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The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World Paperback – August 15, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
In this study of language, archeology and culture, Hartwick College anthropology professor Anthony hypothesizes that a proto-Indo-European culture emerged in the Ponto-Caspian steppes 4,000 years ago, speaking an ur-language ancestor to the Romance, German and Slavic family of languages, Sanskrit and modern English. Citing discoveries in the Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan made possible only after the fall of the Iron Curtain brought together Soviet and western scientists, Anthony combines evidence from radioactive dating, demographic analysis of migration patterns, linguistic analysis and the study of epics such as the Iliad and the Rig Veda to substantiate his contention. Central to his thesis is the role of the horse, originally domesticated for food and first ridden to manage herds; only later, with the development of the chariot, were they ridden during combat. Anthony provides a comprehensive, in-depth analysis of his subject, complete with a history of relevant research over the past two centuries (including evidence and opinion that counter his own, such as the now-discredited Aryan race hypothesis). A thorough look at the cutting edge of anthropology, Anthony's book is a fascinating look into the origins of modern man.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Winner of the 2010 Book Award, Society for American Archaeology
"David W. Anthony argues that we speak English not just because our parents taught it to us but because wild horses used to roam the steppes of central Eurasia, because steppedwellers invented the spoked wheel and because poetry once had real power. . . . Anthony is not the first scholar to make the case that Proto-Indo-European came from this region [Ukraine/Russia], but given the immense array of evidence he presents, he may be the last one who has to.... The Horse, the Wheel, and Language brings together the work of historical linguists and archaeologists, researchers who have traditionally been suspicious of each other's methods. [The book] lays out in intricate detail the complicated genealogy of history's most successful language."--Christine Kenneally, The New York Times Book Review
"[A]uthoritative . . . "--John Noble Wilford, New York Times
"A thorough look at the cutting edge of anthropology, Anthony's book is a fascinating look into the origins of modern man."--Publishers Weekly (Online Reviews Annex)
"In the age of Borat it may come as a surprise to learn that the grasslands between Ukraine and Kazakhstan were once regarded as an early crucible of civilisation. This idea is revisited in a major new study by David Anthony."--Times Higher Education
"Starting with a history of research on Proto-Indo-Europeans and exploring how this field for obvious reasons assumed an ethno-political dimension early on, leading PIE scholar Anthony moves on to established facts . . . then shifts his focus to the interrelation of the three essential elements of horse, chariot, and language and how the first and second provided the means for the spread of Indo-European languages from India to Ireland. The bulk of the book contains the factual evidence, mainly archaeological, to support this argument. But a strength of the book is its rich historical linguistic approach. The combination of the two provides a remarkable work that should appeal to everyone with an interest not just in Indo-Europeans, but in the history of humanity in general."--K. Abdi, Dartmouth College, for CHOICE
"David Anthony's book is a masterpiece. A professor of anthropology, Anthony brings together archaeology, linguistics, and rare knowledge of Russian scholarship and the history of climate change to recast our understanding of the formation of early human society."--Martin Walker, Wilson Quarterly
"The Horse, the Wheel, and Language brings together the work of historical linguists and archaeologists, researchers who have traditionally been suspicious of each other's methods. Though parts of the book will be penetrable only by scholars, it lays out in intricate detail the complicated genealogy of history's most successful language."--Christine Kenneally, International Herald Tribune
"The Horse, the Wheel and Language maps the early geography of the Russian steppes to re-create the lost world of Indo-European culture that is as fascinating as any mystery novel."--Arthur Krim, Geographical Reviews
"In its integration of language and archaeology, this book represents an outstanding synthesis of what today can be known with some certainty about the origin and early history of the Indo-European languages. In my view, it supersedes all previous attempts on the subject."--Kristian Kristiansen, Antiquity
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The first quarter of the book hummed, in my opinion. The author, David W. Anthony, did a fantastic job of describing the work that goes into reconstructing Proto-Indo-European ("PIE"). He also did a fantastic job of making the case for the when and where of PIE language group, namely between 4,500 and 2,500 years ago on the steppes between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.
The concepts and ideas that emerged in this section were stunning. We got a description of how the proto-languages we know, Latin, Celtic, German, Slavic, Greek, etc., sloughed off the PIE homeland and began making their move westward, southward, and eastward (in the case of Tokharian.) I had always believed that Lithuanian was one of the oldest PIE languages because it bore such a resemblance to Sanskrit, but the truth appears to be that Lithuanian and Sanskrit were the last languages to separate, which explains their similarity. Likewise, I'd always understood that Hittite was an Indo-European language, but Anthony suggests that Hittite may have split off of the PIE stock at a pre-PIE point in time. Another interesting point is the appearance of themes and deities from the Rig Veda in Mittanian culture. Anthony's theory is that the Mitanni were chariot conquerors of Mitanni who adopted local language and culture except for the tradition of Indo-European names.
Based on language roots, Anthony locates the PIE era in the period after the domestication of sheep and during the development of wheels and wagons. The horse/wheel/wagon technology gave PIE speakers the ability to exploit the steppes and an attractive resource for setting up client relationships with non-PIE tribes, who would eventually be brought around to the PIE language culture.
