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Central Asia and the Horse: an extract from The History of Central Asia: The Age of the Steppe Warriors

<strong>The emergence of horse riding

Central Asia and the Horse: an extract from The History of Central Asia: The Age of the Steppe Warriors
History of Central Asia; The Age of the Steppe Warriors, Christoph Baumer (I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, October 2012)

Besides the further development of metallurgy, the domestication of the horse and its use for riding was one of the most important innovations of Central Asia. Getting on horseback enabled the people to shift from largely stationary stockbreeding to an economy that was truly mobile. It also helped them take full advantage of the economic potential of the endless grass steppes of Central Asia. The combination of horse riding and the composite bow, invented before or around the middle of the second millennium BC, gave the steppe peoples unprecedented military might, against which the settled agrarian cultures could offer little resistance.

While innumerable wild horses grazed the steppes of Eurasia and North America during the Palaeolithic, in the Mesolithic they died out in North America and dwindled rapidly in Eurasia. Their last refuge was in the northern steppes between the Carpathians and western Mongolia, since in the dry and treeless steppes they were second to only the wild camel in their ability to survive. Thanks to their large, wide-set eyes, horses have a range of vision of about 300 degrees and are able to quickly spot almost any predator in an open landscape.

The further development and refinement of horse riding was a slow process. In the steppes bridle bits were originally made of organic material, such as wood or bone. In about 1200 BC, however, single-piece bronze bits started to be used. These enabled the rider to steer the horse accurately and stop it in its tracks. Thanks to this newly gained control, he could enter battle on horseback. Like the solid bronze bit, the split, two-part bit was presumably invented in Egypt around the mid-second millennium BC; it was first introduced in the steppes beyond the northern Caucasus in the ninth century BC and from there it spread rapidly as far as Mongolia. With it the rider could control his horse so well that he could simultaneously use the short recurve bow, whether riding forward into the wind or fleeing at a gallop, aiming the bow backwards at a pursuer and shooting with the wind. This tactic, called the Parthian shot, was mastered to perfection by the mounted archers of the Central Asian steppes.


[caption id='attachment_0' align='aligncenter' width='100%']Grave M 1100 in the necropolis of the Yan state with buried light chariots and harnessed horses. Liulihe, south-west of Beijing, dynasty of the Early Western Zhou, ca. eleventh century BC[/caption]

At about the same time or somewhat earlier than the two-part bit the soft saddle made of cloth and leather appeared in eastern Central Asia, which Assyrian horsemen likewise used beginning in the ninth century BC. The horsemanship of the early mounted archers of Assyria appears to have been limited, however, as each bowman had to be accompanied by another rider, who held the reins of both horses. In this way they were inferior to the attacking steppe peoples of the Cimmerians and the Scythians, who were able to control their horses with their bodies and voices. Another variant of ‘two-man archery’ was practised by Near Eastern warriors, who rode a camel in pairs, with the front man directing the animal and the rear man shooting.


[caption id='attachment_1' align='aligncenter' width='100%']Two horses pull a light chariot; petroglyphs from Baga Oigor III, western Mongolia, late Bronze Age[/caption]

The oldest preserved riding saddle came from the south-eastern part of the Tarim Basin in north-western China. Here in 1985 in the cemetery of Zaghunluq near Qiemo Chinese archaeologists discovered the grave of a Europid man, approximately 50 years old, wearing wool trousers and felt boots. A leather saddle, as well as the skull and a hoof of a horse, had been laid beside him in the grave. The deceased was undoubtedly a horseman, who died around 800 BC and was accompanied into the afterlife by three women and an infant.

