Customer Reviews: The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World
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on June 16, 2008
I'll play the Bad Guy here, offering a more critical review than the others. Not that I disagree with the favorable reviews -- but I think that readers should realize that the book is not quite as advertised.

It starts off great with Part I, which is an excellent explanation of the linguistic questions associated with Proto-Indo-European. Anthony offers the latest results clearly and thoroughly. Unfortunately, Part I is only 120 pages long. Part II, 340 pages long, is the real meat of the book. And while Part II has lots of merit, it's not at all what the title or the subtitle suggest. Part II is best summarized as "A thorough summation of the archaeological results from the areas thought to be the homeland of the Proto Indo-European peoples". Here the author departs substantially from the subject matter as suggested by the title, subtitle, and Part I. We are subjected to endless detailed descriptions of archaeological digs all over southern Russia and Siberia. We are told (many times) what the percentage of sheep/goat bones, cattle bones, and horse bones were at every site. We are told the direction in which the bodies were placed in burial, how many flint tools of each type were found, and other details that are surely appropriate for a compendium of archaeological results, but not for the larger synthesis promised by the title and subtitle.

I will concede that the author does thread a larger narrative through the endless site reports. There's a section, for example, on "The Economic and Military Effects of Horseback Riding", which explains the impressive idea that the real impact of horseback riding was that it made it possible for nomads to travel further from the river valleys while grazing their animals. Another example: "The First Cities and Their Connection to the Steppes", which describes the trading patterns that arose once cities appeared in Mesopotamia.

But these delightful sections are lost in the numbing freshet of details. Here's a quote, from page 293:

"The bronze tools and weapons in other Novosvobodnaya-phase graves included cast flat axes, sleeved axes, hammer-axes, heavy tanged daggers with multiple midribs, chisels, and spearheads. The chisels and spearheads were mounted to their handles the same way, with round shafts hammered into four-sided contracting bases that fit into a V-shaped rectangular hole on the handle or spear. Ceremonial objects included bronze cauldrons, long-handled bronze dippers, and two-pronged bidents (perhaps forks for retrieving cooked meats from the cauldrons). Ornaments included beads of carnelian from western Pakistan, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, gold, rock crystal, and even a bead from Klady made from a human molar sheathed in gold (the first gold cap!)"

The author simply couldn't make up his mind what kind of book he wanted to write. Let me speculate on how this chimera of a book could have been written: the author, having spent years with Russian archaeologists accumulating a huge store of information about their work, approaches the publisher with a great idea for a book. "These Russians have been digging up all sorts of wonderful things", he says, "but here in the West we don't know much about their work. I'd like to write a book putting all their results together into a coherent story."

To which the publisher replies, "Sounds great, but what's the hook? We can't call this book 'A Summary of Results of Russian Archaeological Field Work Over the Period 1980 - 2000'. We need something sexier."

Anthony: "Well, their research certainly sheds a lot of light upon the beginnings of the Indo-European peoples."

Publisher: "Perfect! Let's make the book about how the Indo-European languages got started! That's always a good topic!"

So Anthony writes some extra chapters to slap up front, and we get two books for the price of one:

1. "Beginnings of the Indo-European Languages"
2. "A Summary of Results of Russian Archaeological Field Work Over the Period 1980 - 2000".

