Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Glossary: Horse in Southern Asia

In anthropological and historical literature, the horse is most often viewed as a Central Asian domesticate diffused by "Aryans."

However, research now shows that the horse was likely domesticated independently in different areas of the world. Extensive matrilines older than those of most domesticated animals can be found in today's horses.

For the purpose of this work, the horse of southern Asia is most important.

During the Pleistocene, two types of horses inhabited the tropical Asian region. From the Siwalik range in India came Equus sivalensis, and across the Himalayas to the East Equus yunnanensis was found in Yunnan, Burma and Guangxi.

A study in 1994 showed that even in a small region of Yunnan province there was exceptional diversity of mtDNA lineages (Wang W, Liu AH, Lin SY, Lan H, Su B, Xie DW, Shi LM. "Multiple genotypes of mitochondrial DNA within a horse population from a small region in Yunnan Province of China." Biochem Genet., 1994 Oct;32(9-10):371-8.)

Local adaptation

Such data can be interpreted to suggest that modern domestic horses in the region have some ancestry from ancient Equus yunnanensis that survived until displaced by domesticated breeds. Another factor that would point in the same direction is the existence of Southeast Asian horses with extensive resistance to tropical disease and

Feral horses have been present in regions like southeastern Indonesia as far back as history records, once offering profits for traders who supplied them to the Dutch army during colonial times. These horses thrive in conditions in which most well-known breeds would not survive.

Such immunity can take extended periods of time to develop with gradual adaptation to tropical environments by expanding populations. This can best be explained by horses like Equus sivalensis and Equus yunnanensis.

For example, during Muslim times the kings of southern India spent enormous sums attempting to maintain stocks of Arabian horses. The latter types were accustomed to the arid environment of the Arabian desert, and most did not last long in South India's wet humid climate. Merchants from Aden and Oman made huge sums off this trade, and by Marco Polo's time it appeared as one of the main sources of income in these regions.

Likewise attempts at breeding purebred horses and other livestock for tropical environments over the last few centuries have failed. The only effective technique has been to crossbreed with animals that are already tropically-adapted.

E. sivalensis

In the Neolithic strata of Lemery, Batangas in the Philippines dating back to 8000-4000 BCE, horse remains were found that may be related to the present-day Sulu Horse. The latter breed retains traits characteristic of Equus sivalensis including concave facial profile, 17 rib pairs, pre-orbital depression, fine limbs, short-pillared teeth and large first pre-molars of the upper jaw.

The Sulu Horse represents the type found in the southern Philippines, the Moluccas and Borneo and is similar to other Southeast Asian horses in size and build with all more or less of the pony type.

The physical diversity of horses in the Malay Archipelago was commented upon by Charles Darwin in his book The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (v.1, p.33):

Looking only to the native ponies of Great Britain, those of the Shetland Isles, Wales, the New Forest, and Devonshire are distinguishable; and so it is, amongst other instances, with each separate island in the great Malay archipelago. (2/3. Crawfurd 'Descript. Dict. of Indian Islands' 1856 page 153. "There are many different breeds, every island having at least one peculiar to it." Thus in Sumatra there are at least two breeds; in Achin and Batubara one; in Java several breeds; one in Bali, Lomboc, Sumbawa (one of the best breeds), Tambora, Bima, Gunung-api, Celebes, Sumba, and Philippines. Other breeds are specified by Zollinger in the 'Journal of the Indian Archipelago' volume 5 page 343 etc.) Some of the breeds present great differences in size, shape of ears, length of mane, proportions of the body, form of the withers and hind quarters, and especially in the head.

Pleistocene fauna in the Upper Irrawady of Burma largely represents an expansion from the Siwalik fauna, so there may be a direct relationship between E. sivalensis and E. yunnanensis. The latter however might have been derived instead or additionaly from Equus sanmenensis of North China. The Yuanmou fauna of Yunnan and Upper Irrawady fauna of Burma eventually expanded throughout Southeast Asia.

Asvamedha Horse

Vedic literature, including the Rgveda and Yajurveda, mention that the horse used in the royal Asvamedha sacrifice had 34 ribs (17 rib pairs) and six lumbar vertebrae. This matches the fossils of Equus sivalensis. Portrayal of horses in early Indian art also display the concave profile and pre-orbital depression of E. sivalensis. These horses are of the classic pony-like build of southern Asian types.

Bronze drums of Sangeang in Indonesia dating from the Dongson period show horses with a very similar phenotype.

Vedic literature describes the horse as sea-born or as coming from beyond the sea.

The divine horse of Indra arises from the Ocean of Milk during the churning episode. An oceanic origin for the horse also occurs in Greek myth where the sea god Poseidon is said to create the equine race.

A great fiery mare's head is said to be located in the Ramayana in the farthest East underneath the sea, or in latter literature near the South Pole, again beneath the sea.

