The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World

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A few weeks ago Tyler Cowen mentioned he was reading David W. Anthony’s The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. I ordered it on Amazon, and it was hanging around the house so I decided to check it out early this evening…I read all 466 pages in one sitting. If you are a GNXP reader interested in archeology, prehistory and Central Asia you have to read this book! I’ve read In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth, The Coming of the Greeks, and Archaeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins, but David W. Anthony really achieved something here which I wasn’t prepared for with all due respect to the scholars who authored the aforementioned works. Most readers are aware that I’ve complained about how happily pig-ignorant of other fields most archaeologists are. Frankly, when I see an academic book I’m curious about, but find out that the author is an archaeologist I get really suspicious. They’re good at collecting data, but once the stamps are arranged there seems an extreme reluctance to fire up a real analytic engine.

The author of The Horse, the Wheel, and Language is well aware of these prejudices and refers to them obliquely. He obviously doesn’t want to dismiss all of his colleagues as psuedo-scientific quacks, but he admits the general ignorance of archaeologists of fields such historical linguistics which you would think they’d check in on, and alludes to their nearly fanatical adherence to the “Pots not Peoples” paradigm (a reaction to their pre-World War II love affair with migrations). Anthony’s interdisciplinary scope is very impressive; he references ideas and conclusions from Albion’s Seed and Y: The Descent of Man. Cutting edge research on the evolution of lactose tolerance & the phylogenetics of domesticated cattle are intelligently integrated into the narrative. Nevertheless, the bulk of the text is an extremely dense exposition of archaeological discoveries from sites on the Pontic Steppe since the fall of the Soviet Union. The central argument is that Indo-Europeans emerged from this region between the Dnieper and Volga around 3500 BCE and over the next 1500 years spread in all directions. I won’t detail the how or the why, I just finished the book about 15 minutes ago and haven’t fully assimilated that much of it, but you can read chapter 1 online.

Note: I don’t want to make it seem like this is a breezy popular book, about 2/3 of the material consists of detailed reportage of various sites and analysis of data on pots, cemeteries and seed-husks. Anthony is clearly talking to his fellow scholars, but I think the prose is accessible enough for an interested lay reader as he avoids obscuring jargon. Rather, if you are scared by an endless parade of facts this might not be for you. On the other hand, if your data-gullet is endless, what are you waiting for?

Related: The Inner Asian gap: the Afanasievo breakthrough.

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18 Comments

  1. I see this in the chapter – “And how did the Aryans themselves define ?Aryan?? According to their own texts, they conceived of ?Aryan-ness? as a religious?linguistic category. Some Sanskrit-speaking chiefs, and even poets in the Rig Veda, had names such as Balb?tha and Brbu that were foreign to the Sanskrit language. These people were of non-Aryan origin and yet were leaders among the Aryans. So even the Aryans of the Rig Veda were not genetically ?pure??whatever that means. The Rig Veda was a ritual canon, not a racial manifesto. If you sacrificed in the right way to the right gods, which required performing the great traditional prayers in the traditional language, you were an Aryan; otherwise you were not. Th e Rig Veda made the ritual and linguistic barrier clear, but it did not require or even contemplate racial purity.” 
     
    This would appear to appoint the priestly, Brahmin caste as arbiters of “Aryanism” in a Hindu state. 
     
    If you were low-caste, dark skinned, and clearly not of Sanskrit origin, then were you still an Aryan? 
     
    It seems “off” to me that the Brahmins never referred to themselves as “more Aryan” than the Untouchables. If there isn’t a racist literature in Hinduism, then why not? I could certainly point to racist texts in, say, Chinese, German, and Arabic.

  2. They’re good at collecting data, but once the stamps are arranged there seems an extreme reluctance to fire up a real analytic engine. 
     
    This was an enforced professional methodology as early as 1950 or so. Nothing interdisciplinary and minimal analysis, speculation, and theorization. It was a kind of strict antitheoretical empiricism. I remember reading one fairly important work which refused to say anything whatsoever about the question of whether Hallstatt was the Celts, because that kind of question was not a proper part of anthropology. 
     
    The data are scattered enough in archaeology that you can’t do much of anything if you don’t allow a fair degree of conjecture. The strict application of scientific skepticism would reduce the field back to simple reports on pots and femurs and skulls.  
     
    If you look at the earlier generation, V. Gordon Childe and M. Gimbutas, who were wildly speculative, the motivation for this can be seen.  
     
