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Camels and ashva, Hebrew Bible and Rig Veda

(by Martin Allen)

(by Martin Allen)

Archaeologists from Tel Aviv university, who were investigating the date when camels first appeared in Israel discovered something interesting. Here is the gist:

Now Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef and Dr. Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University’sDepartment of Archaeology and Near Eastern Cultures have used radiocarbon dating to pinpoint the moment when domesticated camels arrived in the southern Levant, pushing the estimate from the 12th to the 9th century BCE. The findings, published recently in the journal Tel Aviv, further emphasize the disagreements between Biblical texts and verifiable history, and define a turning point in Israel’s engagement with the rest of the world.[Finding Israel’s First Camels]

This is interesting because the Genesis mentions the camels but those events in the Genesis, according to this new evidence happened before the camels arrived on the scene. For example, among the living beings that Abraham acquired, there were  sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels. There are further mentions of a servant going from Northwest Mesopotamia to the town of Nahor on camels, providing water and food to the camels and an explanation of why one should not eat a camel.

If camels were not present in Israel while these events supposedly happened, then how did it appear in the text? There are two possible explanations: (1) The events happened not in an earlier period, but later after the camels appeared or (2) The events happened in the earlier period, but was written down in a much later period by scribes when camels were also present and camels were back projected to earlier events.

The New York Times had an exchange with an expert who suggested this answer

“One should be careful not to rush to the conclusion that the new archaeological findings automatically deny any historical value from the biblical stories,” Dr. Mizrahi said in an email. “Rather, they established that these traditions were indeed reformulated in relatively late periods after camels had been integrated into the Near Eastern economic system. But this does not mean that these very traditions cannot capture other details that have an older historical background.”

Moreover, for anyone who grew up with Sunday school images of the Three Wise Men from the East arriving astride camels at the manger in Bethlehem, whatever uncertainties there may be of that story, at least one thing is clear: By then the camel in the service of human life was no longer an anachronism.

There was no dissenting voice here; there was no scholar arguing against the historicity of the events. Compare that with the response in The Guardian. This also has to be contrasted with the relation between another animal and another text. The Rig Veda uses the word ashva over two hundred times, and according to some, horses arrived with the invading Aryans following the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilization. Thus the Vedic culture could have occurred only after the arrival of the Indo-European speakers to North-West India. According to Wendy Doniger in The Hindus, “No Indus horse whinnied in the night. Knowing how important horses are in the Vedas, we may deduce that there was little or no Vedic input into the civilization of the Indus Valley or, correspondingly, that there was little input from the IVC into the civilization of the Rig Veda.”

Most of this argument has been analyzed by Michel Danino and found to be suspect. Various scholars — linguists, archaeologists and historians — are proposing a higher chronology now. That debate is one with no end in sight. But will any scholar stick out his head and say that based on the evidence from Saraswati, the Vedas were composed much earlier than we thought when ashva was not around, but it may have been altered later and the ashva was added. If you do that the Wendytva proponents will be up in arms.


12 Responses to Camels and ashva, Hebrew Bible and Rig Veda

  1. A. J. West (@AlWest13) February 18, 2014 at 1:20 am #

    Altered later to add in one of the most important elements of Vedic culture? Hmm. Bear in mind too that the importance of the horse, and even of horse sacrifice, is a key motif across the Indo-European-speaking world. It defies all the available evidence to claim that this is a late development of the Indo-European world.

    It is simply absurd to believe that Indic was spoken at Mehrgarh.

    • jk February 18, 2014 at 6:47 am #


      1. If the horses were such an important part of Indo-European speaking world and it was they who bought horses to India, then you would expect to see a rise in horse bones after that period. As Michel Danino writes, “The invasionist school posits that the horse was introduced into India by
      the “Aryans” around 1500 BC. One would therefore expect a marked increase in
      remains and depictions of the animal after that fateful event (or non-event). Yet
      — and this is one of the best kept secrets of Indian prehistory — nothing of the
      sort happens.” Here is the link http://www.omilosmeleton.gr/pdf/en/indology/The_horse_and_the_Aryan_Debate.pdf

      2. As Kedar mentioned here, the Vedic tradition has been transmitted without error for thousands of years and the people who wrote it remember Saraswati flowing as a mighty river. Now it has been shown that Saraswati ceased to be a perennial river by 1900 BCE.

      We have to reconcile all the data with these points as well.

  2. kedar February 18, 2014 at 1:27 am #

    Given the robust rigour with which Vedic texts have been transmitted without errors in thousands of years, I would not straight-away conclude that the available evidence is tantamount to a later addition of ashva to RV. This theory perhaps needs a strong evidence favouring it than a weak evidence to the contrary.

    On the other hand, isnt it plausible that the ancestors of composers of RV who came into the subcontinent from the Eurasian steppes remember horses that they saw elsewhere?

