Popular Science Monthly/Volume 7/June 1875/A Curious Question of Horses' Ribs

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 7 June 1875  (1875) 
A Curious Question of Horses' Ribs
By Friedrich Max Müller


SYLVIUS said that man had formerly an intermaxillary bone. If he has it no longer, he ought to have it. In this he was right. The same Sylvius, in his answer to Vesalius, said that Galen was not wrong when he described man as having seven bones in his sternum, "for," said he, "in ancient times the robust chests of heroes might very well have had more bones than our degenerate day can boast." In this he was wrong.

I take these statements from Mr. Lewes's "Life of Goethe" (p. 343), and I have to confess that I have not verified them. They interested me, however, as bearing on a controversy that has been carried on for some time between scholars and anatomists, viz., whether another animal, the horse, instead of losing, has developed in course of time some bones which it did not originally possess. Horses have now thirty-six ribs; sometimes, it is said, thirty-eight. But there is a passage in the "Rig-Veda," which speaks apparently of only thirty-four ribs in horses. It was M. Pictrement, who, in his work "Les Origines du Cheval domestique d'après la Paléontologie, la Zoologie, l'Histoire et la Philologie" (Paris, 1870), first called attention to this curious statement, and drew from it the conclusion, supported by some very ingenious arguments, that at the time of the Vedic poets, say about 1500 b. c., there existed a race of horses with only thirty-four ribs. Other zoölogists, and more particularly M. Sanson, raised some strong objections, but M. Pictrement replied to them in his "Mémoire sur les Chevaux à trente-quatre côtes des Aryas de l'Époque Védique" (Paris, 1871), and the question is still sub judice.

M. Pictrement's reasoning may best be given in his own words:

"In the first place, I would observe that the presence of only thirty-four ribs in an equine race, whether ancient or modern, would not be by any means abnormal, or contrary to the laws of Nature; for it is fully agreed now that the number of these bones is far from being constant in our present horses. Indeed, Cbauveau remarks as follows on the number of ribs in the horse: ‘We reckon for each lateral half of the thorax eighteen ribs. Not unfrequently we find nineteen, with an equal number of dorsal vertebræ in well-formed horses; but, then, most usually there are only five lumbar vertebræ.’
"On the other hand, we sometimes find in horses of a certain type ‘only five lumbar vertebra, instead of six (which is the usual number in the species Equus caballus), the number of the other vertebræ being the same as usual in the horse.’
"When this latter fact was published in France by M. Sanson, it at first met with much opposition, but now it is fully accepted by men of science; and it is justly considered as an indication of the ancient existence of an equine race with five lumbar vertebræ; and the crossing of these horses with horses having six lumbar vertebræ fully accounts for the frequent anomalies of conformation which we find in this region of the vertebral column."

Having by these considerations established the possibility of an ancient race of horses with only thirty-four ribs, M. Pictrement appealed for its reality to a passage in the most ancient literary document of the whole Aryan world, the "Rig-Veda."

The passage in which the thirty-four ribs of the horse are mentioned occurs in the 162d hymn of the first book of the "Rig-Veda Samhita." I translated the whole of that hymn in my "History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature" (1860, p. 553). The hymn is ascribed to Dirghatamas, and describes the sacrifice of the horse in very full detail. In the eighteenth verse we read:

"The axe approaches the thirty-four ribs of the quick horse, beloved of the gods. Do you wisely keep the limbs whole, find out each joint and strike."

This passage is curious in many respects. It refutes the statement of Strabo (xv., 54), that the Indians did not slaughter their victims: "They do not slay the victim, but suffocate it, to the end that it may not be offered to the god mutilated, but entire." It also seems to imply that the horses then offered at the sacrifices had only thirty-four ribs. This statement, however, startled even the orthodox commentators in India, and Sayana remarks in his commentary on this passage, that other animals, such as goats, etc., have only twenty-six ribs, as might be proved by what he considers as far more convincing than ocular evidence, viz., a passage from the "Brahmanas," in which it is said, "Its ribs are twenty-six." In another passage, in his commentary on the "Satapatha brahmana," xiii., 5, 1, 18, Sayana returns to the same subject, but unfortunately that passage, as edited by Prof. Weber, is so corrupt that I at least cannot make sense of it, though it is clear that Sayana says there that their ribs are thirty-six. Another commentator, Mahidhara, explaining the horse-sacrifice, as prescribed in the "Yagurveda," seems to have no anatomical misgivings, but states that the horse has thirty-four, goats and other animals twenty-six ribs.

I confess that I was myself very much puzzled by the passage in the "Rig-Veda." It was quite clear that the reading katustrimsat, thirty-four, cannot be called in question; it was equally clear that that number would not have been mentioned except for some special purpose. That it was the habit of the ancient Hindoos to count the various bones of the human or animal skeleton, may be seen in the "Law-book of Yagnavalkya," iii., 85, et seq. There we read:

"The neck consists of fifteen bones, a collar-bone on each side, and the chin; two at its root, and the same on the forehead, the eyes, and the cheeks, and the nose of firm bone. The ribs with their supports and the Arbudas (Zippenknorpel) are seventy-two. Two front-bones, four skull-bones of the head, seventeen bones of the chest, these are the bones of a man."

Similar passages occur elsewhere, and establish the fact that the ancient anatomists of India made a point of knowing the exact number of the bones in the different portions of the bodies both of men and animals.

