The Horse and the Silk Road: Movement and Ideas

The Horse and the Silk Road: Movement and Ideas

By Paul Buell, David Ramey and Timothy May

Published Online

Introduction: During the last nearly four thousand years, down to the very recent present, no animal has been more ubiquitous or more important than the horse. This was above all due to its military role, at first to draw vehicles, then primarily as a mount, then again to draw vehicles and artillery pieces, in which role it performed regularly until 1945, as well as serving as a mount.

Because of the dominant position it quickly acquired in warfare as a consequence, once the horse was domesticated its use rapidly spread from one society to the other in the Old World, the process being repeated in the New from the sixteenth century to produce the classic plains Indians, among other horse using groups in North and South America. Along with the spread of the horse went lore of every sort, information required to put horses into military and other use, breed and maintain them, the latter area including veterinary traditions which were actively exchanged from one end of the Old World to the other and then beyond.

The present paper looks in particular at this last area of exchange viewed primarily from the perspective of the collection of land routes known as the Silk Road and the origins of the domesticated horse itself and the development of the ways in which it was put to use.

For all of human history, the horse has inarguably served one important function: as a source of food. Although in certain areas of the world, where horses were not naturally abundant, (most likely due to lack of suitable pasture), horsemeat apparently did not form an important food source; for example, Jewish law, made for dry Palestine, forbade the consumption of horsemeat, and the historical records of Egypt, where horses were particularly rare, and Mesopotamia, also both dry and poorly provided with pasture, fail to record horsemeat as a source of human nutrition. Still, in the temperate areas of what is now Europe and Asia, horsemeat was a staple of the human diet, at least until the virtual disappearance of large herds of wild horses there after the sixth millennium BC. In any case, the long-term use of the horse as food meant that the horse had a long relationship with humans before it was domesticated and was already an important animal for early man before it came actively under human control

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