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The Aryan Debate: Horse

In 1974, archaeologists J. P. Joshi and A. K. Sharma found horse bones in Surkotada, a Harappan site in Gujarat. This was a sensational discovery: first, it was the bones of a horse and second, it was dated to the period 2265 B.C.E. to 1480 B.C.E, which corresponds to the Mature Harappan period[1].

Finding horse remains, especially from India, are always controversial. For example, one of the earliest claims of horse is dated to 4500 B.C.E in the Aravalli range in Rajasthan – the same place from where the Harappans got their copper. This period is the same time when horse was first domesticated in the world. So there are questions: was the artifact obtained from a Bronze Age level even though the site was Neolithic? Was it really a horse — the Equus Caballus —rather than a donkey or onager.?

Due to the large size of bones and teeth of an onager, it is hard to distinguish it from a horse. Also sometimes the reports that come with excavations have insufficient measurements, drawings, and photographs required for independent assessment[1]. Due to this the findings are always suspect; it is always concluded that the horse arrived quite late to India.

Such questions arise because in the Indo-Aryan debate — if Vedic civilization pre-dated, co-existed or followed the Harappan civilization — a key factor is the horse. In this debate the main argument against Harappa being Indo-Aryan can be summarized as follows.

  1. According to the popular version of Indian pre-history, horse — an animal not native to India — was bought to India by the Indo-Aryans when they came in 1500 B.C.E. There is no evidence of horse in India before 1500 B.C.E.
  2. Among the numerous seals found in Harappa there is none which represent a horse, while other animals like the bull, buffalo, and goat are represented.
  3. In Rg Veda, the horse (asva) has cultural and religious significance. Since there is absence of horse in Harappa, it can only mean that the Vedic people arrived after the decline of the Harappan civilization.

The find at Surkotada upset this narrative because it crossed a lakshman rekha into Mature Harappan and also violated the threshold for the Indo-Aryan arrival. Hence the findings themselves became suspect – at least till 1991.

The eminent archaeozoologist, Sandor Bokonyi, was in Pune to attend a workshop on ‘Prehistoric contacts between South Asia and Africa’ at the Deccan College. Following the conference he spent some time in Delhi where the Excavation Branch of the ASI showed him the finds from Surkotada which consisted of six samples, mostly teeth. After examining the artifacts, he concluded that they were not of a half-ass, but a real domesticated horse[7].


In 1994, Richard Meadow and Ajita Patel examined the same remains in Purana Quila and came to a different conclusion. They thought the samples came from an onager and not the true horse. Meadow believes that horses could have come to the region, maybe by 2000 B.C.E since there is figurine evidence and painted shreds in Swat, but the find from Surkotada  was not it. Richard Meadow raised his objections to Sandor Bokonyi  during a conference in Konstanz, Germany, but Bokonyi was not convinced[5].

To understand how controversial the issue of dating horse India is, we have to look at another story. In 1971, K. R Alur found horse bones from a Neolithic site in Hallur, Karnataka and they were dated between 1500 and 1300 B.C.E. Alur’s report sparked a controversy and he was asked to clarify his find since it went against the prevalent belief that Aryans introduced the horse around 1500 B.C.E. A re-excavation of Hallur was done and 21 years later Allur reported that he had indeed found the true horse and he could not deny or alter this scientific fact[1].

Besides these, there have been other finds as well  which includes horse teeth from Baluchistan dating to a pre-Harappan level, from Allahabad (2265 – 1480 B.C.E) [1], horse bones dated between 2450 and 2000 B.C.E in Chambal Valley[2], and an upper molar from Kalibangan[3]. Horse remains have been found in other locations — in Mohenjo-daro, Rupar, Inamgaon, and Kalibangan —- but they all are from a later period.

Also, E.J.H Mackay in 1931 and R.E.M.Wheeler in 1968 found terracotta models of animals in Mohenjo-daro and one of them was the horse. From this Wheeler concluded that the horse was known from an earlier period in Baluchistan. Thus, from a complete absence of horse, we see little evidence of horse remains around the subcontinent, but not quite a lot. Maybe horse bones are lying undiscovered in various bags in Indian museums[1].

If horse bones date to a period much earlier than the proposed Indo-Aryan arrival, who bought them? Did the Aryans come much before than expected — maybe before the decline of the Indus valley area? In fact one theory argues just that. According to this version, two Indo-Aryan groups — the Dasas and Panis — arrived around 2100 B.C.E from the steppes via Central Asia bringing horses with them.  Fine. If the Indo-Aryans arrived earlier does this mean that the date of Rg Veda can be pushed to an earlier date than 1200 B.C.E? The theory says, the folks who came in 2100 B.C.E were not the composers of the Veda; they came in a second wave, a couple of centuries later[4][1].

While such justifications fit in data with a pre-defined conclusion, there are few points that need to be addressed.

  • Why are there so few horse remains and depictions of horse in India prior to 1500 B.C.E?
  • If horses were not bought by the Indo-Aryans in the first wave of migration, then who did?

The HARP has been excavating in Harappa for more than two decades; we have not heard of any breaking news from there. Hence we need to find out why there are such few remains of horses in India whereas we have found remains of cattle, goats, fish and sheep. 

