"The Horse in History"
Broadcast Saturday 13/11/99
Today, the horse is one of our most familiar and dearly loved animals; but it was not always so. Horses almost became extinct. Dr Jonica Newby explains how riding changed the way we made war and also saved the horse from extinction.
Jonica Newby: If Professor Jared Diamond had a time machine and could choose just one point in history to visit, it would be this. The place: the town of Cajamarca in South America. The date: 1532. The Incan Emperor, Atahuallpa, rules over the largest and most powerful nation in the New World. He¹s just won a civil war and is sitting amongst his victorious army of 80,000, when up the coast traipses the illiterate son of a Spanish swineherd, Pizarro - leading a mere 168 men.
Jared Diamond: The Spaniards were so scared that in their diaries they said, "We were urinating in our pants out of sheer terror". Their plan is based on what Cortez had just done in Mexico, having captured the Aztec Emperor of Montezuma. Pizarro thought, "The only hope for us is, we're going to capture the emperor. " The next day, Pizarro sent his brother to interview the emperor, Atahuallpa and then invited the emperor to come visit him in the town of Cajamarca. He set a trap. There were walls around Cajamarca, behind which Pizarro hid his horses, which the Incas had never seen.
In came Atahuallpa with his six thousand followers, unarmed, because he never dreamed that this bedraggled jerk was going to do anything. The friar, Valverde, came out holding up a cross, presented the bible to Atahuallpa and said, "This is the sacred word of God. Prostrate yourself before the royal Christian God, who is superior to all of you". But Atahuallpa didn¹t know how to open a book. When the friar gave him the bible and Atahuallpa couldn¹t figure out how to open it, the friar showed him how. Nobody showed Atahuallpa anything! Atahuallpa¹s faced turned red and he threw down the book, at which point, the friar raised his cross and said, "Spaniards, see what this arrogant swine has done. He has thrown down the holy word of God. I absolve you."
And out come the horses. The Incas have never seen a pack animal. They¹ve never seen an animal as big as a horse before. They¹ve got llamas but llamas are puny, compared to the horse. The Spaniards, with their swords and spears ride into the square with their horses and they slaughter with their swords until the six thousand Indians in the square are dead. Pizarro has captured Atahuallpa. The remaining Indians are fleeing. They¹re terrorised. The Spaniards ride out of the town, running around with their spears, spearing Indians until it¹s sunset. And the number of Indians they killed was limited only by the number that they had time to kill by sunset. It was a dramatic example of the overwhelming psychological terror that horses inspire in people who¹ve never seen them. And it also illustrates how an infantryman in the open is just defenseless against horses. That was the case until even the First World War."
Reading: For want of a nail the shoe was lost For want of a shoe the horse was lost for want of a horse the rider was lost for want of a rider the battle was lost for want of a battle the kingdom was lost And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Jonica Newby: This is a brief history of the horse, the animal that more than any other, has decided the fate of nations. Yet as recently as 6,000 years ago, the horse could have gone the way of the dodo. If it weren¹t for an extraordinary discovery, made way beyond the fringes of civilisation, out on the remote Eurasian Steppes. That discovery was that instead of eating horses, you could ride them. Anthropologist Dr David Anthony is the Director of the Institute for Ancient Equestrian Studies at Hartwick College. His team have pinned down the date of our leap onto horseback by proving that marks found on ancient horse teeth from Kazakhstan could have been caused by wear from a rope bit in the mouth. And as he explains, soon we all had the bit between our teeth.
David Anthony: The beginnings of riding had enormous impact. The beginnings of eating horses and herding them as food animals probably had relatively little impact, being treated much like cattle, but the beginning of riding which is what we are documenting with bitwear had enormous impact. I think that basic change in transportation technology is the most fundamental change you can introduce to any human society and I use the example of the private automobile. Without the private automobile we would not have suburbs, we would not have shopping malls, our whole pattern of family structure, where we go for our jobs, is tied to the automobile. I think when riding began, it changed everything in the way that people live in the grasslands of Eurasia. It was one of the fundamental pieces of the puzzle that made it possible for people to live effectively in the grasslands of Eurasia. It was only after people figured out how the live out there that Europe could become aware of China and Iran and the entire continent of Eurasia could begin to act as an interacting single world. The domestication of the horse and the beginnings of horseback riding played a critical role in creating that single cultural world of interacting Eurasian societies.
Jonica Newby: Communication and transport weren¹t the only areas revolutionised by the horse. Horses transformed the way we made war. Though not, initially at least, in quite the noble way one might imagine.
David Anthony: I think in the beginning, the first thing it did was change the nature of the retreat. The most dangerous part of primitive warfare is getting away. Anybody should be able to surprise their enemy if they have any abilities at all to attack them and achieve a temporary victory. But then you have to get away and at that point they know you are there, they¹re angry and they¹re going to come after you. If you have a very rapid means of escape, then you can strike them and get away before they can retaliate.