Not being able to find a satisfactory solution of my difficulty, I applied to Prof. Huxley, and I am glad, with his permission, to print the following letter, which offers a most ingenious, and, to my mind, satisfactory solution:

"26 Abbey Place, N. W."

"My dear Sir: I have been much interested in M. Pictrement's ‘Mémoire.’ His work ‘Les Origines des Chevaux domestiques’ is well known to me, but I
had paid no particular attention to his incidental mention of the 34-ribbed Aryan horse.
"M. Pictrement's essay raises three questions. The first, Does the passage of Dirghatamas's hymn cited necessarily imply that the horse known to him had only thirty-four ribs? The second, Does the passage from Sayana imply that he asserted of his own knowledge that the horses of his time (in 1400 a. d.) had only thirty-four ribs? The third, Are there any zoölogical arguments in favor of or against the existence of a breed of 34-ribbed horses?
"1. Your Latin version of the solitary Vedic passage upon which M. Pictrement relies, admits the reading, ‘The axe cuts through [the] thirty-four ribs of the quick horse,’ etc.
"I speak ignorantly, but suppose I am right in assuming that there is no more ‘the’ in the Sanskrit than in the Latin. Nevertheless, it is upon the presence of this definite article that the question turns. For, without it, the passage may simply mean that the axe cuts through thirty-four ribs out of the thirty-six with which the horse is provided. What makes me think that this may be the proper signification of the passage is the inquiry I put to myself, For what purpose did the sacrificing priest want to cut through the horse's ribs? Surely, in order to disembowel him. But, in order to do this, no one would go through the great trouble and labor of chopping through the bony parts of the ribs of a horse. Moreover, such a proceeding would be incompatible with the objection to mangling the horse's bones, which is strongly displayed elsewhere in the Vedic hymn.
"But every bony rib ends below in a gristly substance, and it is quite easy to cut these ‘costal cartilages,’ and then, turning them back, along with the breastbone, the cavity of the chest is laid widely open, and the priest readily reaches the heart or the like.
"But, if every rib ends in a cartilage, there must be thirty-six cartilages, and not thirty-four?
"True, but the last pair of ribs is much shorter than the others. It is not needful that all the thirty-six pairs of costal cartilages should be cut through in order to lay the chest thoroughly open; and for sacrificial purposes it may have been inconvenient to cut through more than the thirty-four ribs which lie in front of it.
"If you are laying open a man's chest for a post-mortem examination, you go to work exactly as I am supposing the Aryan priest to do. You cut through the rib cartilages on each side and take them away, along with the breast-bone to which they are attached. But, in doing this, you leave at least the last two ribs on each side untouched, because they are free, so that it is not needful to cut them.
"If I were a poet, and made a hymn about a post-mortem examination, I might speak of the operator's scalpel ‘cutting through the twenty ribs,’ without meaning to imply that the man of the period is devoid of his full complement.
"2. Does Sayana say that the horses of his time had only thirty-four ribs? The passage quoted by you does not seem to me to bear that interpretation at all.
"3. As to the zoölogical aspect of the question. Horses may undoubtedly vary not only in the number of their ribs, but in the number of their dorso-lumbar vertebræ. The latter may be twenty-four (as usual), or twenty-three, as in the cases cited by Sanson, and also by Legh in his 'Handbuch der Anatomie der Hausthiere;' and the former may be eighteen (as usual) or nineteen on each side. Unfortunately, I know of no case on record (and M. Piétrement seems to
have been unable to find one) in which either horse, ass, or other equine animal, had fewer than thirty-eight ribs. If a 34-ribbed race of horses ever existed, I think it ought to turn up as a variety now and then. But it does not; and, what is still more to the purpose, we do not find that any of the immediate allies of the horse have fewer than thirty-six ribs; though they may, as in the case of the ass, have only five lumbar vertebræ.
"Without wishing, in the least, to dogmatize, then, I must say that the zoölogical probabilities appear to me to be dead against M. Piétrement's hypothesis; and unless you tell me that the Sanskrit text must mean that Dirghatamas's horses had thirty-four ribs and no more, I shall take leave to doubt the existence of these 34-ribbed steeds.
"I am afraid I have troubled you with a very long letter, which does not come to much in the way of certainty after all. . . .

"I remain, yours very truly, T. H. Huxley."

I have little doubt that Prof. Huxley has solved the riddle. It is open to translate either the thirty-four, or thirty-four ribs; but, whether we adopt the one or the other rendering, it seems clear that the poet must have had some reason for mentioning that number. If thirty-four was the usual number of a horse's ribs in his time, then there seems little reason for giving the number. "Cut the ribs" would have conveyed the same meaning as "cut the thirty-four ribs." If, on the contrary, the number thirty-four was mentioned because it was exceptional, then the poet, and his commentators too, would have said more about the anomaly. Every thing becomes intelligible if we admit that, in cutting open the horse, two ribs were not to be cut, so that they might remain and keep the carcass together. In that case to mention the number of ribs that were to be cut had a purpose, though it is strange that tradition, which in India possesses such extraordinary tenacity in unimportant matters, should not have preserved the original purport of the words of Dirghatamas. I have looked in vain for a passage where the cutting of the thirty-four ribs in the horse-sacrifice is more fully described; but I ought to add that in the oldest descriptions of the sacrifice of other animals, preserved in the Aitareya-Brahmana and the Srauta-Sutras of Alvarayana, nothing it said of leaving two ribs undivided. "Twenty-six are his ribs," we read: "let him take them out in order; let him not spoil any limb."—Academy.

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