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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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"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
"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
"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
"A key book."---David Keys, Independent
"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
"Winner of the 2010 Book Award, Society for American Archaeology"
"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
"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
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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.
It's been nearly a decade since the author published this book. In that time, the book has received considerable praise and some detraction, and is credited for the Kurgan Hypothesis revision. Additional evidence, genetic and otherwise, has confirmed the author's speculations -- at least confirmed as much as is possible with 5000 years of separation and minimal evidence.
I've minimal disagreement with most of the author's speculations and conclusions, and his arguments have weathered time and improved technology well. I understand the need for rehash and documentation which seems to have annoyed many layman readers. I found several "explanations" humorous, especially the author's petulance on the subject of the "first use of the chariot" (and his numerous "jibes" after initial explanations). I felt the author somewhat "hidebound" when he so quickly passed off the benefits of genetics -- it appears that acceptance of linguistics into archaeology and anthropology doesn't always open the doors to newer fields and technology.
There are so many questions yet unanswered, others to be refined. Genetics will be one key, as it provides physical evidence as does grave site remains. What cultural imperatives drove these Steppe people, people that went from hunter/gatherers along forested areas to Steppe herdsmen, to becoming the primary language and culture over so much of Eurasia? How were they organized and in what numbers? What happened between the speculated diaspora from the Steppes to recorded history?
Several of these questions are being researched -- no doubt more will be over time. As someone with interest in genetic genealogy and cultural anthropology, I hope the wait for answers won't be too long...
Top international reviews
The bulk of the meticulous archaeological research described by Anthony was done by Soviet and East European archaeologists, listed in his bibliography but not mentioned in his acknowledgments. Yet before Anthony’s book the story of the steppe riders had already been presented to Western readers in great detail, by Marija Gimbutas. However, Gimbutas offered a very different interpretation of the data, and although she was viewed condescendingly by most Western archaeologists, who saw her work as eccentric and misjudged, ironically it is her interpretation of the weaponised steppe riders’ astonishingly violent impact on central European society and culture in the Neolithic (a culture she called Old Europe) that has been vindicated by the DNA results. It WAS an invasion, albeit one which appears to have unfolded in waves. The arrival of the steppe riders in Central, then Western Europe brought to power an extremely violent patriarchal society whose veneration of a Sky God, hierarchical social structure, and love of warriors and weapons contrasted significantly with the values of the Neolithic societies it displaced.
If you have already read Gimbutas, you may have noticed a striking omission from Anthony’s curiously sanitised picture of the steppe warriors’ culture: although his book includes several illustrations which depict the disturbing ‘double burials’ often found in the steppe riders’ kurgans, he seems unable to acknowledge that these typically represent human sacrifice. This practice, together with multiple animal sacrifices, was routinely performed at the elaborate funerals of their chieftains and senior warriors. Such double burials were the origin of the practice later known in India as sati, where the wife or wives of the dead leader would be required to die and enter the otherworld with him, in some cases being accompanied by children and slaves. It seems to me quite inexcusable that Anthony omits any reference to this illuminating and to my mind, damning detail. For along with their fondness for sacrificing horses, cattle and other animals at key burial sites (which were usually kurgans), this practice speaks volumes about the values of the violent society that overran Europe during the Bronze Age. So anyone who thinks Anthony’s book is the last word on this subject should immediately read Gimbutas, for eg The Kurgan culture and the Indo-Europeanisation of Europe, or The Civilisation of the Goddess.
The book starts well enough with an exploration of Proto-Indo-European as a language - what we know, and what we can learn from it. But then it soon falls into a repetitive pattern of archaeological reports for the large number of identified cultures in the steppes over a couple of thousand years. After a while this really begins to drag.
Perhaps more disturbingly, Anthony seems so desperate to prove his own ideas he thinks nothing of backhanding the giants of archaeology who came before him, not least Marija Gimbutas, who was singularly responsible for identifying where the Proto-Indo-Europeans originated. Anthony also repeatedly takes swipes at other archaeologists, sometimes in a way that seems a little too personal.
However, the value of this book comes from the steppe archaeology itself, and no doubt will prove of keen interest for further research. This also means this book is likely to disappoint and even bore the casual reader simply looking for a general overview of who the Proto-Indo-Europeans were and what how they "shaped the modern world".
There's also the important caveat that genetic studies published after this book show that the spread of Proto-Indo-European languages was far more violent and deadly than Anthony tries to argue. He also seems unaware of Cunliffe's argument that the Proto-Celtic branch travelled to Western Europe through the Mediterranean.
So, overall, a potentially useful text for interested archaeologists - hence 4 stars - but not for general readers.