    • Narinder February 18, 2014 at 3:16 am #

      You have missed the point.

      just like bible authors can assume camels were present in time of Abraham,
      vedic people can assume horses were present when their ancestors were living in sapta-sindhu.
      this is the point of the post.

  3. T.R.Ramaswami February 18, 2014 at 1:28 am #

    All unwritten and unverifiable history is conjecture that is even now written and re-written according to the social, political and religious agendas of the ruling mafias

  4. Sam Malone February 18, 2014 at 7:36 am #


    The Hebrew Bible was written while the Hebrews were in Babylonian captivity. Be careful while making sweeping generalizations.

  5. A. J. West (@AlWest13) February 18, 2014 at 8:03 am #

    The Vedic Saraswati has, as far as I’m aware, not been conclusively and unambiguously identified, and it seems far more plausible to me that the hydronymy of India is a post-hoc rationalisation based on the Vedas than evidence that Indic speakers were in India in the early Neolithic. Take a look at the modern district of Kurukshetra, Haryana, for an analogy.

    The Anatolian hypothesis is almost certainly wrong. It doesn’t take into account a) the genetic evidence pointing, now very obviously, to an origin on the Pontic-Caspian steppe; b) the linguistic evidence (easily the most important aspect, given that we’re talking about language: words for wool, wheeled vehicles, metal, herds, cattle, and many other things only known after the fourth millennium BCE can be reconstructed to PIE); and c) the archaeological evidence that correlates with the linguistic and genetic evidence, which, suffice it to say, early Neolithic Anatolia does not.

    And given that the Anatolian hypothesis doesn’t make sense and is far from a widely-accepted view of proto-Indo-European, it isn’t really possible for IE to have been in India before the Chalcolithic. Any argument you make has to take this into account. If your argument boils down to a lack of depictions of horses or the proposed names of ancient rivers, then you have to realise how flimsy this is compared to the powerful synthesis of archaeology, genetics, and linguistics supporting the Pontic-Caspian theory.

    Moreover, it is easily possible for an animal of considerable ritual, military, and poetic importance to be in short supply, especially in a place like India, where horses are not native. We shouldn’t necessarily expect an increase in horse bones.

    • jk February 20, 2014 at 10:16 pm #

      To me it seems that the Vedas, mentions all the rivers around Saraswati, which exists even now was precise about its location of composition. It is not just the Vedas which mention it. Mahabharata mentions the drying of the river as well.

      If Anatolian hypothesis is wrong, then the debate would have been over and accepted. Instead what I see if multiple theories existing even now. Since I am not a linguist, I see this as evidence as the existence of multiple schools of thoughts which still exist. For me this makes linguistics flimsy than a text which has been transmitted without error for thousands of years. I am exaggerating for effect, but you just cannot dismiss the Vedic texts and the Saraswati evidence like that.

  6. TAMILKELVAN February 19, 2014 at 6:16 am #

    It is puzzling that the protagonists of Indo Aryan theory misses one important point. Indian history is made by backward integration:i.e.,the analysis of Rig Veda starts from Max Muler who followed Sayana’s commentary i 1300AD to 1375AD. Then the historians go to Alberuni then King Harsha-Guptas. Then compilation of Mahabharata in 400AD to 600AD by which time Vedas should have been compiled since almost all the references available in Rig

    veda is available only in Mahaharata then Asokan edicts, Megasthenes Alexander JAINISM/BUDDHISM/MAHAJANAPADAS SATAPADA BRAHMANA RIG VEDA AND AIT. It is amazing that why historians omitted one important factor barring Bengal there were no kings in North India till Indo Bactrians and Sakas established kingdoms and hence there is no question of performance of vedic sacrifices and Jainism alone was prevalent with Udayana a popular theme.On the other hand the performance of sacrifices commenced with Satavahanas and popular throughout Deccan and Tamil kingdoms. Thus Vedas had no relevance in North India till Pushyamithra Sunga performed horse sacrifices which he would have adopted from Deccan or he may belong to Deccan where sporting of Gothras is a common practice . Thus fixing date of Rig Veda with compilation of Mahabharata around 300AD to 600AD would be the correct one and we can once for all solve
    Aryan Invasion theory since by this time there has been numerous invasions and nobody can object. It wil also once for all solve riddle of horses camels and all animals since by this time every animal has been domesticated. Thus the correct date Of Rig Veda can never go beyond 300AD.

  7. Maddy February 23, 2014 at 5:20 am #

    hi jk..
    perhaps a study of kemal salibi’s works will give you another picture…
    you can get the list here

    • jk February 23, 2014 at 8:29 am #

      Maddy, I think this idea was fictionalized in ‘Alexandria Link’ by Steve Berry.

  8. Neeta Raina March 11, 2014 at 3:56 am #

    A 3. 5 million year old camel fossil has been found in High Arctic. Science knows nothing yet. So we have to keep our minds open.For more check out this link and many more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2288501/Giant-camel-Remains-discovered-high-arctic.html

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