From Harappan horse to camel – R Nagaswami

Those who put a break to rewrite history in some form or other are thoughtless and object even before the rewriting is begun. Let the rewriting be entrusted to impartial, competent scholars urgently and let the books come out and if there are errors in the writings or wilful distortions there are enough intellectuals in India who can stand up boldly and demand their removal.

From Harappan horse to camel

Jul 02, 2002

IT IS interesting to read the response of Michael Witzel, Harvard University, to my article on Harappan horse, published in The Hindu (May 21, 2002) and I am glad to note that he agrees with many points raised by me, but some of the basic issues still remain. The main thrust of Witzel’s argument was that no horse is represented either in seals or as bones in Harappan sites, and that the horse played a vital role in Vedic society, and hence the Harappan civilisation cannot be a Vedic society. The other important point he raises is the linguistic evidence and argues that acceptable evidence is not found for conceding the Vedic claim. Ignoring the language he employs to ridicule his opponents, there is a need for the protagonists of Vedic school to meet the points raised by him.

Carbon dating bones

While we are on the Harappan horse, he cites the example of a camel found in a Harappan site, dated to 2200-1900 BC by the earlier excavators, which now has been dated directly by Carbon 14 method to 690 BC, showing the earlier claim was wrong. When such scientific evidences are found there should be no hesitation in accepting the new evidence and discarding the earlier view. Regarding the question of dating bones by Carbon 14, I consulted my friend Dr. Paul Craddock, a leading scientist of the British Museum Laboratory, (who incidentally appeared as an expert witness in the London Nataraja case on behalf of India) who gives the latest position as follows:

“In many ways the dating of bone is now preferred to the dating of wood or charcoal, and is carried out quite routinely. This is because in most circumstances a bone found in an archaeological deposit, be it burial or hidden, will have been alive recently before its deposition and thus the date of the death of the bone will be fairly close to the date of deposition. With charcoal, the situation is often very different and there is no way of telling whether it came from the outer parts of a short lived tree or was laid down in the centre of some hardwood, centuries before the tree was felled and utilised. If the charcoal derives from the timbers of a burning building the timbers could have been in place for centuries or could have been part of a repair done the week before. The intrinsic error on carbon dates of bones is no different from any other material containing carbon and is the result of sample size and the actual practicalities of the method. Similarly the calibration of the date obtained from radiocarbon years to calendar years is exactly the same. As I explained above the relation between the time of death for the bone and the time of its deposition in most cases will be relatively short, making bone a good material for dating.

“As I am sure, you know, bone consists of two main components, the largely inorganic apatite and collagen. The apatite attracts calcium carbonate from ground waters and is thus not suitable for dating, but can be easily separated by acid dissolution from the collagen. The latter is made up of proteins, and should be suitable for dating. There is, however some danger that the protein will have suffered from bacteriological attack, which would affect the date obtained. This could be detected by carrying out amino acid profiling; the various amino acids are affected by bacteria attack differently. Also one could separate and date one particular amino acid, using the accelerator mass spectrometry method, which only requires a tiny sample (AMS dating is rapidly taking over from conventional counting methods all over the world). However, amino acid separation is slow and costly, and for most bone samples is not necessary (only really if one is dealing with Palaeolithic bones over 10,000 years old).” C14 dating deserves to be given credence.

Yet to be rechecked

However regarding the earlier find of horse bones by early archaeologists, Witzel says that “Remains of horses claimed by early archaeologists in the 1930s were not documented well enough, to let us distinguish between horses, hemiones, or asses.” (Frontline, October 13, 2000, P. 7). But this seems to be contradicted by his own statement “Even if we accept the identifications as true horse material from the old excavations and this still needs to be rechecked by the specialists using original material … ” (The Hindu, May 21). It clearly shows that original material has not yet been rechecked by a specialist till date, and it would be appropriate not to come to any conclusion at this stage in support of either claim, rather than assert as what Witzel claims. The scientific evidence is yet to come and it would be necessary to wait for the same.

Colonial writers

Witzel insists on vehemently attacking the present political climate and rulers responsible for the revisionist history writings in India, and their Hindutva leanings and in this he exhibits his political intention. This seems irrelevant to academic interest, and exposes himself to possible, similar counter allegation, but we would like to keep our esteem for the Harvard University as a symbol of academic greatness and not politics. As he is a good academician he could avoid such an approach for, after all history writing in India is a legacy inherited from the British colonial writers who dinned into our ears, for nearly one hundred and more years, from 1850 to almost 1950 (even two decades after Independence) how to project the political rule as the summum bonum of virtuosity. They made us read about the glory of England, all the British Governors-General, the Lord Governors and collectors like Lord Duffrin, Lord Hardinge, and such others, whose presence was of utter inconsequence, but as the greatest event in our history. This writer himself studied in the 1940s in the secondary schools, the history of the British political rulers as the glory of India. Three fourths of our history books were filled then with the greatness of colonial powers and most of the other parts filled with Mughal contribution with very little of Indian life. Not a single liberal voice was raised about this trend at any point of time then. Some shrewd historians exploited this trend after Independence, rewrote history to bolster the political leaning of the rulers and fully cornered the favours. They did nothing to remove the imbalance in the presentation of the regional histories, instead wrote hypothetical theories. These political favours did not change till the late 1990s when a different political ideology took over the reins of power and the new one has applied a break to the “old shattered, rattling goods train” and attempted to change the track. The track however continues.