Whenever we read such a list, we also need to pay attention to what is missing in this. Thus we find that there are few remains of elephants and camels, two animals which were present in Harappa. A possible explanation is that while sheep, goat and fish were eaten by Harappans, elephants, camels and horses were not and hence the remains are not found in the urban areas in large numbers[2]. Regarding the lack of depictions of horses in seals, we also find that the cow and camel too are not depicted, even though a large number of bones have been found[1].

(Pasupati Seal)

But if the Indo-Aryans bought the horses shouldn’t we see an explosion of horse remains and depiction of horse in art after 1500 B.C.E? In fact horse remains are rare even after 1500 B.C.E. Also, it is around the Mauryan period – around 350 B.C.E — that the depictions of horse and lion gains popularity[2]. Thus the time period 2000 – 1500 B.C.E was not significant regarding the arrival of horse in India. So much for that.

Thus if horses did not arrive in a Big Bang moment, how did they end up in the subcontinent. To begin with, the horse, a rare animal, is not native to India: there are no wild horses in India; we only have the lambi race ka ghoda. Even as late as the 11th and 13th century CE, horses were imported: Marikkars controlled the horse tradewith Arabia and supplied them to Muslim rulers and Vijayanagara.

The people of the subcontinent had trade relations with the external world much before 1500 B.C.E. Also the trade relations between various parts of India and the Near East, dating as far back as 4000 BCE with the find of cotton in Dhuwelia and carnelian bead in Mesopotamia in the third millennium BCE, showed that trade need not introduce a cultural change or introduce new people. Isn’t it possible that the horse too arrived just like that due to the trade relations with Central Asia? [1][2]

Finally, consider this: is the horse required to identify a site as Indo-Aryan? The Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex is another Indo-Aryan site where the horse was depicted in grave goods was never found in large numbers in excavations. But this lack of horse bones did not prevent scholars from identifying it as an Indo-Aryan culture, so why not the Indus valley?[1].

References & Notes

  1. Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004).
  2. Michel Danino, The Horse and the Aryan Debate, Journal of Indian History and Culture September 2006, no. 13: 33-59.
  3. B.B. Lal, The Truant Horse Clears the Hurdles,in The Aryan Debate edited by Thomas R. Trautmann (Oxford University Press, USA), 230-233
  4. Asko Parpola, The Horse and the Language of the Indus Civilization,in The Aryan Debate edited by Thomas R. Trautmann (Oxford University Press, USA), 234-236.
  5. Richard H. Meadow and Ajita Patel, “Comment on ‘Horse Remains from Surkotada’,” in The Aryan Debate edited by Thomas R.
    (Oxford University Press, USA), 243-250. 
  6. David Anthony, “The Domestication of the Horse in Asia,” in The Aryan Debate edited by Thomas R. Trautmann (Oxford University Press, USA), 251 -253. 
  7. Sandor Bokonyi, Horse Remains from Surkotada, in The Aryan Debate edited by Thomas R. Trautmann (Oxford University Press, USA), 237 -242.

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6 Responses to The Aryan Debate: Horse

  1. Ranjith October 25, 2009 at 11:40 pm #

    Great post JK. If there is no considerable increase in the number horse remains in the post-1500 BCE period, the whole horse argument for aryan migration makes no sense, right ?

    • jk October 26, 2009 at 7:33 am #

      Ranjith, That was something I did not know till I read Danino’s paper.

  2. B Shantanu October 29, 2009 at 11:23 am #

    Superb post JK…

    Thanks for enlightening…and clearing the dust.

  3. Egbert Richter-Ushanas February 25, 2012 at 1:43 pm #

    There are at least four signs for the horse in the Indus script (A. Parpola, Materials for the study of the Indus script 80, 199, 200, 237).The unicorn bears the features of a horse and a bull. The horse is compared to an antilope in Rg-Veda I.163.1 and divided like the soma in I.163.3 referred to in two seals from Surkotada, where horse-bones have also been found. The soma is compared to a horse and a bull in the Rg-Veda.
    The water-woman Urvasi is compared to a domesticated horse in the dialogue-hymn X.95.8,9, though water-women can fly through the air like the longhaired in X.136.4 and do not need horses. Evidently, water-women are a later invention in the Veda borrowed from the Indus culture.

  4. chandra July 9, 2015 at 10:22 am #

    In my view,Aryan is not a race name,it is s culture based name, a set of people followed a culture and speak a language, that’s all. We need not look for horse skeletons,there are lot of other evidences about Aryans.say rigveda, it is the one and only evidence to know about ancient Aryans,Around 4500 B.C ,saraswati river exists, and Aryans lived around the Sides of saraswati and the rishis composed the vedic hymns, at later saraswati slowly tend to change her directions,and then over floods sometimes, finally dried up due to natural monsoon and climatic conditions At around 1900 B.C saraswati became disappeared. Mean course of period, Aryans migrated towards ganga, and slowly settled and new era arose.Due to this, there created a large gap & dissociation between Indus peoples and saraswati Aryans from 1900 B.C to 1200 B.C.later we heard of Aryan invasion theory a lot from historians,it is nothing but the migration of people from Indus to ganga,they combined and lead to a new era of life and end with the famous Mahabharata war at around 900 B.C.

  5. john Nevere May 1, 2016 at 5:35 am #

    Why do Indians not acknowledge that there was an Aryan invasion in such barbaric time.

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