    For example, for all its data and math Cavalli-Sfoza’s book relies on Ruhlen, whose linguisitic theories are controversial at least, and may have problems at the genetics end too. But to me, the first five PCs allow you to sketch the prehistory of the European population in a fruitful way. Though you can hardly regard his work as firmly established. (If the Basque-Caucasian-Burushaski genetic relationship has any real substance, though, that would be something.)

  3. If there isn’t a racist literature in Hinduism, then why not?  
     
    there is. though it does not always comport to european expectations. but i’m not totally sure as to the thrust of your question. if you read anthony’s whole book it seems his conception of who was an “aryan” (a word he appropriately reserves for the eastern indo-europeans derived from the andronovo culture and who became indo-iranians) bears some resemblence to who was a “roman” in the 3rd century AD.

  4. Razib, are you familiar with this culture and its relations to Samara/Andronovo cultures?

  5. yes. plays a big role in this book.

  6. Thanks, Razib, I read the first chapter and I am ordering it…the author is right that there was an ideological stigma in Russian science in regard with any attempt to connect the Neolithic archeological findings from the steppe area with proto-indo-europeans, in fact there is still some sort of stigma or uneasiness upon it; I personally am supporter of the Samara Steppe hypothesis, that links the IE expansion with the invention of the wheel/wagon and domestication of the horse; However, there is one linguistic piece that does not fit with author’s hypothesis – how come, if the IE people were the first to domesticate horse for riding purposes, the IE stock word for “horse” is from turkic origin, it is a turkic loan-word? I would say that this is a multiple loan-word, since even the doublet forms for “horse”, employed in different IE languages, are in fact turkic/mongolian loans? I wander what the author’s explanation for this would be. However, the IE/PIE words for chariot, wagon, wheel and axis are indigenous, but the question of horse domestication as a motor of the IE expansion, that seems central to the author’s thesis, does not seem to be that easily settled.

  7. I read Mallory & Renfrew & Ruhlen & Cavalli-Sforza plus a few others—Anatolian or the Steppes. The most interesting speculation was a religious one by a fellow named Lincoln at the U. of Minnesota [I lost the book moving to Florida] who posited that the Indo-Aryan religion held that all cattle were their property, gifted to them by the sky-God. 
     
    Any reference to the religious side of the ledger? Gimbutas has an interesting speculative mind, by the way, but her matriarchal DNA overpowered her critical faculties. 
     
    Pots or peoples, Gimbutas has a lot to say about the symbolic patterns on vases & other pottery sequence materials that could yield linguistic clues.

  8. http://www.amazon.com/Priests-Warriors-Cattle-Religions-Hermeneutics/dp/0520038800 
     
    yes, a fair amt. on religious, at least implicitly.

  9. Thanks, I tried to google that book a while back unsuccessfully. I forgot that one of Lincoln’s theses is that the success of Indo-European expansion around the world results from a certain sort of “imperialist DNA” built into its religious belief that all the earth’s cattle belong to the Proto-IE tribes. The Hindu reverence for cattle could be an atavistic reminder of the original “those cows are my cows” mindset.

  10. … one of Lincoln’s theses is that the success of Indo-European expansion around the world results from a certain sort of “imperialist DNA” built into its religious belief that all the earth’s cattle belong to the Proto-IE tribes. The Hindu reverence for cattle could be an atavistic reminder of the original “those cows are my cows” mindset. 
     
    The Hindu reverence for cattle has its best comparison in ancient Egypt, in fact. Egyptians of old did not even buy knives or pottery to the Greeks out of fear these could be polluted by cow meat. They even forced Lybian nomads (who did not have such custom) under the Pharaoh rule not to eat them.  
     
    Instead the only comparison of “all cows belong to us” I can think of are the Masai, who are a little bit too distant in space and culture to make much sense.  
     
    I’d say that the religious respect for cattle, specially milk-giving cows, is rooted in Neolithic practices that pre-date the Indoeuropeans by milennia. Cattle just was of much better use alive than dead: it provided milk and manure, and it ploughed the fields. Instead all cattle-herder peoples I can think of do kill and eat some animals even if sparsely.  
     
    Also, maybe the most specific husbandry of Indoeuropeans was surely the horse, and in ancient Hindu religious literature you do find such element – sometimes as the holiest of sacrifices. I would not expect that IEs that were making all kind of animal sacrifices elsewhere, and were doing that with horses in India (and elsewhere too), would spare cows.

  11. I am glad you read this book since I thought it was the best take on indo-european origins I have yet read. Yes it is very detailed but the detail is necessary for Anthony’s case. The other attempts I’ve read fail to pull together different kinds of evidence in a comprehensive internally cohesive account/history/narrative. It’s a very cool book but Russian archaeological terminology is mind numbing and not in a good way. The only disappointment I had was he did not cover the coming of the Greeks (lack of evidence).

