specialization of IE *reth2o-
"wheel", found only in Indo-Iranian (thus c. 2000 BC, see separate
posting): This time, the Greeks have NOT taken over this term by
diffusion/osmosis! (And they separated from the IIr.s long before the
Mature Indus Civ.)

> Second: David Anthony is certain that Sredny Stog (sp?) culture used
> bits to control horses, based on evidence of tooth wear from a horse
> found there.

One horse, yes, and somewhat problematic with regard to its date: maybe
3000 rather than 4000 BC), see South Asian Archaeology 13, 1997.

>However, Arrian and other Hellenistic sources clearly that
> the bit was unknown in India at the time of Alexander.

This is SIMPLY not correct: Arrian's description, (Indike 16)  ALSO
includes a pin/peg/bolt :  obelos (a word next to obeliskos, for bit), in
addition to the nose band with inside-turned "not too sharp thorn/pins"
(kentron), which" force the horse to obey" (Arrian).  One should also take
a look at Sanchi/Bharhut where there are many sculputures of such
horses and chariots!

Maybe two different traditions are mixed here. The Iranians had the bit
much earlier than the time Arrian describes. All of this is not unlikely
if you compare even modern donkey management (outside America/ W. Europe:
often still without bit or nose band) and that of bitted horses (in two
styles, the Spanish/Hungarian-"Western" and the "English" one). They exist
side by side. Similar accounts by Littauer & Crouwel for the Near East.

> Their description
> of Indian horse control mechanism indicates the use of a dropped nose
> band. This is supported by references to `nasor yama.h' [note the dual:
> nasor must mean `at the >nostrils<'] and horses bound at the nose [for
> true bits, the band(s) would be higher up.]
See above...
> If Indo-Aryans and their ancestors had unbroken association with
> domesticated horse, why did they give up the bit for the inferior
> nose band control?

again, argumentum ex nihilo. We need more evidence.But Swat from 1700 BC
onwards has horse furnishings as far as I remember (needs exact check).
Also there probably was more than one Indo_Aryan immigration/trickling in:
even the Yajurveda Samhita texts still speak of the need to watch one's
back and not just to move eastwards... Multiple traditions are possible.

Michael Witzel                       witzel at
phone: 1- 617 - 495 3295 (voice & messages), 496 8570, fax 617 - 496 8571
my direct line (also for messages) :  617- 496 2990

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