Now, there's nothing wrong with this. However, buyers should be aware of the fact that three quarters of the book consists of site reports and only one-quarter deals with Indo-European languages.
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on July 30, 2008
Well, I do have a doctorate in linguistics and do have a background in reconstructing Proto-In do-European, the mother language to most European languages as well as Farsi, spoken in Iran, and several languages in India and Pakistan. The author of this book is an archaeologist who is competent as well in historical linguistics. I found the book fascinating, thoughtful, terrifically well researched and well-written, although it rather went on and on about burial sites, and the names for the motley prehistoric cultures got confusing. I suspect that non-scholars would find this daunting. Even scholars who aren't in the thick of archaelogical disputes might find it too technical and nit-picking. I solved the problem once I realized you could skip over the myriad descriptions of kurgans and pottery, and just go to his conclusions at the end of the chapter, occasionally skipping backwards to check on an assertion or two. Since I've just retired from teaching, I'm truly sorry I won't have a class to share some of Anthony's insights with, such as his convincing explanation of why Proto-Indo-Europrean developed gender marking on nouns -- and why it introduced patriarchal gods to replace older goddess religions. In sum, for the intellectually curious and the brave, a very enlightening and (dare I use the cliche) thought-provoking tome.
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on January 21, 2009
In this work, David Anthony seeks to demonstrate that the original homeland of the Indo-European language family was in the Pontic-Caspian Steppes. In the process, he shows how the culture developed. This represents a significant contribution to the field and I would highly recommend it to all interested in the topic.

Anthony argues that persistent material culture frontiers tend to coincide with linguistic frontiers. This suggests that a well-bordered material culture horizon ("horizon" being an identifiable pattern regarding archaeological finds) would be home to one or more languages which would be, for the most part, contained within it (or at least it would be bounded on all sides by other languages). However, since this methodology is not fully accepted yet, and since even if accepted it does not provide a 1:1 correlation of language and culture, this work should be read critically. Furthermore, a number of his conclusions appeared to me sufficiently tentative that they could not be accepted without question. This work thus needs to be read as a groundbreaking (and thus somewhat tentative) work rather than a fully authoritative account.

However, despite the above issues, his proposed mappings of Indo-European language groups to archaeological horizons work surprisingly well. In some cases, the mappings seem to be hard to dispute.

I am going to disagree with a number of other reviewers on the value of minutae in the book. While it is true that the book seems to get repetitive at times regarding goat to sheep ratios, horse to cattle ratios, burrial types, etc. there is a great deal of value in providing this information. Often times, it is helpful to be able to see the patterns the author is referring to, and in order to do so, one must read all of the details.

Despite my recommendation, I will however provide two caveats for those who would order this book. The first is that this is a heavy, scientific read. It is not intended to be useful to the general public, and he assumes a basic scientific knowledge of archaeology and biology. If you are looking for an easier read, start elsewhere.

The second caveat is that the subtitle is slightly misleading. The author does not fill in the effect of the Indo-European language spread on the modern world, and this is probably best left for other works anyway. This is, however, an excellent survey of archaeological candidates for the speakers of languages which are the ancestors of modern languages, however.

All in all, highly recommended for interested readers.
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on January 13, 2010
Contrary to its subtitle, the book does not explain "How bronze-age riders from the Eurasian steppes shaped the modern world" unless your idea of the modern world is the Late Bronze Age, circa 1200 BC, which is roughly where the book ends.

"Shaping the modern world" is largely limited to asserting that the occupants of the steppes spoke a Proto-Indo-European language and that subsequent speakers of Indo-European languages, like English, Latin, Russian and Hindi, have shaped the modern world. Also, they probably domesticated the horse. The book is definitely not a sweeping analysis of influences from the late Neolithic or Bronze Age to the present day.

What it is, as other reviewers have pointed out, is really two works in one--an introduction to Indo-European historical linguistics and also a review of archaeology in southern Russia from the Neolithic through the Late Bronze Age. Naturally, the link is that the theorized homeland of the Proto-Indo-European speakers is the steppes of southern Russia between the Black and Caspian Seas, the Pontic-Caspian steppes.

Like most reviewers, I think it does cover its two main topics well, and it makes a plausible case for the location of the homeland. Although trained as an archaeologist, Anthony provides a readable account of the development of early Indo-European languages and their theorized source, Proto-Indo-European. That is the first quarter of the book. The remainder is devoted to a detailed survey of current archaeological knowledge of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages in the Pontic-Caspian steppes and surrounding areas. It's pretty dense reading at times. On the other hand, the numerous illustrations of grave goods offer a fascinating progression from simple tools and fetishes to later ornate gold statues and bronze spear points.