Finally, the stirrup, combined with a solid saddle, was invented at the beginning of the fourth century AD in northern China, when Turko–Mongol steppe peoples began to conquer the area. The earliest representation of stirrups comes from a Chinese grave from 302 AD but this was in the form of a single short stirrup used as an aid for mounting. The first depiction of a complete stirrup pair comes from another grave, from 322 AD, and the oldest bronze stirrup was found in a grave of similar age containing the remains of a warrior of Xianbei, one of the nomadic federations of eastern Mongolia. Such pairs of stirrups attached to saddles not only enabled riding in a squatting or almost standing position, which improved the rider’s mobility, but also increased the impact of an attacking cavalry. They enabled armoured horsemen, sitting on likewise armoured horses, to attack with lances raised and support themselves with stretched legs against their saddles. It was the Xianbei tribe of the Toba that made a heavy, armoured cavalry the foundation of their army before the conquest of Northern China starting in 386 AD . The iron stirrup came to Europe only with the invading Avars in the second half of the sixth century. The stirrup was not a requirement for the development of heavy cavalry, however, as the Scythians had begun protecting themselves with iron scale armour and lamellar shields beginning in the sixth/fifth century BC. At the same time, according to Herodotus, the horsemen of the Massagetae also covered the chests of their horses with bronze armour. In combat the Saka and Massagetae first advanced with light cavalry or attacked repeatedly with lightning speed and released a hail of arrows at the enemy. This attacking force melted away as rapidly as it had struck, and moments later the heavy cavalry dealt the bewildered opponent the deathblow. The stirrup was also not a necessary condition for the introduction of long lances into cavalry, as can been seen in the armoured mounted warriors of the Sarmatians. The rider elite of the Sarmatians, who besieged the Scythians of the northern Pontic region as of the late fourth century BC, fought mainly with a lance of up to 5 m in length that they held in both hands.

In most steppe nomadic cultures both girls and boys began to learn to ride at the age of three, growing into outstanding riders who constantly practised and refined their art in their everyday work of herding and hunting. ‘Nature cannot bind the centaur more closely to his rear than the Hun sitting upon his horse’, noted the Roman historian Claudianus (ca. 370–after 405 AD). In extreme cases every nomad, male and female, was a warrior from ages 15 to 30. The Chinese historian Sima Qian (ca. 145–ca. 87 BC) explained: ‘The little boys start out by learning to ride sheep and shoot birds and rats with a bow and arrow, and when they get a little older they shoot foxes and hares, which are used for food. Thus all the young men are able to use a bow and act as armed cavalry in time of war.’ In the stockbreeding cultures of the Central Asian steppes women learned most of the skills that men did and sharing labour was necessary for survival, so that among the nomads social inequality between the sexes was much less pronounced than in agrarian or urban societies. To the nomad the idea of isolating his wife or wives in a house, as in urban civilisations, would be incomprehensible.

The riding and fighting abilities of the nomadic herders were necessary for survival as enemies often threatened to steal their herds. Besides, any increase in the size of the herd created a need for more grazing land and secure access to water, which extended the territory of a clan and increased the potential for conflict with other clans. For the nomads, everyday life was ideal training for warfare; because the handling of large, strong animals is more strenuous and dangerous than looking after plants, nomadic life prepared one much better for combat than did the settled life of the farmer. These skills were further developed by organised hunts. Leading large herds over sometimes unfamiliar territory also sharpened abilities in planning, coordination, and navigation. Now the horse changed from a hunted source of meat and milk to the vehicle of the steppe peoples. Nonetheless, during migrations and war horses were still used as food, whether a rider resorted to the emergency supply of dried horse meat that he carried in a saddlebag or opened the neck vein of a living animal and drank its blood. The weapon system of the efficient cavalry emerged in the second half of the first millennium BC when horsemen no longer performed as heroic individual warriors but rather placed themselves under the command of a leader. He divided his riders into several disciplined bands, whose deployment he planned, coordinated and oversaw. Scythian, Sarmatian and later Hunnic bands of horsemen were able to maintain their cohesion during a battle and carry out tight shifts in direction on command. Combat was no free-for-all but rather a planned, corporate matter. During a campaign each mounted warrior had two or three horses, which he could ride in turn, so that such bands could move with extraordinary mobility and speed. This made them experts at surprise manoeuvres. The horsemen of the steppe were also masters of the feigned retreat from close combat. They would lead their pursuers on for days, so that they could stop and defeat the by-now disorganised enemy in a location of their choosing. The mounted warriors used the wide landscape as a tactical and strategic instrument; the armies of settled peoples usually found themselves completely at their mercy. It was this combination of skills with new technologies, honed in everyday life, and strategic leadership structures that made the bands of nomadic horsemen practically invincible for more than two millennia, except in the Mediterranean region.

