Roughly half the world's population speaks languages derived from a shared linguistic source known as Proto-Indo-European. But who were the early speakers of this ancient mother tongue, and how did they manage to spread it around the globe? Until now their identity has remained a tantalizing mystery to linguists, archaeologists, and even Nazis seeking the roots of the Aryan race. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language lifts the veil that has long shrouded these original Indo-European speakers, and reveals how their domestication of horses and use of the wheel spread language and transformed civilization. Linking prehistoric archaeological remains with the development of language, David Anthony identifies the prehistoric peoples of central Eurasia's steppe grasslands as the original speakers of Proto-Indo-European, and shows how their innovative use of the ox wagon, horseback riding, and the warrior's chariot turned the Eurasian steppes into a thriving transcontinental corridor of communication, commerce, and cultural exchange. He explains how they spread their traditions and gave rise to important advances in copper mining, warfare, and patron-client political institutions, thereby ushering in an era of vibrant social change. Anthony also describes his fascinating discovery of how the wear from bits on ancient horse teeth reveals the origins of horseback riding. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language solves a puzzle that has vexed scholars for two centuries--the source of the Indo-European languages and English--and recovers a magnificent and influential civilization from the past.
If I have one particular gripe it's that this book could have used some more basic editing; I read a library copy that was liberally proof-marked by a previous reader.
Anthony’s fascinating study begins with the study of bit wear on horses, a scientific examination that he seems to have inaugurated some years back. His studies have provided evidence that clearly demonstrates the demarcation line between those who utilized horses for food like other mega-fauna and those who rode them, thereby establishing that the latter occurred far earlier than previously noted.
Unfortunately, Anthony’s book is heavily bogged down with the minutiae of archaeological evidence – hundreds of pages of it – that would have found better provenance in an appendix. The organization of the book is such that his well-written narrative becomes pregnant with details of each site and culture to the degree that even scholars in the field would grow weary of it. It took me months of perseverance – while reading other books, of course – to make to the end of this volume, which is in fact well worth the read. Anthony should re-edit the book, however, and re-issue a version that is more accessible to, if not a popular audience, at least for readers who are not schooled in professional archaeology. Still, I highly recommend the book as the best and certainly the most comprehensive study of the early Indo-European peoples.
Why did the Indo-Europeans come to dominate the larger part of the Eurasian land mass (thereby extinguishing at least three pre-existing language groups, of which no trace remains, except in river names and a few other language fossils)? How and where did they originate, and how did they split up to form the various main language groups, from Celtic, Germanic and Italic over Greek, Armenian, Iranian to Sanskrit and faraway Tocharian?
The descriptions of what was found exactly in which tomb are a bit tedious, but they are compensated for by the author's research into language evolution and horse domestication as proofs alongside the physical evidence. And there you have it: Troy and the Iliad don't suddenly appear out of nowhere, as our classical education had us believe until recently, but fit firmly in this narrative, as do the Assyrians and their urban civilisations. Suddenly our earliest history gains a new sense by the identification of this Indo-European tribe in their steppes above the Black and Caspian seas, linking old civilisations in Anatolia, Mesopotamia and Iran to the earliest Chinese states, and finally dominating many of them with their horses, their chariots and indeed their languages.
The book begins with an explanation of how linguistic scholars have re-created (or at least imagined) the Indo European language from which most of the languages of Europe, including English, ultimately developed. He then moves to archaelogy, gathering and presenting the physical evidence on where -- and when -- the people who spoke that ancestral Indo-European actually emerged.
This is important in terms of understanding history, but it may be even more important in terms of avoiding a misunderstanding of history. For the past two centuries, there has been a lot done by linguists on the Indo-European language, but much less on the archaeological side about the actual Indo-European people. . This allowed the development of nationalistic and racist myths with little or no historical basis, myths that have had terrible consequences. The myth of the "Aryan race" is best disproved by actual archaeological research
And the writer presents and evaluates a massive amount of archaeological evidence, much of it work carried out by Soviet scientists which has only recently become available in the west. He also includes discussions of his own work, including a very interesting discussion of how he estimated times and place for the emergence of horse-riding. From this evidence, he does draw conclusions which seem born out by what is known, and which I found absolutely fascinating.
The problem is the sheer weight of the evidence. Several reviewers have suggested that much of the technical archaeological discussion -- and there is SO much of it, site after site, tomb after tomb, pot after pot -- could better be put in footnotes and/or appendices. For a non-professional reader like myself, this would have avoided the sensation of plodding through a whole lot of minutiae to get to the points.
For professionals, I am sure the detail is valuable and interesting. (I didn't find the sections on linguistics at all dull, which may be because I know a bit about it.) But for popular readers, less would definitely be more.
I learned a lot from this book, and -- in the expository sections -- the writing is a pleasure to read. Because of the massive detail, however, I am giving it four stars instead of five.