ORIGINS

Chariots often seem simple, obvious, and mundane in an age accustomed to the complexity of electronic systems and innumerable vehicles. However, wheeled transport required centuries to evolve from the sledges that were generally employed in the West from 7,000 to 4,000 BCE to shift limited amounts of materials in bulk and continued to be used in isolated locations well into the third millennium BCE.48 The first wagons, generally pulled by slow but powerful oxen, were lumbering, four-wheeled behemoths assembled from rough-hewn logs that relied on solid wheels cut from thick tree trunks. The chariot, a two-wheeled vehicle intended solely for war, eventually evolved but only became truly formidable with the invention of the spoked wheel, fabrication of lightweight compartments, discovery of lubrication methods, mastery of the horse for swiftness, and development of bronze tools capable of more precise woodworking.49 When coupled with archery, lightweight chariots provided the ultimate military weapon for clashes throughout the Near East starting about 2000 BCE and continuing to 1000 BCE, when the infantry suddenly gained the ascendancy, but China began massively employing them.50

In recent decades the origin of the chariots that suddenly appeared in China during King Wu Ting’s reign has been the subject of acrimonious debate between those who proclaim the Chinese chariot to be the fruition of purely indigenous developments and opponents who stress the essential continuity of imported design.51 Previously, the most commonly accepted scenario envisioned the chariot as having been introduced around the fourteenth or thirteenth century BCE through Central Asia, having originated in the Near East. Furthermore, it was believed that the transmission route had been quickly severed because Chinese vehicles displayed unique characteristics but failed to incorporate subsequent Western developments.52 However, a radically different historical sequence based on new findings and changing interpretations of archaeological data has recently been proposed.53

Without getting mired in thorny arguments over the horse’s origins or the history of wheeled vehicles, two topics closely entangled with theories about the inception and diffusion of proto-Indo-European, certain discoveries pertinent to the nature of Western precursors should be briefly noted. The crucial developments were the displacement of heavy four-wheeled wagons by lightweight chariots and the domestication of the horse, understood here as the ability to breed the animals in a relatively controlled environment coupled with the knowledge necessary to control them in harness or under mount.

According to one well-argued view, the horse that eventually evolved from among several “horselike” animals primarily emerged in the Pontic-Caspian steppe between the Caucasus and Ural mountains by about 4800 BCE, where it was hunted as a food source.54 At some stage, possibly 4200-4000 BCE but certainly 3700-3500 as attested by bits found at Botai in north Kazakhstan, the ability to mount and ride a horse, highly useful for controlling even the small numbers being raised for food, reportedly developed, immediately making possible not just previously unimaginable rapid movement but also journeys over a far greater range.55 Although cavalry contingents would not appear until about 1500 BCE and perhaps only developed as an effective force with the acquisition of the compound reflex bow around 1000 BCE, mounted raiding commenced, dramatically changing the nature of conflict.56

The first wheeled vehicles, replacements for the sledges that initially facilitated the transport of moderate loads over limited distances, reportedly appeared sometime between 4000 and 3500 BCE. Wherever they were invented, early forms of four-wheeled wagons dating to 3400-3000 BCE have been found in Mesopotamia, Poland, Germany, and Hungary. Thereafter they rapidly spread in every direction, including out onto the Ukrainian and Russian steppe lands, about 3300-3100 BCE.57 Meanwhile improvements that occurred in spurts and had highly localized manifestations over the millennium between 3500 and 2500 BCE emphasized making the vehicle more maneuverable and lighter, such as by reducing the weight of the body and adopting tripartite wheels. The next significant stage, their evolution into chariots around 2100 to 1800 BCE, seems to have occurred not in the Near East but in the northern steppes east of the Ural Mountains in settlements identified with the Sintashta culture.

Apart from being heavily fortified with walls and ditches, the approximately twenty sites already found between the upper Ural and upper Tobol rivers were heavily oriented to metallurgical production, primarily from arsenical bronze. Whether they flourished because their casting technology made the aggressive exploitation of weapons possible or simply found themselves immersed in a warlike environment and responded by fabricating weapons, they also developed the first real chariots. Although relatively narrow, with a wheel gauge of around 1.2 meters and axle lengths of 2 meters, being powered by two horses they could easily carry one or two riders into battle.58 In comparison with chariots from the Near East and Mycenae dating to about 1850 BCE, whose wheels average 75 to 100 centimeters, those from Sintashta are noticeably larger, reportedly 90 to 120 centimeters in diameter.59 They also had far more spokes, generally 8 to 12 rather than 4 to 8, curved shafts, compartment-centered axles, and cheek pieces.

