Chariot Racers of the Steppes

By Shanti Menon
Apr 1, 1995 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:47 AM


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The invention of the chariot reinvented the art of warfare. This high-speed, highly maneuverable vehicle gave a warrior a protected platform from which he could shoot an arrow or launch a spear and make a quick getaway. Archeologists have long assumed that the first charioteers were the urban sophisticates of ancient Mesopotamia, the innovators who gave us writing and metallurgy--and, more to the point, the wheel. But David Anthony, an archeologist from Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, subscribes to a different theory. He thinks the earliest charioteers were not the people who invented the wheel but the people who first rode on horseback--the nomads of the Eurasian steppes.

Anthony examined a burial site just east of the Ural Mountains, southeast of the town of Magnitogorsk, where for the past 15 years Russian archeologist Genady Zdanovich and his colleagues have been excavating the remains of an ancient grassland culture they call Sintashta-Petrovka. As part of an elaborate mortuary ritual, the Sintashta people buried their dead with weapons, ornaments, horses, and other livestock--and sometimes whole chariots whose wheels were fitted into holes in the grave floor. Though the chariots themselves have decayed, the Russian archeologists have found the imprint of spoked wheels stained in the ground (as well as the remains of drivers). Spokes are the chariot’s defining characteristic; they’re what distinguish it from earlier, heavier wagons.

Based on the style of the artifacts, the Russian researchers dated the Sintashta chariots to 1600 B.C.--200 years after the first evidence of chariots in the Middle East. But recently they permitted Anthony to take samples from horse skulls found in one grave back to the United States, where he could determine their age by the more accurate radiocarbon method. He concluded that the skulls and thus the chariots date from around 2000 B.C.--200 years before the appearance of Middle Eastern chariots. My dating suggests that chariotry may have been invented in the steppes of Eurasia by people who were, comparatively speaking, barbarians, says Anthony.

The Sintashta chariots weren’t just Middle Eastern imports. Like the more plodding wagons that have been found to the west, near the Black Sea, the Sintashta chariots were wide enough for just one person, whereas Middle Eastern chariots could hold two or three. Moreover, the Sintashta wheels had between 8 and 12 spokes, whereas Middle Eastern chariot wheels had only 4. It doesn’t look like something that’s being copied from the Middle East, Anthony says. It looks indigenous.

Why would the expert horsemen of the steppes, who had been riding since 4000 B.C., need to invent a chariot? A horse is faster and even more maneuverable than a chariot. In most cultures, the importance of the chariot declined with the advent of cavalry. The Middle Easterners, for instance, had little tradition of horseback riding when they started building chariots. Ancient mosaics show Sumerians riding into battle with heavy wagons drawn by asses--the faster, lighter chariot would seem to be a natural progression. But what use could it have been to the Sintashta horsemen?

The answer may lie, says Anthony, in a 3,000-year-old religious text called the Rig Veda, a book of hymns compiled by the Aryans--the horsemen who invaded the Indian subcontinent from the north. The hymns give detailed accounts of Aryan rituals. In mortuary rituals, warriors were buried with their chariots and horses. A plank roof was laid across the burial chamber, and horses and a goat were sacrificed on the roof and again around an earthen mound built on top. A thousand years before the Rig Veda, the Sintashta people were burying their dead in the same way--down to the last eerie detail.

In one recurring myth in the Rig Veda, for instance, the divine Ashvin twins seek a magical drink made by another god. A human fire priest knows the secret of the drink but has been sworn not to tell. The Ashvin twins cut off his head and replace it with the head of a horse. The priest then speaks through the horse’s head and is able to divulge the secret of the drink. At one of the Sintashta sites, says Anthony, a grave was found with a human sacrifice on top. Now, this is unusual in itself, he says. But this guy had his head cut off and replaced with the head of a horse.

In the Rig Veda, chariots are the vehicles of gods and heroes, and chariot races are described in loving detail. Anthony thinks the Sintashta people were the ancestors of the Aryans and that their chariots were developed for ritual racing rather than warfare. A lot hung on chariot racing, he explains. You could win enormous prizes, disputes were decided, you had trials by chariot race. Winners and losers were real winners and real losers. I think chariots were used for racing from the beginning, and I think Sintashta represents the origins of a tradition later reflected in the Rig Veda.

That would support Anthony’s views on a much broader question-- that of the origin and spread of Indo-European languages. According to a theory that has become popular in the past two decades, the proto-Indo- Europeans were farmers who began to spread out of Anatolia around 6000 B.C., taking their language and their agriculture with them. But Anthony holds to an older theory, which says the original Indo-Europeans were horsemen from north of the Black Sea--the people whose wagons appear to be ancestral to the Sintashta chariots. The Sintashta people, he thinks, were the original speakers of Indo-Iranian, which later gave rise to ancient Iranian and to the Indic of the Rig Veda. Theirs was an early step in the spread of Indo-European language and culture.

And the key to that spread, according to Anthony, was wagons and chariots. In all Indo-European languages, he points out, from Celtic to Sanskrit, the words for axle, wagon, and wheel derive from common roots in the proto-Indo-European that has been reconstructed by linguists. Clearly, Anthony says, speakers of proto-Indo-European must have been familiar with wheeled vehicles, which weren’t invented until after 3500 B.C. The out-of- Anatolia theory is too early, he says. It would require Indo-European languages to be widely dispersed across Eurasia 2,000 years before the invention of wheeled vehicles. Far more logical, Anthony thinks, is to see things this way: when the proto-Indo-Europeans and their descendants entered Europe and South Asia, carrying their language and their customs with them, they traveled on wheels.

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