Jared Diamond: We know that on the Steppes of the Ukraine around that time, 3 or 4,000 BC, there were big villages, almost proto-cities in what is today, Romania and Hungary. These were towns with multi-storey houses, hundreds of houses, denser and denser towns. Why on earth would people in Romania, who had been living in villages, be gathering together in these enormous towns? It suggests that they¹re doing it for defence. That was probably the beginning of the horse in warfare. People of the Ukraine would¹ve been able ride into these farming villages of Romania, quickly kill off people, capture women, do whatever they wanted, burn the houses, plunder and then retreat on their horses. And the poor people on foot, they can¹t catch up. So that was probably the beginning of horses in warfare. ( The horse, if it was domesticated in the Ukraine, people of the Ukraine would¹ve been able to use the horses, ride into these farming villages of Romania, quickly kill off people, capture women, do whatever they wanted, burn the houses, plunder and then retreat on their horses and the poor people on foot, they can¹t catch up with the horses. So that was probably the beginning of horses in warfare and may account for the origin of Indo-European languages. Why is it that modern Australian speak English? Why don¹t they speak Basque, because Basque was the language of least western, western Europe. It¹s the only surviving pre-Indo-European languages of western Europe. Well, it's been suggested that Indo-European languages, the original Indo-European language was spoken of the people who domesticated the horse, use the military advantage of a horse to go smooch the people of the rest of Europe, conquer all of Europe, with a result that Basque and other languages, disappeared from Europe except in the Pyrenes, the English language today, is derived from those inter-European languages that may¹ve been spoken in the Ukraine, the result, modern Australians are speaking this language that was spoken in the Ukraine, six thousand years ago.
Jonica Newby: It was actually this question about why so many people today speak English rather than the little known tongue of Basque that first got David Anthony interested in horses. He¹s no horse lover, in fact the first time he even touched a horse was during the bit wear experiments, and even then he waited till the horse was safely anaesthetised. But he's one of the leading proponents of the theory that horses are the key to the origin of our language.
David Anthony: I think that there is a direct link. English is in a large language family; the Indo -European languages, which spread today from India and Pakistan to Scotland. It has been known for 200 years that the Indo-European languages are descended from a single common mother tongue, and the question is: what was that mother tongue? Who spoke it? Where did they speak it and by what historical circumstances did its daughters become spread from Scotland to India and North Western China? For about 100 years scholars have thought that the horse may have played a role in the early spread of speakers of Indo European languages. If the first Indo European speakers were also the first people to have domesticated the horse, they may have had an advantage they could use to over-awe their neighbours and encourage them to adopt their language. I don¹t want to give the impression of Indo-European warriors lining up on the horizon like Yul Brynner and coming thundering over in chariots, it didn¹t happen that way. The spread of Indo-European languages didn¹t all happen at once. It was helped greatly by the spread of Latin during the Roman Empire for instance, and its been helped again today by the spread of English in the modern business world. But it is possible that the first people to speak Indo-European languages, were the first people to domesticate horses. I believe that¹s true and I¹m writing a book now trying to establish my case.
Jonica Newby: Not everyone agrees with David Anthony, and the origin of PIE remains a topic of hot scholarly debate. But everyone agrees that pretty soon after it was ridden, the horse became the centre of an arms race. Our expert Ukrainian retreaters were about to be superceded.
David Anthony: Later on, horses were attached to chariots - which was a major technological innovation. The earliest wheeled vehicles were clumsy, heavy, solid wheeled wooden wagons without revolving axles. So if you wanted to turn them, think of turning a heavy wooden wagon with a fixed axle. It took a while. They were probably pulled by oxen or cattle, rather than by horses. The wheel was chopped down and lightened to create a vehicle that only had two wheels and those two wheels had spokes, so that most of the wheel consisted of air. The whole purpose is to produce a light fast manoeuverable vehicle that can be pulled by horses. That was the chariot, and that really changed the nature of warfare for the civilizations of the ancient Near-East.
Jonica Newby: The ancient Egyptians were amongst the first to feel impact of this new horsepowered up technology, when in 1800 BC they were unexpectedly run over by barbarians.
Jared Diamond: Egyptian documents listing the various dynasties, talk of these foreign people, the Hyksos, (H Y K S O S,) who came into Egypt with the first horses that the Egyptians had seen, including battle chariots (and because the Egyptians in 1800 BC did not have horses and they didn¹t have battle chariots, in come these characters with battle chariots.) It¹s as if an infantry army suddenly faces cavalry and tanks. The Egyptians are smashed in battle and Hyksos rule over Egypt for something like a century, until eventually, the Egyptians cottoned on to how to use battle chariots and horses. We don¹t know who the Hyksos are. All we know is that they¹re foreigners that came in from the north.
David Anthony: From that point onward - from about 1500 BC for another about 500 years - the chariot was the essential element in warfare between near eastern civilizations.
Reading: "It is said that when Cyrus the Great was on his way to defeat Nabodinus at Babylon, he came across a powerful tributary of the river Tigres. The river not only presented a formidable obstacle to the army¹s march, but it drowned Cyrus's favourite white horse! Furious, Cyrus ordered the river punished. His army stopped and divided the insolent waterway into 360 canals, so it would flow into the desert, and die."
