Previous posts in the series:
- "Of precious swords and Old Sinitic reconstructions" (3/8/16)
- "Of precious swords and Old Sinitic reconstructions, part 2" (3/12/16)
- "Of precious swords and Old Sinitic reconstructions, part 3" (3/16/16)
- "Of precious swords and Old Sinitic reconstructions, part 4" (3/24/16)
As mentioned before, the following post is not about a sword or other type of weapon per se, but in terms of its ancient Eurasian outlook, it arguably belongs in the series:
- "Of felt hats, feathers, macaroni, and weasels" (3/13/16)
Today's post is also not about a sword, but it is about a weapon, namely an arrow.
Hannes A. Fellner:
…speaking of jiàn, that is to say 箭 'arrow', B-S reconstruction MC *tsjenH < OC *[ts]en-s, and names for weapons.
Let's put this linguistic evidence in archeological, paleographical, and historical context.
Already from the Mesolithic period, ca. 26,000 BC, there is archeological evidence for arrows, specifically that which was found in 1963 in Shuo County, Shanxi. See Joseph Needham, Robin Yates, et al., Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 5, part 6, note 4 on p. 102. See also Stephen Selby, Chinese Archery (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2000), p. 5, who cites evidence dating to 20,000-10,000 BP for arrowheads.
Of course, we don't know what the word for arrow was then, and indeed that was long before Sinitic languages arose (that would take place more than 20,000 years later than the earliest date mentioned in the previous paragraph).
By the time of the oracle bone inscriptions, ca. 1200 BC, we do have a word for "arrow", that is shǐ 矢, which is a simple pictograph, a shaft with a point on one end and fletching on the other, so it doesn't tell us anything about how, specifically, the kind of arrow depicted was made. Its Old Sinitic (OS) reconstruction is *lhiʔ (Schuessler), which is clearly completely unrelated to the sound of jiàn 箭 ("arrow"), OS *tsens (Schuessler, Minimal Old Chinese and Later Han Chinese, p. 248, where he notes Toch. tsain).
Since Sinitic already had a word for arrow going back to the oracle bones ca. 1200 BC, viz., shǐ 矢, I suspect that jiàn 箭 reflects the borrowing of a completely new word from outside that most likely was accompanied by a significant technological development. This probably took place in the latter part of the Zhou Dynasty ( 1046-256 BC), when the new character shows up on bronze inscriptions.
It's conceivable that Tocharians were already in contact with Chinese by that time (late Zhou), but I rather suspect that Sinitic borrowed this new word for arrow from an Iranian source (cf. the remarks of Fellner above), since they were the ones who appear to have brought horseriding, the composite bow (necessary for shooting arrows from horseback), and suitable arrows to go along with the radically new bows. This would have happened during the second half of the first millennium BC, around the same time that jiàn 箭 seems to have entered the Chinese lexicon (though these developments took place earlier, stretching back into the second millennium BC, farther to the west).
On the other hand, some of the male warrior burials in Xiaohe / Small River Cemetery No. 5, also known as Ördek's Necropolis, dated to around 1800 BC, were literally smothered in arrows with fletching that is still like new. But people would not have been riding horses for purposes of warfare at that early date, though the Tocharians are among the most likely candidates for the identity of the people who buried their dead at this site. See J.P. Mallory and Victor Mair, The Tarim Mummies and J. P. Mallory, The Problem of Tocharian Origins: An Archaeological Perspective (free pdf, 63 pp.). I am a great fan of the Tocharians overall, but I still think that a new package for mounted warfare (horseriding, composite bow, appropriate arrows [with metal tips instead of stone arrowheads or none], etc.) were brought eastward across the steppes by Iranian-speaking peoples during the first millennium BC.
“The Horse in Late Prehistoric China: Wresting Culture and Control from the ‘Barbarians.’” In Marsha Levine, Colin Renfrew and Katie Boyle, ed. Prehistoric steppe adaptation and the horse, McDonald Institute Monographs. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, pp. 163-187.
[Thanks to Robin Yates, Anthony Barbieri-Low, Peter Lorge, and Matt Anderson]