The horsemen met their match in the disciplined and flexible Macedonian phalanx of armoured hoplites fighting with lances up to 6 m long, and against the Roman refinement of a phalanx divided into cohorts and thus even more flexible. As long as the phalanx maintained its fighting line and formation the horsemen made no headway and suffered severe losses. If the horsemen attacked with bows, the phalanx formed a dispersed and shallow line in an attempt to surround the horsemen or the Roman phalanx would alternatively take the tortoise formation. In this very tight formation the front and both side rows of soldiers held their long shields vertically up to their eyes in order to fully cover the front and sides and the soldiers further back would place their shields horizontally on the helmets of the front men. If the horsemen tried to advance on the infantry with drawn swords and battle axes in a shock attack, the soldiers immediately formed themselves into a dense phalanx with lances held forward that no riders could break through, or waited in the tortoise formation till the attack passed and then attacked themselves. Alexander the Great’s cavalry victories against Greek and Persian infantry formations stand as exceptions to this rule, attributed to his tactical genius and bravado. Alexander’s extraordinary military skill also showed itself in the victories of the cavalry under his command over Bactrian, Sogdian and Saka cavalry units – victories in which the Greek spears played an important role. Finally, as already mentioned, the humid climate with heavy rains that damaged or destroyed composite bows, and the dependence on grazing land for the horses, as well as on flat or rolling landscapes for the deployment of the mounted bands, remained their inherent weaknesses.


The invention of wheel and wagon

Two additional inventions not only encouraged the development of nomadic stockbreeding but also literally gave drive to human history. These are the wheel and the wagon, which required the interplay of three fundamental technological principles. These technologies developed independently of one another for uses other than the wagon. The first uses the principle of rotation of an axle and wheel, the basis of which was the potter’s wheel. The second consisted of a flat bed resting on axles. A sled outfitted with skids of the type used in both Mesopotamia and the far north, could have been the forerunner of this invention. The third piece of knowledge was the use of animals for pulling.


[caption id='attachment_3' align='aligncenter' width='100%']Two Mongol nomad families on the way to their winter camp on the northern shore of lake Terkhin Tsagaan Nuur, Arkhangai Aimag, central Mongolia[/caption]

It is not known where or by whom the wagon was invented, as the use of wheeled transport appears to have begun simultaneously around 3500 BC in connected regions within a vast territory stretching from Central Europe as far as Mesopotamia. This revolutionary technology must have spread very rapidly. Among the oldest certain discoveries are the clay cups in the form of a four-wheeled wagon from about 3500 BC from the Baden culture; a depiction of a wagon on a funnel beaker from about 3500 BC from Bronocice, southern Poland; wooden disc wheels from the Alps from the mid- to late fourth millennium BC; and discoveries in peat bogs in Northern Europe from the end of the fourth millennium BC. Further to the east, terra cotta vessels from the Tripolye Culture in the form of animals standing on two axles with four wheels, which date to the first half of the fourth millennium, testify if not directly to the use of wagons for transportation then certainly to the knowledge that objects could be pulled with axles and wheels.

The importance of the wagon was shown by the discovery of a wagon grave of the Maikop Culture in the region of Kuban north-east of the Black Sea, presumably the oldest of its kind. In wagon graves a usually disassembled wagon was placed in the grave with the corpse, which had been brought to the burial on it. Presumably the wagon was an important status symbol and enabled the deceased to make the journey into the afterlife in a manner befitting his rank. The two solid wooden wheels from the kurgan of Starokorsunskaya in the Kuban region have been dated to the second half of the fourth millennium. Soon thereafter the number of wagon burials in the Kuban region multiplied; of the nearly 200 wagon burials, with a total of 270 wagons, of the subsequent Novotitarovskaya Culture and the related Yamnaya Culture known today about half come from the Kuban region.