The question it deals with is not new; it is at least 2 hundred years old, namely the origin of the Indo-European languages. As the book says, about half the people of the world speak an Indo-European language. Nor are the conclusions of the book different from the commonly-held view that they originated in the steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas. The author combines linguistic and archaeological studies. He does so with great thoroughness, drawing on Russian and Ukrainian studies now available to those able to read Russian and there are many of these. The problem for the non-expert is that there a too many of these. What is suitable for a university student is less suitable for the general reader, and I found myself skipping.
As is common nowadays, the author dismisses the theory from Rassenkampf (racial wars) of Social Darwinism. Rather, Indo-European became regarded as a prestige language, the language of high status families. Greek, Latin, and Arabic spread in a similar manner, as indeed did English, French and Spanish. Prestige no doubt followed success in battle, but did not involve wiping out populations. The use of the horse for riding and the composite bow, also helped.
This exhaustive work sums up recent scholarship on the subject. It does not explain the origin of the local dialect of the steppes which was to prove so influential.
First, in 5500 BC, the proto-indo-europeans (PIE) were small bands of foragers based in the Pontic-Caspian riverrain and seaside regions. While neolithic agricultural techniques were spreading, PIE adopted herding techniques of grass-eating species, enabling them to convert previously useless steppe grasses into animal protein. This vastly increased their range of potential living spaces. Horses, in particular, represented a good food source: they could paw through snow to grass, rather than depend on their noses like sheep, which preferred to starve than scrape their tender snozes as winter wore on. This hugely increased their wealth and nutritional options, expanding their population, prestige, and power. In this way, they became a significant cultural force. (Interestingly, it appears that 2 offshoots - the Hittite language groups and the Tocharians - split off prior to this, around 4500-4000 BC.)
Second, a series of stunning technological inventions increased their mobility and speed over unprecedented ranges. Not only did the wheel make its appearance, but so did the wagon and eventually the chariot. This reinforced PIE economic power and, particularly with the chariot and the newly acquired ability to ride horses instead of just eating them, made them a formidable military power as well. They were able to protect themselves as well as raid others and then beat a hasty escape. The need to protect herds also enhanced the status of male warriors. Finally, as their herds grew to enormous proportions, PIE sought new grazing areas, spurring further spreading west, northwest, and southeast.
Third, according to Kennedy, PIE developed a political system based on 2 customs that enabled them to incorporate local peoples relatively peacefully, with the adoption of PIE dialects and intermarriage eventually mixing the populations. On the one hand, with their wealth and economic system, PIE developed client-master relations with locals, in effect incorporating them into a lower rank of their hierarchy. This was accomplished to their mutual advantage, trading prosperity for peace and stability. On the other hand, there was a system of guest-host relations, also to promote peace and sharing, in particular in feasts given by PIE to prove the superiority of their economic-agricultural system. In this way, over thousands of years, PIE dialects spread to autochtons as they were absorbed into a quasi-political order. Though Anthony did not quite prove to my satisfaction that this was accomplished without depending on a great deal on warfare, I admit it is possible it happened non-violently.
By 3200 BC or so, the PIE had created a gigantic diaspora of related but independent regions. With the perfection of bronze smelting, the relative uniformity of the many groups facilitated trade, initiating an unprecedented era of prosperity that lasted through 2000 years, to the iron age. It was during this time that PIE split into Celtic, Italic, Germanic, Indo-Iranian, Baltic, and Slavic groupings (to name a few!), eventually leading to the modern languages that a full 70% of the world speaks today. This is absolutely wonderful stuff for the brain, a rare intellectual adventure. You can also gain a deep understanding of the Bronze Age, though little of the culture can be known with any specificity. It is also a primer on historical linguistics, lucidly written, that examines the structure of PIE languages; for example, its grammar is elaborately structured to reflect time and action, which is not the case with other basic root languages (Hopi, for example, incorporates one's assessment of the accuracy of a source of information into its grammar, shaping thought in an entirely different way).
That being said, this is a very academic book. THere are long passages where seemingly obscure points are proven. They can be tedious to the uninitiated and easily skipped. For myself, I dislike long descriptions of graves and pottery shards, of which there are very many; the same goes for the linguistic reconstruction of PIE, which necessitates long discussions of word roots and their evolution into modern usages. Of course, to be scientific, these arguments must be made. To his credit, Anthony always brings the reader back to remind us of where he is going and what it means, which make the book a consistent pleasure.
I recommend this book with the greatest enthusiasm. It is also beautifully written and has plenty of personal observations, such as his efforts with his wife to prove that horses were ridden by gauging wear on horse's teeth, that are funny and instructive.
maybe a revised edition would be very good :-)
As an interested amateur I loved it.