Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.10.11

Pita Kelekna, The Horse in Human History.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2009.  Pp. xiv, 460.  ISBN 9780521736299.  $27.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Ryan Platte, Washington University in St. Louis (
Word count: 1754 words

[Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

The role of the horse in Indo-European societies has been studied and intensely debated for quite a long time, but it is rare that an author attempts to incorporate a study of horses in Indo-European culture into a universal study of horses in human society. Yet this is precisely the purpose of Pita Kelekna's work, The Horse in Human History.

Although the scope of this study is quite ambitious, the book is largely a synthesis of pre-existing scholarly opinion and seems intended for an informed but a non-specialist audience. Anthropology furnishes the bulk of the work's evidence, but linguistics, religious studies, and literary analysis shape the author's approach as well. This work appears not long after the publication of David W. Anthony's The Horse, the Wheel, and Language,1 and Kelekna's discussions of early horse domestication are heavily influenced by it, but Kelekna also includes the full chronological span of human-horse interaction. Her presentation considers the effects of this interaction in Europe, the Near East, India, Asia, and the Americas, in an attempt to construct from this dauntingly complex subject something resembling the big picture.

Kelekna accepts the position that the earliest horse domestication took place among the nomads of the Pontic-Caspian region, and consequently the discussion of Indo-European cultures forms much of the book's early work. Yet in keeping with the impressive ambitions of the project, Kelekna does not begin with Indo-European society or human society at all, but with our earliest evidence for the nature of the wild horse and its place within the equid family. The first chapter, "Intoduction to Equestrian Man and to Equus," provides an overview of equid evolution and diversification, leading to a useful introduction to horse behavior and the mechanics of equid society. The chapter also sets out the nature of the horse's earliest interactions with humans, when the undomesticated horse was an important food item that was widely hunted. Kelekna does an admirable job of presenting this paleo-zoological material in a way that is comprehensible and meaningful to a broad audience.

The next three chapters trace out some of the vexed issues concerning Indo-European horse domestication, as well as the issues concerning the Indo-European homeland and diaspora. The first of these chapters, "Equus Caballus: Horse Domestication and Agro-Pastoralism Across the Eurasian Steppes," is principally a review of recent scholarship on the topic and covers the period from 4000-1000 BCE, approximately. In the course of this survey Kelekna supports the views that the homeland was located in the Pontic-Caspian region and that the speakers of Proto-Indo-European may be identified with the Yamnaya culture. The information presented here is quite compressed, as one would expect. The linguistic evidence, for example, is very simplified, but is clear in its concision, and sufficient bibliography is provided for readers who would like fuller details.

"Nomadic Horse Culture of the Steppes" continues Kelekna's discussion of the first three millennia of horse domestication but focuses on technological and religious developments that accompanied the integration of the domesticated horse into steppe culture. Much of the technological discussion concerns developments in the manufacture of chariots, but this is joined usefully to a discussion of the development and significance of trellis-tents, mobile dwellings designed to be conveyed by wagon. Kelekna also points out the relationship between the techniques required for chariot construction and those evident in the development of the composite bow. The discussion of religion begins with the symbolism frequently attributed to trellis tents in nomadic societies, and moves on to Indo-European horse burials. Most of the evidence in this chapter is archeological and is well-presented. Kelekna's presentation of the Herodotean evidence, however, is less clear. It would be very helpful to have a fuller explanation of the degree to which the author finds Herodotus reliable, both in regard to ethnographic details and in regard to his quotations of figures such as Idanthyrsus.

"Expansion from the Steppes to Southwestern and Southern Asia" brings Kelekna's history of civilization up to the death of Alexander the Great and deals with Indo-Europeans in the Hittite Empire, in India, in Persia, and in Greece. This chapter also includes a discussion of the importance of horses in the Iliad and of the historicity of the Trojan War. This is presented as background for the conflicts described at the chapter's end, the Persian Wars and the conquest of Alexander, which are both described with special attention to military equestrianism. Although most of this chapter is historical, there is discussion of horses in myth and ritual, especially in India. This includes a description of the asvamedha, the horse-sacrifice, which has long been seen as descendant of an Indo-European kingship ritual. As is standard in Kelekna's treatment, prominent scholarly authorities on these subjects are cited, but few citations are given for ancient sources. This is, of course, an understandable approach in a work of this nature, which might not have been as readable with more rigorous citation, yet it would be helpful if major sources were cited with more specificity.

The first of Kelekna's major departures from the Indo-European world occurs in "China and the Steppes beyond its Borders." This section describes technological innovations in horsemanship, which were often imported from the west, and their significance in Chinese militaristic and political developments. This chapter also points out numerous equestrian facets of Vedic religion that continued into Chinese Buddhism. Finally, the Silk Road is discussed as a locus of intense cultural interaction enabled by domesticated horses.