[caption id='attachment_2' align='aligncenter' width='100%']Achaemenid gold model of a light chariot with a driver and seated passenger, Oxus Treasure, fifth–fourth century BC. The British Museum, London[/caption]

About two millennia after the first wagon grave of Starokorsunskaya, the Chinese royal dynasties of the Shang (ca. sixteenth–eleventh century BC) and the Western Zhou (ca. eleventh century BC) adopted this custom from the steppe peoples, as can be seen in the 41 wagon graves of the Shang. Thirty-seven of these graves appeared in the thirteenth to the eleventh centuries BC in the then imperial capital Anyang (today’s Henan Province); in them single-axle chariots with spoked wheels, along with harnessed horses and charioteers, accompanied chiefs into the afterlife. Three of the innovations of central China discovered in Anyang – wheeled transport, horse husbandry, and metallurgy – appeared all of a sudden in a highly developed form, which suggests that these skills were borrowed from the steppe cultures of Central Asia. As in China, wagon graves also appeared in the Alpine regions of Central Europe in the thirteenth and twelfth centuries BC and, after an interruption, again in the eighth century and in the Hallstatt period.

Regarding the much-cited evidence from the late fourth millennium BC for the invention of the wheel in Mesopotamia, these are either simply depictions of sleds on stone insignias and cylindrical seals or clay tablet pictograms of a sled that rests on wooden rollers or wheels. The earliest discoveries of actual wheels in Mesopotamia come from the first half of the third millennium BC – more than half a millennium later than the first finds from the Kuban region. It appears that the technology of the wagon emerged in the north-western and eastern Pontic territory of the Tripolye and Maikop cultures and from there spread rapidly to central and southern Europe and Mesopotamia. The close trade relations between Maikop and Mesopotamia certainly contributed to the rapid transfer of technology to the south.

In about 3200 BC northern Central Asia began to experience drought and a climatic cooling. The wagon helped the stockbreeders, who until then were not fully mobile, to adapt successfully to the new ecological conditions. As drier grazing lands are more quickly threatened by overuse, the herders had to move their animals more frequently. Thanks to wagons pulled usually by oxen but sometimes, beginning in the late third millennium BC, by harnessed camels, herders could take with them their modest possessions, supplies and simple tents. At the start of the first millennium BC at the latest the Scythians and their eastern forerunners perfected this kind of ‘mobile home nomadism’. With their two- or three-axle wagons, pulled by oxen, they were able to carry with them their domed, yurt-like dwellings, made of felt and attached securely to the wagons, as well as their possessions and supplies, and to make wide-ranging use of the grass steppes. On other wagons, the upper part of the wagon, covered with a barrel-shaped piece of felt tarpaulin, could be removed and reconstructed quickly on the ground. The wagon and the riding horse allowed herders not only to manage large herds and retrieve straying animals but also to seek lush grazing lands and water sources over large distances. The wagon had an additional advantage, in that it did not have to be unloaded every night like a pack animal and goods stayed dry during rain without the need to set up special protection. As the increasing relative cooling, which was more pronounced in the east than in the west, forced the herders to seek warmer latitudes at least in the winter, there emerged a pattern of cyclical north–south migration. One result of this was that nomadic herders began to encroach on the territory of settled farmers.

Soon after the introduction of the wooden solid wheel and the three-part disc wheel, people sought to reduce its weight by hollowing out the discs and reducing the axles from two to just one. The breakthrough came with the introduction of the spoked wheel. This was not, as often assumed, invented in Mesopotamia, but rather in the Central Asia steppes east of the Urals. In wagon graves of the cultures of Sintashta, between the Rivers Ural and Tobol, and Petrovka, farther east in northern Kazakhstan, archaeologists discovered clear traces of spoked wheels as old as 4,100 years with eight to twelve spokes. They are about 200 years older than Anatolia’s earliest seal impressions showing light chariots, and 300 years older than the earliest evidence from Mesopotamia. These funeral wagons of the Sintashta–Petrovka Culture are precursors of the light chariot, which is defined by two spoked wheels; a lightweight wagon body, open to the rear, which could carry at least a spear-throwing combatant; and a yoked harness for a team of horses controlled by bits. Both the light chariot on spoked wheels and the control by means of combined reins and bit, were inventions of the Eurasian steppe. Only with the invention of the light chariot with spoked wheels did the horse take on military significance.

