Friday, April 25, 2008

The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World   posted by Razib @ 4/25/2008 10:17:00 PM

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.