Somewhat farther to the east the Petrova culture, which flourished from 1900 to 1750 BCE, directly inherited Sintashta’s defining aspects, including their focus on metallurgical production (but in tin bronze alloys), use of fortifications, and exploitation of the chariot, prompting scholars to speak of a combined Sintashta-Petrova culture. From here the chariot could have been transmitted as far as the Altai Mountains through the Srobnaya and Andronovo cultures, the latter similarly a tin bronze producer, in the century between 1900 and 1800 BCE. Thereafter it appears to have been another six centuries before the chariot was adopted by the Shang, despite the probable introduction of horses into the precursor Ch’i-chia and Ssu-pa cultures in northwest China sometime between 2000 and 1600 BCE.60 Meanwhile, the chariot had been spreading through Central Asia (including the area around Lake Sevan) into the Near East and down to India, where it eventually proliferated and assumed a vital role in the indigenous civilizations.

Military chariots that can be employed at speed represent the fruition of centuries of innovation, experimentation, and improvement, not just in materials and structure, but also in the domestication, breeding, training, harnessing, and controlling of horses with bridles, bits, and cheek pins. Advances in knowledge, technology, metallurgy, and craft skills made it possible, but the chariot’s successful exploitation as a dynamic system equally depended on a continuous interaction between the driver and the horses. Notwithstanding the irresolvable debate about the nature of technological discovery,61 mere possession of a physical chariot, however acquired, without the integral manufacturing and equine knowledge would never have constituted a sufficient basis for it to suddenly flourish as a military weapon in China.

Fundamental support for diffusion rather than an indigenous origin for Chinese chariots is also seen in the complete lack of evidence for precursors such as carts or any form of oxen- or horse-pulled wagon despite both oxen and horses already having been domesticated. Vestiges of tracks apparently made by wheeled vehicles repeatedly traveling over the ground have recently been discovered at Erh-li-t’ou, a site where significant roads are visible in the royal quarters. Spaced about 1.0 to 1.2 meters apart and dating to Erh-li-t’ou’s second period, roughly 200 years earlier than Yen-shih, they are about 20 to 32 centimeters in width and 2 to 14 centimeters deep.62 Wheel ruts have also been found at Yen-shih that average 1.2 meters wide and are thus similar in gauge to those at Erh-li-t’ou, but are only half the width of the earliest chariots recovered at Anyang of 2.2 to 2.4 meters.63 Rather than being carved out by sledges, the ruts were probably made by some sort of small twoor four-wheeled cart that was employed to transport dirt, stone, and other building materials.64

Despite traditional claims that sheep and other small animals were hitched to ancient Chinese carts, in the absence of significant horse remains at Erh-li-t’ou and Yen-shih it is more likely that humans, whether pulling or pushing, rather than animals provided the power for these vehicles.65Assertions that these wheel ruts obviate any need for technological importation, though intriguing, lack substantiation and thus do not significantly undermine transmission theories, particularly as the carts themselves may have originated in the nearby steppe cultures, where vehicles of similar gauge were common.

More important, many features of Chinese chariots lose their formerly distinctive character when compared with Sintashta-Petrova precursors rather than Near Eastern versions from Mesopotamia, Egypt, or Mycenae.66 Without denying the essential similarity of chariot construction worldwide, it had been thought that Shang embodiments had far larger wheels with more numerous spokes and a conical shape; that the chariot box was larger, capable of accommodating three men standing in triangular formation, and rectangular rather than rounded; and that it was mounted directly over the axle, in contrast to Western preference for the wheels to be placed increasingly to the rear.67

However, most of these definitive features are present, whether fully or incipiently, in the models already noted as having been recovered from Sintashta-Petrova sites that date to at least 700 years earlier. In particular, Sintashta-Petrova chariots employed two horses aside a curved shaft and had multiple spokes, larger wheels, a center-mounted chariot compartment, and a complete Shang-style bridle package, including the bit and cheek pieces essential for controlling the horses. Chariots found near Lake Sevan that date to about 1600 BCE and thus presumably represent somewhat more developed versions provide an even closer match to the Shang manifestations with, for example, twenty-six spokes, and may either have been transmitted back from the Shang or reflect a natural progression of developments. Egyptian versions display several other similarities, such as interwoven walls and leather thong floors, but because they represent localized, nontransmitted developments, they are essentially irrelevant.

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