The chariot spread quickly from the steppe and reached a peak of its development in the Near East. From the eighteenth/seventeenth century BC in Egypt, the Hittite Kingdom and, to a lesser degree, in Assyria the chariot was one of the most prestigious and important implements of war. If the body of the chariot was small it carried only a single warrior, who either held the reins with one hand and threw spears with the other or wrapped the reins around his body and fought with a bow. Larger chariots normally carried two men; a driver and an archer. Because the wheels were attached to the axle independently of one another, they could move at different speeds when going around curves, enabling sharp turns. Chariots had the advantage over infantry of speed and surprise, as they could easily attack on the flanks or from the rear and could retreat just as quickly. They were suitable for carrying into battle a large quantity of ‘one-way weapons’ such as spears and arrows. On the other hand, chariots were highly vulnerable to salvos of enemy arrows and dependent on flat, dry land. Thus it should not be assumed that chariot battles took place on the grass steppes of Central Asia as they did in the Near East. In the grass steppes the chariot remained a means of transportation, also appropriate for raids and skirmishes, as well as an exclusive status symbol. When, in the ninth century BC, bands of mounted archers emerged in the Near East, they quickly superseded the chariot formations, since they were less vulnerable and more capable on rough terrain, as well as much more flexible.

The horse-drawn chariot was at the same time a fast means of transport, a dangerous weapon and an outstanding status symbol. It also had cultic functions, which is why it found a prominent place in art, even in impassable mountains at a height of 3,500 m above sea level, as in petroglyphs in the Pamirs or at Saimaly Tash in Kyrgyzstan. Interestingly, in the Near East chariots were usually portrayed in profile, while in the petroglyphs of Central Asia they are mostly shown in top view. This perspective resembled the view from above into an open grave, in which a chariot had been laid along with the sacrificed charioteer and horses in harness. In the petroglyphs of Central Asia all other depictions of people and animals are shown in profile, so such images of chariots can hardly be a coincidence. The chariot had symbolic significance as a grave good, presumably as a vehicle into the afterlife befitting the status of the deceased. In this way it was transformed into a cultic vehicle, which, depending on cultural emphases, took on different shadings of a common motif. In the steppes of Central Asia and in China it became a select vehicle for the dead; in northern Europe, the sun chariot, as in the sun chariot of Trundholm, Denmark; and in the Hellenistic territories of south-eastern Europe, as well as in the later Greco-Buddhist cosmology of Central Asia, it was the vehicle of the sun god. In countless petroglyphs of Central Asia the spoked wheel also symbolised the sun, which was also the focus of a cult in Iron Age steppe cultures, such as the Massagetae, who sacrificed horses to the sun.


[caption id='attachment_4' align='aligncenter' width='100%']A man with a sun-like head drives a light chariot. Indian ink drawing of a petroglyph from Eshki Olmes, eastern Kazakhstan, Bronze Age.[/caption]

Finally, in the hymns of the Indian Rig Veda, composed in the late Bronze Age by speakers of an early Indo–European language, there resonates a bygone age of heroic charioteers and rich wagon burials, whose original homeland may have been in the cultural sphere of Sintashta–Petrovka.

In the Rig Veda not only do the most noble warriors fight in chariots, but the gods also ride them through the heavens; the sun god Surya, for instance, drives a wagon pulled by seven horses. In the Rig Veda the light chariot also serves as the metaphor par excellence for the nobility, as a hymn to the fire god Agni reveals: ‘Him [Agni] have the Gods established at the region’s base, doer of wondrous deeds, Herald of heaven and earth; Like a most famous chariot, Agni the purely bright, like Mithra to be glorified among the folk.’

Christoph Baumer, a leading explorer and historian of Central Asia, Tibet and China, has written several well-received books in the fields of history, religion, archaeology and travel. These include The Church of the East: An Illustrated History of Assyrian Christianity (2006), Traces in the Desert: Journeys of Discovery across Central Asia (2008) and China’s Holy Mountain: An Illustrated Journey into the Heart of Buddhism (2011).