Jonica Newby: It's possible, of course, that the great Cyrus of Persia who reigned in the 5th century BC created the canals to provide water for his army, or to gain the support of the local people, but the man who mourned for his horse makes a better story. Whatever the case, it's clear that by this time the noble horse was well entrenched in society. Xenophon, the ancient Greek writer and soldier, wrote an excellent compendium on horsemanship. His writings heavily influenced the Alexander the Great, whose love for his horse Bucephalus surpassed even that of Cyrus. Upon the animal¹s death in one of Alexander¹s final great battles, Alexander named the town of Bucephala in honour of his companion since childhood. Incidentally, Bucephalus, who wore golden horns on his head during battle, may also be responsible the legend of the unicorn. By the time of Romans in 45 BC, it had been decreed that horse powered vehicles be banned from the city centre, as they were a danger to pedestrians and caused too many traffic jams perhaps there¹s a lesson there for todays urban planners. But all this activity, surprisingly enough, was without the benefit of the stirrup. That vital piece of technology was yet to come
David Anthony: The stirrup wasn¹t invented until very late - nor was the saddle. People who rode horses seemed to have just covered their backs with cloth. There was no strap underneath the horse¹s belly holding a firm saddle in place. Saddles show up during the Roman era. They weren¹t as yet attached to stirrups - the Romans did not use stirrups. Alexander the Great went into battle with very effective use of cavalry but without stirrups entirely. Then stirrups seemed to have been invented during the 300¹s AD in China. They slowly defused westwards, across the Eurasian Steppes through these pastoral societies, and began to be used in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. The period of Charlemagne's empire was the first really widespread use of the stirrup in Europe, and some historians have advanced theories that the entire development of Feudalism was based on the invention of the stirrup. Once you had a stirrup you could really seat yourself in a saddle. You could put a lance under your arm which you could not do without a stirrup; the impact of hitting with a lance under your arm would knock you off the horse. (You could stab overhand with a spear but you couldn't seat a lance under your arm.) With a stirrup you could set yourself down in the saddle, put your feet back in the stirrup, put a lance under your arm and drive a spear into the enemy and at that point the use of the horse as an element of shock, just the weight, the speed and the power of the horse became part of the weapon that the cavalry man was and that depended on the stirrup.
Jonica Newby: With this new shock weapon, the Age of the Horse really hit its stride. The English were slow to cotton on to the promise of the stirrup - the Battle of Hastings in 1066 was lost largely because they continued to fight in the old infantry style of dismounting from their horses and putting up shields, while the still mounted Normans, who'd used 350 ships just to bring their horses, simply mowed them down from above. But they soon learned, and some historians have even suggested it was the invention of the stirrup that led to the development of Feudalism in the Middle Ages. Most of Europe was divided up into fiefdoms in which feudal lords or knights had complete power over their tenants. It was a way of organising society for instant warfare and they found plenty to fight about. Land, Glory, God - The first of the crusades was by far the most successful because, like in the battle of Hastings, the knights faced an enemy who continued to fight on foot. And even when canons and guns eventually transformed feudal society and the nature of the fight, the horse advantage still worked. As Atahuallpa and his nation of Incas discovered to their cost. The conquest of the Americas was a classic example of a people with horsepower defeating a people without. Ironic, really, given that the horse originally evolved in the Americas but was wiped out some time after the last ice age. But they were soon back in hot demand. The Atlantic tropics became known as The Horse Latitudes because so many horses died on route and were thrown overboard. The New World had taken to the horse with gusto.
David Anthony: In the late 19th century, New York city was absolutely full of horses - tens of thousands of horses - and so were almost all of the major cities of at least western Europe and eastern and north America. And the horses in these cities lived awful lives. They were the major means of transport. The disposal of their manure was a major problem in urban areas, as was the disposal of their dead bodies because they were treated just awfully.
Jonica Newby: But all that was about to change. The automobile and other new technologies were finally taking the lead.
David Anthony: The use of the horse in modern warfare - charging with cavalry in the face of grapeshot and canister artillery that tears people apart - that's quite different from the use of the horse in mediaeval warfare when horses are charging into a flight of arrows. I think that as horses have moved into the late 19th and early 20th century, they¹ve actually moved into an era of prize animals who lived a pampered life and I suppose that¹s what we have left now. Horses as commodities, as race horses, symbols of prestige and power and wealth and as pets. In all of those roles they are treated rather well, so the horses that we are still using live lives that are generally much pleasanter than the lives of most horses that lived 100 years ago.
Jonica Newby: Every racing career must come to an end, and even one as long and glorious as the Age of the Horse, had to finish sometime. But at least it¹s a pleasant retirement.
Reading: A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse recording of Richard III
Guests on this program:
Dr David Anthony
Associate Professor of Anthropology
Director, Institute for Ancient Equestrian Studies
Oneonta NY 13820 - 402
Tel: +1 607 431 4000