The origin of the true chariot

(Antiquity, December 1996, pp.934-939)


"The spoked wheel, together with horse draught and the bitted bridle, are usually considered the essentials of the war, hunting and (later) racing chariot, but it can be shown that these features alone are not enough.(1) The recent calibrated radiocarbon dating to c. 2000-1800 BC of light, horse-drawn vehicles from Sintashta and Krivoe Ozero, in northern Kazakhstan just east of the Urals, has revived the claim that the chariot originated in the steppe area rather than somewhere in the Near East (Gening et al. 1992; Kuzmina 1994: 163-457; Anthony 1995: 561-2; Anthony & Vinogradov 1985).   The burials from which the northern datings come contain the remains of horses and the bone cheekpieces of soft-mouthed bits; of the vehicles there are in most cases only the impressions of their two, spoked wheels as placed standing in the graves .   The earliest southern documentation is provided by cylinder-seal impressions from the time of Karum II at Kultepe, central Anatolia, usually dated to the early 2nd millennium BC , and by a terracotta plaque from Uruk in southern Mesopotamia, possibly of slightly later date (Littauer & Crouwel 1979: figures 28-30; Garelli & Collon 1975: no. 46).   The latter show equid-drawn vehicles with two spoked wheels...

"The 3rd-millennium teams shown were always of four: two equids under yoke, and two loosely attached outriggers.   The outriggers would have had little pulling power and, despite their disc wheels, these small vehicles would not have needed it, the bodies being of bent wood and osier or reed - used in the making of many things in southern Mesopotamia.   It would seem as if the rewards of conspicuous expenditure were already being recognized.   Wheeled vehicles flourished: the 'straddle car' developed a more comfortable, saddle seat, padded by a leopard skin.   Four-wheelers appear in military contexts.   Wheeled vehicles are also represented as conveyances of the gods; later texts refer to 'sacred vehicles' and their 'carriage houses' as having existed already by the middle of the 3rd millennium (Civil 1968).   The processional sorties of these sacred vehicles are listed, as is the food brought to them as offerings.   As status symbols, wheeled vehicles were buried in rich tombs (Zarins 1986: 164-71; Littauer & Crouwel 1979: 16)...

"The present reconstructions of the Sintashta and Krivoe Ozero vehicles above the axle level raise many doubts and questions, but one cannot argue about something for which there is no evidence .   It is from the wheel-track measurements and the dimensions and positions of the wheels alone that we may legitimately draw conclusions and these are alone sufficient to establish that the Sintashta-Petrovka vehicles would not be manoeuvrable enough for use either in warfare or in racing."

Horse, wagon & chariot: Indo-European languages and archaeology
(Wheels and the date of the Indo-European spread)

Extracts from : Anthony, David W.,
1995, Antiquity Sept/1995

Reconstructed proto-Indo-European (PIE) represents a real ancient vocabulary that is potentially of inestimable value to archaeologists.   Historical linguists have established that the speakers of PIE were familiar with wheeled vehicles, reconstructing at least six PIE terms that refer to them: three terms for wheel (perhaps an indication of the importance of wheels in PIE life), one for axle, one for 'thill' (the draft pole to which the yoke is attached) and a verbal root meaning 'to go or convey in a vehicle'.
   Cognates for these terms exist in all branches of Indo-European, from Celtic in the west to Sanskrit and Tocharian in the east, and from Baltic in the north to Hittite and Greek in the south (Schrader 1890:339; Specht 1944:99-103; Gamkrelidze & Ivanov 1984:718-38; Anthony & Wailes 1988; Anthony 1991; Meid 1994).   The PIE terms probably referred to the earliest form of wheeled vehicle - the solid-wheeled wagon or cart, pulled (slowly) by cattle.   There is no single shared root for 'spoke', a later refinement in wheeled-vehicle technology...

