Eating horse – and where our language comes from
18 February 2013
It may be a little early to predict the lasting impact of the horsemeat to-do on the law. But one might make a lunge at the following : (i) contractual claims by supermarkets professing outrage, cascading further and further through supplier and sub-supplier until they end up with some far-flung abattoir in Romania, (ii) the odd trading standards prosecution, (iii) a chancy group action by those who say they were horrified at the thought that they might have let horse pass their lips; and (iv) the Horsemeat (It Will Never Happen Again) Regulations 2013 SI 9999/2013 (no link yet available). It is perhaps as well to rein in too much speculation at that point.
But it is timely to say something about when and how much horse our linguistic ancestors ate. By a curious coincidence, I am at the moment reading a book which tells us all about that and lots of other things.
The book is The Horse the Wheel and Language by Professor David Anthony. It reminds us that English is the great-great-great grandchild of Proto-Indo-European, and proposes that the latter was first spoken by peoples living in the steppes north of the Black and Caspian seas in about 4,500 BCE. (The existence of the Indo-European language was first hypothesised by a Persian-speaking British judge in 1786 – when sitting as a member of the Supreme Court of Bengal – but that’s another story).
So where do the horses come in? Because, about 6,000 years ago, our Proto-Indo-European linguistic ancestors were domesticating horses at the same time as forming this language.
But the domestication of the horse did not happen as we might have thought. Our author thinks that wild horses were first hunted for meat – humans clocking up an early extinction with Equus hydrantinus at about this time. They (mainly our old friend Equus caballus) were then tamed, again originally for meat; the archaeological evidence of 6,000 year old charnel houses tells us this, with 50% of bones being horse at some sites. Anthony points out that horses are better at surviving savage winters than sheep or cows; they scrape snow away from the grass or crack ice with their hooves, whereas sheep try to do it with their noses, and cows just don’t even try. So horses can be kept as excellent walking food sources, no matter how terrible the weather – there was a very cold snap 6,000 years ago in this part of the world.
Gradually our ancestors learnt how to tame and ride horses, dated by our author to about 3700 BCE by painstaking analysis of bit wear on horses’ lower second premolars. This was the great leap ahead. Riders can look after bigger herds of sheep or cattle than pedestrians, and can make cattle-rustling raids and migrations more effectively. As Anthony puts it,
“Increased mobility (implied by smaller cemeteries), more long-distance trade, increased prestige and power for prominent individuals, status weapons appearing in graves, and heightened warfare against settled agricultural communities are all things we would expect to occur after horseback riding started, and we see them most clearly in cemeteries of the Suvorovo-Novodanilovka type.” p.249.
These cemeteries (as many of you will know) reveal one set of incursions launched by our steppe peoples, bringing some character traits which we recognise in modern society; a love for icons of power (stone maces), and a desire to glorify war (those high-status grave goods).
But any cosy notion that we stopped eating horses once we had learned how to ride them need dispelling. A cemetery south of the river Volga contains 40 horse skulls, buried about 2,500 BCE, and yielding 8,000kg of horsemeat for the funeral feast.
Anyway, out of this burgeoning horse-facilitated economy there burst the ancestor of our language, with spiralling dialects around India, Iran and Europe, including Germanic. And out of Germanic came West Germanic, then Old English, then English.
So, out of a steppe-dweller’s desire to eat horses without hunting them, came the glories of our mother tongue. Perhaps worth remembering when we contemplate another dose of insularity.
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