Anthony's understanding of the PIE expansion does not involve epic migrations and conquests. Rather, based on his model of language acquisition in more contemporary settings, Anthony explains the IE expansion as involving trade and the guest/host relationship.
However, the balance of the book becomes a slog as Anthony canvasses every pot and artifact dug up in the steppes. This is important stuff, and it casts off a periodic nugget of intense interest. Based on archeological data, Anthony identifies the Yamnaya culture as the PIE group:
"The Yamnaya horizon meets the expectations for late Proto-Indo-European in many ways: chronologically (the right time), geographically (the right place), materially (wagons, horses, animal sacrifices, tribal pastoralism), and linguistically (bounded by persistent frontiers); and it generated migrations in the expected directions and in the expected sequence. Early Proto-Indo-European probably developed between 4000 and 3500 BCE in the Don– Volga– Ural region. Late Proto-Indo-European, with o-stems and the full wagon vocabulary, expanded rapidly across the Pontic-Caspian steppes with the appearance of the Yamnaya horizon beginning about 3300 BCE. By 2500 BCE the Yamnaya horizon had fragmented into daughter groups, beginning with the appearance of the Catacomb culture in the Don-Kuban region and the Poltavka culture in the Volga-Ural region about 2800 BCE. Late Proto-Indo-European also was so diversified by 2500 BCE that it probably no longer existed (chapter 3). Again, the linkage with the steppe archaeological evidence is compelling."
This is fascinating and potentially revolutionary stuff, made possible in the last 15 years by the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, honestly, if you aren't an archeologist, the last two-thirds of the book involve a lot of trudging through cultures, cities and artifacts. I did a lot of skimming at that point.
Clearly, Anthony is not to be faulted for the book he wrote, and the information is first-rate. Nonetheless, most readers might not be expecting this kind of book, particularly after the opening portion of the book, which involved a higher altitude survey, rather than getting into the weeds.
This was a challenging book to read, thanks to its plethora of pottery. But it was interesting and presented a plausible case for the author's hypothesis on the origin and spread of Proto-Indo-European and its child languages. I am pleased I read it, and I think any who have an amateur's interest in linguistics would probably also like it. Although an affection for archaeology would also be an asset.
The very concept of Proto-Indo-European has long suffered from an association with all manner of bogus racial theories and rampant speculation about who the "real" Aryans were. Even Amazon's recommendation engine now seems to think I'm interested in a lot of thinly-veiled screeds and conspiracy theories. But one of the most valuable aspects of this book is that it tries to distance the concept of Proto-Indo-European from nearly two centuries of racist claptrap by pinning linguistic theories to recent archaeological discoveries. The persistence of those inaccurate racial theories had a lot to do with a lack of physical evidence; there was nothing to prove them either right or wrong, and this allowed imaginations to run wild. But after reading Anthony's account, it seems entirely plausible that the archaeology supports the linguistic hypothesis that Indo-European languages share a common ancestor. Since the 1990s, an explosion of archaeological discoveries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia has given us a huge new range of information about neolithic peoples, their movements, technology, and apparent contact with and influence on one another. Anthony weaves this new evidence in with linguistic methodology to create a compelling argument for who the "Aryans" (the original speakers of Proto-Indo-European) were, where they lived, and how their language became the foundation for dozens of modern languages.
Of course, to do this, Anthony needs to get very deep into the archaeological records. The latter 2/3 of the book analyzes dozens of finds across an area of thousands of square miles at a fairly granular level. Many readers have found this tedious, but it lets him pin a set of hypotheses down with an impressive series of data points. And he's making some pretty big claims, pushing milestones like the domestication of horses, the production of wool, and the use of chariots back by hundreds of years, in a way that changes the widely-accepted narrative of prehistory considerably.
I thought that was interesting enough to make all the descriptions of pottery and tools relevant. There were always enough big ideas interspersed with the small facts to keep me turning the pages. However, the scope of the book is so vast and the level of detail so intense, I think it may be more than most people would enjoy. If I wasn't already intensely interested in the archaeology of this region, it might have overwhelmed me, too. The parts about domestication of the horse could have stood alone as a book, and I suspect the author had a lot more to say about this, but simply couldn't fit it into this already-sprawling text. I understand why Anthony thought this research needed to be part of a continuous volume, as it is all interconnected, but the flip side of this is that it's a bit difficult to tease any one thread out of the whole as you're reading.
The weakest points of the book are where Anthony seems to let his own political and ideological leanings show through, although mercifully he keeps this brief. It seems, like many archaeologists, he pines for some sort of idealized paleolithic Eden, when humans lived in small, peaceful groups, before agriculture created modern inequality. At least he doesn't get too far into that; like Jared Diamond, his theories are weakest when he speculates about the motivation and morality of ancient peoples. But one feature that more than compensates for these asides is that Anthony includes *images* of nearly everything, something not every archaeology book does, always to its own detriment. Reading about an endless series of broken pots and trying to remember why they were significant is taxing enough. Why make me struggle to visualize all that pottery as well? It was so much more enlightening to read about a clay bowl or a horse-shaped axe, and then see an image of the thing on the very next page.
Overall, an incredibly interesting book, and one which I think will be of great importance as we struggle to understand the civilization of this period, and the ways in which it shaped the modern world.