"Equestrian Europe--Solar Edifices, Hippodromes, and Arthurian Chivalry" is the last chapter to deal largely with Indo-European civilization and it covers a surprisingly wide range of material. The author discusses possible connections between horses and various circular structures, such as Stonehenge and the Roman circus, that are particularly associated with the sun. Following Gimbutas, Kelekna holds that the prevalence of circular edifices is a special marker of Indo-European culture in Europe, so she suggests that the relationship between these structures, horses, and the sun reflects the identification of horses and the sun so often discussed in Indo-European studies. This is followed by a survey of the major Greek myths featuring horses, covering such topics as the centaurs, Pegasos, and Amazonian equestrian prowess. The Roman cavalry is also discussed at length and particular attention is paid to role of horses in Roman engagements with military opponents from Carthage and Britain. This chapter's discussion of the emergence of the Arthurian legends and the role of horses and knighthood therein contains a comparison of the Holy Grail with special circular drinking vessels elsewhere in Indo-European cultures. Some of these vessels are the Greek krater, the cauldron of the Epomeduos festival, and the skulls from which Narokhachoma drinks in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, all of which, Kelekna argues, are uniquely associated with rebirth.2 This is a potentially interesting point, but it is very difficult to evaluate since the work does not feature detailed engagement with primary sources.

The following three chapters detail the use of horses in Arabian, Turkic, and Mongolian military conquests. "Arabian Conquests from the South" details the successes of the Muslim equestrian armies, with an emphasis on the political and cultural effects thereof, and includes discussions of such literary topics as the Song of Roland and the Taziyeh. "Turkic-Invader Converts to Islam and Crusader Opponents" is similar in approach. - The effects of equestrianism on the Turkic peoples's engagement with both Persia and Christian Europeis incorporated with a discussion of the Shahnameh. "From the Steppes, the Altaic Nomad Conquests of Eurasia" provides an introduction to the centrality of horsemanship in Mongolia, and to the economic and political ramifications of the Mongolian equestrian militarism, especially under Genghis Khan.

The capstone of the work is the discussion of the reintroduction of the horse to the Americas. This is called a "reintroduction" because horses had existed in the Americas before, but were driven to extinction by early human hunting. This discussion begins with a history of the European conquest of South America and an explanation of the technological advantage that horses had given the conquistadors over the Amerindians. The author then details the wide-ranging effects of this conquest on European and Near Eastern civilization. These discussions include such diverse subjects as the ramification of the introduction of the potato to European agriculturalists and the devaluing of eastern coinage due to the influx of precious metals from the New World.

This section is perhaps most interesting, however, when it turns to the effects that horses had on New World civilizations themselves. The author demonstrates how, after the importation of European horses to the New World, the development of horse domestication among Amerindians radically reshaped American cultures, as horse domestication had reshaped Old World cultures before. Kelekna takes the reader through the development of new hunting techniques and transportation technology that reshaped the political landscape of the Americas. This section concludes with a thought-provoking discussion of the evolution of the figure of the gaucho in Argentina, as well as of similar figures elsewhere in the Americas, such as the huaso in Chile and the vaquero in Mexico. Kelekna points to the mythology of such figures, as expressed in song and oral poetry, as a formative influence on the mythology of the American cowboy.

The strengths and the weaknesses of this work both lie in its scope. The enormity of the project requires that most subjects are dealt with very quickly and the author's positions on controversial topics are often presented with little acknowledgment of the surrounding debate. The utility of the Dumézilean tripartition of Indo-European society, the significance of Minyan ware pottery in the dating of the Indo-European presence in Greece, and the reality of the Dorian invasion are a few of the topics that Classicists will wish had been dealt with more subtly. The work is, however, not designed as a detailed treatment of any one culture or field, but as a general and approachable discussion of horses in human society the world over, and at that it succeeds.


Introduction to equestrian man and to Equus

Equus caballus: horse domestication and agro-pastoralism across the Eurasian steppes

Nomadic horse culture of the steppes

Expansion from the steppes to Southwestern and Southern Asia

China and the steppes beyond its borders

Equestrian Europe solar edifices, hippodromes, and Arthurian chivalry

Arabian conquest from the South

Turkic-invader converts to Islam and crusader opponents

From the steppes, the Altaic Nomad conquest of Eurasia

From Europe, Equus returns to its continent of origin

Horses are us




1.   Anthony, David, W. 2007 The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: how Bronze-Age Riders from the Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Princton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
2.   This section includes an unattributed quotation, "in which was mixed the light of the sun" (p.201).

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