  12. A relatively big part of the book is freely available here

  13. I learned to speak & read Arabic in the State Dept. at a high level back in the dawn of time. All Arabic verb tenses are in the past, the Sun is in the female gender [as with German & Japanese] & there are elements of Arabic, or at least Semitic, grammar in Greek. [The Greeks use the dual in nouns, e.g.] Where I learned Arabic, in Beirut, the Greek linguistic intercourse with the Lebanese was acknowledged to be ancient, & the Lebanese insist that their King [Cadmus?] “taught” the Greeks their alphabet circe 3000 y/a. The Phoenicians spoke a Semitic language/dialect that spread across 
    & still remains everywhere in the Mediterranean littoral languages. 
    The so-called Doric invasions of Greece & the supposition by Pan-Slavists that the Dorics were Slavic is a nettle not many scholars are willing to grasp. Lots of 19th c. politics centered around the Greeks as IE [Slavic?] or an Anatolian IE/Semitic mixture.

  14. @daveinboca:  
     
    What do you mean? The only minimally well known pre-IE languages of that area (Etruscan, Hattic) are not Semitic nor other Afroasiatic. The fememine Sun is something you also find in Basque mythology (but Basque lacks gender except in the colloquial 2nd person singular, so this is not found in actual language). You seem to be bulding a castle on thin air.  
     
    It’s like that people that claim that the substrate of Celtic would be “Semitic” just because some specific gramatic item. Semitic is not known of in its historical area (lowland West Asia) until c. 4000 BCE and it’s not known at all north of Syria-Iraq, except for a handful of trading colonies. The fact that Semitic languages (Arab, Hebrew) are relatively well known and therefore easy to compare with, does not mean that every minimal coincidence means “Semitic substrate”. It could be anything else: extinct language families (without going too far, Sumerian is an isolate, for instance), other Afroasiatic languages (alive, like Amazigh, or dead), other live unrelated families that just nobody has bothered comparing with (say, NW Caucasian or Nilo-Saharan or Burushaski – whatever).  
     
    The structural features could also perfectly pre-date the expansion of Afroasiatic languages into the Fertile Crescent (or even West Asia as a whole) and be as much substrate element in Semitic languages, as in Greek or Celtic.  
     
    Building castles on thin air: just that.

  15. Linguistically, Greek is Indo-European, and has been so for as long as we can read it (i.e. since Mycenaean / Linear-B times). Whatever the “Dorian invaders” (if they ever existed) brought with them, it did not include a wholly different language. 
     
    The Greeks ad[o/a]pted the Phoenician alphabet long after that time. 
     
    Greek language and culture are usually seen as the result of a mixture between a local Balkanic population and Indo-European invaders – an event that probably took place in the Balkans. The first well-attested result of this mixture is the fully Greek Mycenaean culture, who by the time had already entered Greece.  
     
    The closest thing I know to an indication of semitic/IE mingling is the name of some digits, such as “six” and “seven” (Arabic sitta/sadis and sab’a). Might be just a coincidence (most other digits have wholly different forms), or perhaps a very ancient borrowing. 
     
    Of course, this is entirely unrelated to the question of genetic affinities of the Greek people. It’s easy to criticise the “pots not people” mantra, but you need to remember that it emerged as a reaction to the reckless racial “theorising” that permeated anthropology until WW2. The main message is that cultures and genes / ancestry / “race” are entirely different things, and need not be correlated.

  16. “the Indo-Aryan religion held that all cattle were their property, gifted to them by the sky-God”: commie bastards!

  17. Worse than commies, they were imperialists whose higher power was like a long-winded Kipling, if you take the Rig-Veda as gospel. 
     
    As far as the Irish/Celt mythology goes, Morte d’Arthur was kicking around 500 years ago slinging old-time Blarney! Tristan & Isolde and all those lovesick knights of yore!

  18. “the Indo-Aryan religion held that all cattle were their property, gifted to them by the sky-God”: commie bastards! 
     
    That’s more like private accumulation actually. It’s what companies do with the enviroment right now, what the enclosures did in early Modern Britain, etc. Some (the elite) decide to appropiate what is common or shared. It’s exactly the opposite of communism. 
     
    Anyhow, it seems a very unlikely hypothesis to me. Pirates, raiders and conquerors really do not need any moral justification other than which is on the bloody edge of their swords. Later they may want to invent or adapt myths to justify their supremacy and keep social peace through religious brainwashing and propaganda, but their real motivation is fundamentally greed and ambition, very material reasons.

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