Solid-wheeled wagons and carts, probably pulled by oxen, appeared in steppe wagon graves of the related Yamna culture (3500-2500 Bc) by about 3100-3000 BC (4370[+ or -]120 b.p. (KI-606) for a Yamna wagon grave at Bal'ki on the lower Dnieper, and 4440[+ or -]40 b.p. (LE-2963) for a late Yamna/Novotitorovskaya wagon grave at Ostannii in the Kuban River region).
   While earlier steppe cultures, including Sredni Stog, had been centred on the forested river valleys, Yamna cemeteries appeared in deep steppe locations far from major river valleys.   The saiga antelope, an animal of the deep steppe, appeared occasionally among the Yamna fauna; it had not appeared in Sredni Stog sites.   Yamna metal-workers were the first intensively to exploit steppe copper ores (Chernykh,1992).   Yamna settlements seem to have been located at sites previously little used and/or were occupied for significantly shorter periods, particularly in the Volga-Ural region, where intensive field surveys have yielded very little settlement evidence to accompany the rich Yamna cemeteries (Merpert 1974; 1991; Bondar & Telegin 1988).   The appearance of the Yamna culture in the deep steppe signified a watershed in the cultural ecology of Eurasia....

The Yamna culture area extended eastward no farther than the Ural River valley.   East of the Urals were very different archaeological cultures (Botai/Surtanda) with no wagon graves, little metal, few domesticated animals except horses and very distinctive ceramics, mortuary rituals and settlement patterns.
   However, at about 2000 BC a new and remarkable archaeological culture appeared east of the Urals, apparently at least partially derived from a late Yamna variant (the Poltavka culture) on the middle Volga.   This new group, the Sintashta-Petrovka culture, established compact, heavily fortified settlements in the northern steppes east of the Urals; engaged in bronze metallurgy on an unprecedented scale; raised herds of cattle, sheep, and horses; and practised complex mortuary rituals that parallel in many specific details the Aryan rituals described in the Rig-Veda (Anthony & Vinogradov in press; Gening et al. 1992; Kuzmina 1994:226-8; Parpola,1995).   Vehicles, buried in the richer Sintashta-Petrovka graves, as they had been earlier in Yamna graves, now included spoke-wheeled chariots, buried with two-horse chariot teams.   Recent AMS dates of 2000 BC have established that these are the oldest directly dated chariots (or, some would argue, proto-chariots) in the ancient world.(2)   It is likely that Sintashta-Petrovka represents the ancestral Indo-Iranians, whose traditions were later carried into India and Iran.   Archaeologically, Sintashta-Petrovka is accepted as the formative phase in the development of the Andronovo horizon, which later (1800 BC) spread across the steppes from the Urals to the Tien Shan (Zdanovich 1984; Mosin 1990; Maliutina 1991).

The Sintashta-Petrovka culture was the first Eurasian steppe culture to display several traits later central to the cultures of the Indo-Iranian-speaking Aryans.   These included: compact fortified settlements; chariotry, which was much more than transport, for it provided many of the essential metaphors that colored Vedic mythology and prayer; lavish expenditures of resources on the graves of the elite; and elaborate mortuary animal sacrifices that regularly involved the ritual slaughter of horses and cattle.   In the Rig-Veda, the horse sacrifice - the central ritual of early Vedic myth - was preceded by the slaughter of a goat, the goat being the symbol of Pusan, the god of paths and ways. In several instances at the Sintashta cemetery, horses and cattle were sacrificed with a single ram. The ram at Sintashta may have served a role like that of the scapegoat of the Vedas - to guide the sacrifices on the right path to the spirit world.   The horses in the Vedic rite were racehorses.   The chariot equipment and two-horse teams sacrificed in some Sintashta-Petrovka graves suggest that these also were racehorses.   The method of sacrifice also matches the Vedic rite - at Sintashta the horses' legs were carefully segmented and placed in the burial pit with the horses' heads (tibias grouped with metacarpals, metatarsals, and phalanges), but in many cases the remainder of the body was not included - presumably it was consumed by the celebrants.   In the Rig-Veda (RV I.162; O'Flagherty 1981: 91) the legs of the ritual horse were carefully cut apart and offered in a specified sequence, while the flesh was cooked and consumed by the celebrants.

In these and other ways, Sintashta-Petrovka customs anticipated those of the Vedic Aryans.   While the Indo-Iranian language might have been emerging from a PIE dialect on the eastern margins of the Yamna territory before 2000 BC, it was with the Sintashta-Petrovka culture that the defining ritual aspects of Indo-Iranian identity seem to have solidified.

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