Although I read a library copy, I just might buy the book for the first few chapters on Indo-European historical linguistics, but I am disappointed that the subtitle is misleading.
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on August 1, 2008
Anthony makes a compelling case for the location of the Indo-European homeland, tracks the probable course of Proto-Indo European (PIE) and its daughter languages' expansion, and convincingly argues that PIE speakers domesticated the horse and invented the spoke-wheeled chariot. Anthony asserts he powerful cultural complex that they developed around their herding lifestyle helped expand the range of PIE and its daughter languages -- at one point likening the lifestyle changes engendered by herding combined with wagon and chariot-driving to the similar lifestyle revolution in twentieth-century America brought on by the proliferation of automobiles and the Interstate highway system.

Anthony uses evidence from archaeolinguistics, from oft-overlooked Russian steppe archaology, and his (and his wife's) own pioneering work on bit-wear markings in ancient horse teeth to make his case. He cites Native American linguistics and archaeology to help bolster his case when appropriate, along with the well-studied history of British colonization of North America -- and does so quite convincingly.

Anthony writes in a learned, but accessible style with an occasional witticism to keep the text from being overly-dry. Perhaps my only criticism would be his neglecting to compare the spread of Indo-European with that of the Turkic languages across Eurasia -- which was also accomplished wih stunning celerity (in historical terms), and also caused enormous cultural shifts which are still visible today. Perhaps he could do so in the second edition!
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on February 27, 2008
This is currently _the_ book on IE studies.

In addition to the superlatives used by the other reviewers, I would add that this work is up to date (2007)and includes previously unavailable materials from Russia, the Ukraine and Kazakhstan. The author spent a great deal of time in these areas and understands the cultural differences in the archaeologal and anthropological methods used by those from the old Soviet block. He is careful to explain these differences.

An enthralling book which will certainly be updated by future finds, but the broad conclusions are quite convincing.
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on January 13, 2009
The past is a different country and the deep past, the early Bronze Age, is almost a different planet. How can the fact that more than 50 languages currently spoken in a swath from Iceland to Afghanistan are related in their inner vocabulary and grammar provide a key to understanding the people who spoke the Mother Tongue of those languages before the dawn of history? David Anthony of Hartwick College (Oneonta, NY), who has spent 30 years working at the point where linguistics and archaeology intersect, traces the spread of the language spoken by a few thousand nomadic herders in their homeland on plains of the Don and Volga westward into Europe and eastward into Persia and India. The master clue is the fossil vocabulary for farming with horses and carts. For a language to spread to new speakers, it must offer them some practical advantage in everyday life. Anthony uses archeological findings in the homeland to describe that life and the forces that helped its language spread.
This is a fascinating story and no one has told it better than David Anthony.
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on May 15, 2012
Imagine grasslands as far as the eye can see, a vast open sky, hot, dry summers and bitterly cold winters where the wind won't quit. Imagine South Dakota and you have a good idea of the Steppes of southern Russia. Now, imagine men on horseback tending vast herds of cattle, and sheep being herded by barking dogs. There are no cities and few towns. For the most part, people live in tents and move constantly. This was life on the southern Russian Steppes circa 3500 BCE. And it's still this way today.

In 3500 BCE, however, a revolution was taking place here. These cowboys and shepherds--Indo-Europeans as they are now known--domesticated the horse, utilized bronze age technology fully 1000 years ahead of Western Europe, and perfected the wagon (wheels, axels, harnesses, etc.). If the Mesopotamia Valley was the urban center of the ancient world, the Indo-European home to the north was its transportation center.