An Arabic tale in the One Thousand and One Nights tells of the Isle of Mares in the kingdom of the Mihraj, in the very Ocean of Milk. Sindibad hears of the mysterious stallions that come from the sea to mate with mares on that island:

Know that I am one of the several who are, stationed in different parts of this island, and we are of the grooms of King Mihrjan, and under our hand are all his horses. Every month about new-moon tide we bring hither our best mares which have never been covered, and picket them on the seashore and hide ourselves in this place under the ground, so that none may espy us. Presently the stallions of the sea scent the mares and come up out of the water and, seeing no one, leap the mares and do their will of them. When they have covered them, they try to drag them away with them, but cannot, by reason of the leg ropes. So they cry out at them and butt at them and kick them, which we hearing, know that the stallions have dismounted, so we run out and shout at them, whereupon they are startled and return in fear to the sea. Then the mares conceive by them and bear colts and fillies worth a mint of money, nor is their like to be found on earth's face.

--Alf Layla wa-Layla (v. 6, translated by Richard F. Burton)

Possibly the story refers to a practice of attracting stallions from nearby small islands to swim across the water for breeding purposes.

Horses of Yunnan

The emperor Wu Ti of the Han dynasty sent expeditions to Yunnan about a century before the common era. At this time, the region was already known for its high quality horses.

Chinese texts like the Hua Yang Guo Zhi and Hou Han Shu from the Western Han period describe the horses of Yunnan as shenma "divine horses."

During the T'ang dynasty, some southern Yunnan horses were priced at dozens of taels of gold.

By the Sung dynasty, the Dian-Zang Cha-Ma Gudao (Ancient Tea Horse Caravan Road) was opened between Yunnan and Tibet. Here the Chinese traded tea for the valuable Yunnan, Tibetan and Burmese horses.

When Marco Polo visited the region he commented repeatedly on the "excellent horses" of the Lolo and Shan peoples from Yunnan and from a kingdom called Anin, somewhere between Annam in northern Vietnam and far southeastern Yunnan. Horses from these regions were said to be exported to India.

In this province [Shan kingdom of Yunnan] also are bred large and excellent horses which are taken to India for sale. And you must know that the people dock two or three joints of the tail from their horses, to prevent them from flipping their riders, a thing which they consider very unseemly. They ride long like Frenchmen, and wear armour of boiled leather, and carry spears and shields and arblasts, and all their quarrels are poisoned.

-- The Travels of Marco Polo, Volume 2, by Marco Polo and Rustichello of Pisa, et al, Edited by Henry Yule and Henri Cordier

Short horses from Yunnan. Chinese sources tell of the dazzling variety of horses from the region. (Source: Yunnan Photos)

The word "large" (Old French grant) above is better translated as "great" probably referring to the quality rather than size of the horse. Throughout the ages the horses in this region were described as small in size.

Horses from the Sea

Starting in the 14th century, Mongol and Manchu armies in the north continually threatened the Ming dynasty of China prompting them to seek horses from yet newer sources.

Across the sea, the kingdoms of Lusung (Central Luzon), Liukiu (Okinawa/Ryukyu), P'ing-ka-shi-lan (Pangasinan, Luzon) and Sulu became these new sources in the horse trade.

The "excellent" and "small but sturdy" horses from this region were imported repeatedly and also brought as "tribute." Lusung officially brought horses as tribute twice in 1372 and 1408.

These nimble hardy horses were well-suited for patroling treacherous terrain or atop of the Great Wall.

Horses and riders from Taal volcano, Philippines (Source: http://home.gci.net/~cwm/philippine_photos.htm)

Earlier Muslim works tell of the warrior princesses of Wakwak and Tawalisi who were expert "horsemen." The Chinese sources stated that the people of Toupo (Wakwak) were fond of horse meat, while Buzurg ibn Shahriyar said the horse bits in Wakwak were made of gold. However, it was not until Ming times that horses began coming across the sea to China.

When the Portuguese and Dutch landed in this region during the 16th century they relied largely on the feral and domestic horses of eastern Indonesia for their stables. Horses from the island of Timor were important in producing Australian horse breeds with special toughness and endurance.

Not generally known is the importance of the horse in the symbolic and ritual culture of insular Southeast Asia. The horse motif both with and without rider appears frequently on sacred textiles throughout this region.

"Horse blankets" are signs of nobility and royalty in many areas. Sulu and Badjao grave markers are known as "horses" (kurakura). The horse sacrifice is found both here and in mainland Southeast Asia as both a chiefly/royal and mortuary ritual.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Chakravarti, Ranabir. “Horse Trade and Piracy at Tana (Thana, Maharashtra, India): Gleanings from Marco Polo”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient (Leiden) 34, pt.2 (Jun 1991): 159-182.

Fang Qian and Guoxing Zhou (editors). Quaternary Geology and Paleoanthropology of Yuanmou, Yunnan, China, translated by Will Downs, Northern Arizona University, March, 1993.

Maxwell, Robyn. Textiles of Southeast Asia: Tradition, Trade and Transformation, Tuttle Publishing, 2003.

Yang, Bin. "Horses, Silver, and Cowries: Yunnan in Global Perspective," Journal of World History, vol. 15, 3, Sept. 2004.