Ethnic craze is imported

Witzel also bemoans the “ethinic centred craze” for rewriting history. This is also not especially Indian, and is only a copy of, or reaction to the Euro centred Western university tradition. Just a few days back, a professor of a British university came out with an academic theory, calling it a (pseudo) psychological analysis, that the “White race is superior to the black race and that there is nothing wrong in claiming racism as natural and multi-culturalism is wicked madness.” This theory, propounded by Prof. Geoffrey Sampson, who incidentally belonged to the Tory party, claims right to voice such an obnoxious theory under the guise of academic freedom and the university pleads helpless.

Witzel emphasises the importance of linguistic science that certainly cannot be questioned by any. There are two claimants to the Indus language, the Vedic and the Dravidian. The protagonists of Dravidian language spearheaded by Dr. Asko Parpola and Iravatham Mahadevan argue the language of the Harappans is Dravidian, though they differ among themselves on each other’s readings. Witzel seems to be in agreement with Parpola.

How confident or conclusive are the Dravidian linguists about their theories may be seen from the following. Asko Parpola, who came out with the theory, later discarded it so much so when asked about his first approach, he himself says that “he has given up the earlier reports as they were written in the first flush of enthusiasm, premature and incautious.” This Mahadevan calls “rare intellectual courage” to abandon the paradigm central to the earlier model of decipherment and is virtually a new beginning. Reviewing Asko Parpola’s present hypothesis Mahadevan says “his (Parpola’s) decipherment based on the hypothesis has not been taken seriously, because of his lack of familiarity with the Dravidian languages and linguistics.” (http/ That dismisses the leading authority on Dravidian hypothesis for Indus culture in the world. The only other leading Dravidian expert on Indus script is Mahadevan himself. We may see how his following views are relevant in this connection. “In my earlier papers (1970, 72 and 73) I had proceeded on the assumption that the frequent terminal signs of the Indus script probably represented grammatical suffixes and their values could be ascertained through the method of homophones. The concordance does not bear this theory. I am now inclined to the view that the frequent terminal signs were most probably employed in an ideographic sense.” Mahadevan concludes, “his method is speculative?”

Speculative theories

Thus both these Dravidian protagonists keep changing their own methods frequently and float speculative theories. The one vital question that is not addressed by them is that how the Dravidian linguistic theory based on prevalent languages could be applied to a civilisation that lived 4500 years ago. It is known that the earliest language among the Dravidian group of languages is Tamil that has an impressive corpus of literary works that could be dated at the most not earlier than first century BC. The recent numismatic discoveries and archaeological findings have brought the date of the early Tamil literature rather close, based on Roman contacts. None of the early written records like Tamil (Brahmi) inscriptions found so far, could be dated earlier than 2nd century BC. The latter already shows impressive and indisputable mixture of Prakrit language integrated into Tamil. That leaves hardly two or three Tamil words, like Chola, Pandya, found in the Asokan inscriptions that could be securely dated to 3rd century BC. One should not forget that we are looking for indisputable evidence as in the case of Harappan horse, and so what and where is the Dravidian language? What is its structure and how much of it is chronologically dated to even 500 BC, (granting a few centuries for the development of Tamil language, and its classical structure) not to speak of 1000 BC or the beginning of the Harappan age 3000 BC? Which of the Dravidian language, Central Dravidian, or North Dravidian group, is dated securely to have existed in pre-Christian era? Whether the date of the Brahui language found in Baluchistan, said to belong to the Dravidian language group, is dated scientifically with the help of dated inscriptions or artefacts? The existence of Dravidian language before say 3rd-4th centuries BC is purely based on conjectural inference. How a language, the existence of which is not known by any verifiable means for over three thousand years except in hypothesis, could be accepted as the language of Harappans? It is clear that the rejection of Dravidian theory is far more logical than the absence of Harappan horse, for one cannot have two standards for evaluating evidence.

The conflicting writings on Harappan horse and Vedic or Dravidian speculation are so voluminous and the issues are so complex that there is need to continue the dialogue, but not include them in school textbooks. When I suggested earlier that only factual history should be given in school textbooks, I clearly meant that the points like the presence of horse, the Vedic or non-Vedic, Dravidian or non-Dravidian nature of Harappans, the invasion theory of Aryans are all speculative and not factually proven history and there is no need to include them in our textbooks and brainwash our children either way.


I would like to end this with the note that Witzel agrees with me that there are imbalances in the present textbooks and there is a need to rewrite Indian history books. The Harappan and Vedic phases are only parts of the long Indian history and there are several other important gaps in the other parts, in the presentation of regional history and the great contribution of India to the whole of South East Asia — in every field of activity like history, philosophy, writing, art, administration, religion, philosophy, architecture and the way of life, for over one thousand four hundred years and where it survives even to this day in some form, but has remained blacked out to our children all these years — which need to be incorporated immediately. Those who put a break to rewrite history in some form or other are thoughtless and object even before the rewriting is begun. Let the rewriting be entrusted to impartial, competent scholars urgently and let the books come out and if there are errors in the writings or wilful distortions there are enough intellectuals in India who can stand up boldly and demand their removal. There exists a vibrant democracy and alert media that can take care of corrections. What eludes one’s comprehension is that even before the exercise has begun every attempt is made to obstruct this legitimate process. One thing may be lastly mentioned that the errors or distortions likely to creep in in rewriting history are not going to be as damaging to scientific knowledge as those of the past 150 years of colonial writing.


Former Director of Archaeology,
Tamil Nadu

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