Life is good on the southern Russian Steppes in 3500 BCE. The herds keep growing, and the population keeps growing, but the finite agrarian economy will feed only so many people. Every few hundred years or so, a group breaks away to try their luck elsewhere. With horse-drawn wagons, it's easy to pick up and go. What's it like over the next hill, across the next river? Wherever they go, they encounter primitive hunter-gatherers, and become lords and masters. The language they speak and the culture they introduce becomes dominant. One anthropologist has likened the spread of Indo-European as more like a franchising operation than an invasion.

As the centuries pass, the splinter-groups who travel west become the Greeks who built Athens, and the Romans who created the Roman Empire, and the Celtics who populated Gaul and Britain, and the Germans, Slavs, and Russians of north-central and northeastern Europe. Those who head east and southeast become Iranians, Afghans, and the ruling elite of India.

Incredible as it may seem, it's all true. Linguists and archaeologists have been debating the finer points for the past 200 years but are in agreement on all the main issues. The Indo-Europeans were not the white master race that Hitler imagined they were, but they did become the dominant group wherever they settled. The story of their origin is still being unearthed in archaeological digs in the south Russia Steppes. A nice summary of what has been learned to date can be found in "The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World" by anthropologist David W. Anthony.

The one problem I have with Professor Anthony's book is that it's a bit too scholarly. Reading it, I couldn't help feeling that he was not writing for me, the uninitiated lay reader, but for his fellow anthropologists, archaeologists and linguists; and that he was afraid of offending them with some minor slip-up. As a result, he's hard pressed to draw conclusions, repeats himself a fair amount, and presents pages of data that might as well be written in, well, Sanskrit, because it has little relevance to most of us. Having said that, in writing this book he took on a great deal and succeeded--a feat tantamount to climbing Everest. Bravo.
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on March 9, 2009
Many of the other reviewers have laid out important strengths and weaknesses of this book. I simply have to add that in my view Anthony makes a tremendous effort to bring freshness and excitement to his subject, and in this I think he largely succeeeds. Yes, there is a lot of detail here, but the reader will also get to consider such fascinating questions as: How do languages change over time? How do they spread geographically and culturally? What are the technical innovations that lend themselves to the spread and dominance of certain languages? How do horses and riding affect cultural and linguistic change? Etc., etc. This is great stuff.

Anthony's writing exudes a sense of curiousity, and even fun, and he is skilled at combining historical sketching with the details of archeology. Consider this sentence, chosen largely at random (p. 300): "The sight of wagons creaking and swaying across the grasslands amid herds of wooly sheep changed from a weirdly fascinating vision to a normal part of steppe life between about 3300 and 3100 BCE." I submit that this type of writing is not only captivating, but also unusual and, frankly, gutsy for an academic writer. I think Anthony deserves full marks for bringing his readers into the thrill that he obviously gets from the steppe-land origins of his subject.

I do think there were at least two books in here, and given Anthony's formidable powers of synthesis, I wish he had given us a more streamlined and coherent account of proto-Indo-European, with less emphasis on the details of individual sub-cultures and more attention to the big picture. (Part I is thrilling; the rest of the book takes more work). But you can't have it all, and we should be grateful that Anthony has introduced us to such fascinating issues in such an honest way.
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on February 25, 2009
This is not a book for everyone and I have heard the criticism that it is hard to read. This is true to a point - there is a lot of archaeological detail which is mystifying for the ordinary reader. I must admit that I skimmed through parts of the book which were a bit too technical for my taste but I still found his argument fascinating. He knows an awful lot about the subject and I feel that he is in a position to answer many of the objections to the association between the use of horses and the spread of the Indo-European languages. He has the advantage of knowing the archaeology from the former Soviet countries thoroughly and the added advantage (very rare among archaeologists) of knowing about historical linguistics. In addition, he and his wife have brought some fascinating new information about the domestication of horses to the debate. I am sold completely on the model of the spread of Proto-Indo-European which he gives here. I had been waiting to read this book for years but nobody had written it! It's a great book and anyone with an interest in this subject should read it.
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