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

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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.

568 pages, Hardcover

First published November 19, 2007

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About the author

David W. Anthony

3 books48 followers
David W. Anthony is an American anthropologist who is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Hartwick College. He specializes in Indo-European migrations, and is a proponent of the Kurgan hypothesis. Anthony is well known for his award winning book The Horse, the Wheel, and Language.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 399 reviews
March 12, 2019
The initial chapters of this book are fascinating. They explain the rules of language sound - phonology - how one sound changes to another over time. Since these 'rules' are consistent within a language, it is possible to work backwards from a present sound to one that might have existed. If many languages have similar words meaning the same thing, then it should be possible using these phonological rules to reconstruct the original word in Proto-Indo-European although that language was in the pre-literate era and has been extinct for about 4,500 years!

All PIE languages are divided into two groups. Centum (pronounced Kentum) and Satem (satem), which derive from the word for 100 (as in cent and perversely hundred, as K's became H in proto-Germanic.). By knowing the rules of vowel and consonant shifts - for example how 100 in French, Cent, kept it's spelling but changed its sound to 'song', the daughter languages are gradually worked back to the original mother language.

The next task is to work out where the language originated and how it spread. This is the subject of the majority of the book. It seems that PIE developed in the steppes of Europe. All the PIE languages (half the world's) have a word for horse, the original word is presumed to be one close to "hiekus" (equus). Therefore there must have been horses in place of origin of Proto-Indo-European. By looking at cultural artefacts - pottery, burial treasures, etc. and the spread of techniques and styles, it is presumed that the language spread along with culture, farming and technology.

However, after four of five chapters of detailing this archeological evidence and presumptions on what the people must have been like, their social structure, how they travelled (horse, wheel), how they traded and the development of settlements to cities and how they explored the world, it becomes mind-glazingly boring.

The author, who obviously knows he might well be boring readers, defends himself by saying,

"I have used a lot of archaeological detail in this account, because the more places a narrative is pegged to the facts, and the more different kinds of facts from different sources are employed as pegs, the less likely it is that the narrative is false. As both the density of the archaeological facts and the quality of the linguistic evidence improve, advances in each field should act as independent checks"

There are several other theories of why words are similar in different languages that do not relate to them having a common root in a single language, the most accessible being loan words. All languages have a lot of loan words.

Some, like Jamaican are almost entirely loan words. . Some countries, like France, have committees to keep (English) loan-words out and have even criminalised the use of some in signs and journalism, no 'computer' 'weekend', 'hamburger' or 'smartphone' for them, but they can't keep them out of speech. Most countries accept the use of loan words. We use (from the French, just for an example) liquor, attorney, beef, abbey, television, army, saxophone and many more. Cutlurally, it is a good explanation of the spread of a language, or languages, but there still has to be an origin, nothing starts from nothing.

Notes on reading In Proto-Indo-European languages (half the world's languages) when you say something you have to pay attention to tense and number. You must specify if an action is past, present and future and whether it is singular or plural. Does this alter how we think of things? Other languages don't necessarily require the speaker to address either of these issues.

"In Hopi you must use grammatical markers that specify whether you witnessed the event yourself, heard about it from someone else, or consider it to be an unchanging truth. Hopi speakers are forced by Hopi grammar to habitually frame all descriptions of reality in terms of the source and reliability of their information. The constant and automatic use of such categories generates habits in the perception and framing of the world that probably differ between people who use fundamentally different grammars."

Is our thinking changed by our use of grammar or is our grammar a product of how our culture always thought?
Profile Image for Ahmad Sharabiani.
9,566 reviews56k followers
April 14, 2022
The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W. Anthony

The Horse, the Wheel, and Language solves a puzzle that has vexed scholars for two centuries, the source of the Indo-European languages, recovers a magnificent and influential civilization from the past.

تاریخ نخستین خوانش: روز یازدهم ماه نوامبر سال2016میلادی

عنوان: هندو - اروپائیان: نقش اسب و چرخ در گسترش زبانهای هندو - اروپائی؛ نویسنده: دیوید دبلیو آنتونی؛ مترجم: خشایار بهاری؛ تهران، نشر فرزان روز، سال1395؛ در530ص؛ نمایه، مصور، جدول، نمودار، شابک9789643214357؛ موضوع تاریخ تمدن عصر مفرغ - اوراسیا - اسبها - از نویسندگان ایالات متحده آمریکا - سده21م

به بررسی خاستگاه زبان «هندو - اروپایی» آغازین، و سپس پرکندگی و گسترش آن زبان در جهات گوناگون جغرافیایی، و سرانجام به چگونگی شکل گیری دوازده زبان اصلی «هندو - اروپایی» برگرفته شده از آن زبان نخستین، میپردازد، و بر شواهد باستانشناسی بیست سال پیشین، و نیز اسلوب مدون زبان شناسی تاریخ تکیه میکند

تاریخ بهنگام رسانی 12/03/1400هجری خورشیدی؛ 24/01/1401هجری خورشیدی؛ ا. شربیانی
Profile Image for James.
Author 12 books1,200 followers
August 6, 2022
One of the things I did in grad school was to become a Proto-Indo-European otaku, a long, lonely voyage into the dark and uncharted seas of PIE myth via a marriage of philological and structural takes on mythology. I did this because I was amused by facts such as the following: (a) the English word "sweat" and its Sanskrit cognate, "svet" are practically homophonic; (b) Erin, the ancient name for Ireland, is a cognate of the Persian word Iran and of the Vedic Sanskrit word Aryan (the 'race' that inspired Hitler); (c) blonde, blue-eyed Lithuanians speak a language closer to India's primordial tongue, Sanskrit, than is any other European language. To wit:

God gave us teeth; God will give us bread.
Dievas dave dantis; Dievas duos ir duonas.
Devas adat datas; Devas dasyati dhanas.

In fact, it was the contemplation of such puzzles that led humans to discover language families, and thus cognates, not to mention linguistics in general.

If you imagine that understanding a cultural continuum spanning a swath of geography stretching from ancient India to ancient Ireland might have some bearing on your understanding of your own cultural roots, this volume, though not for sissies, might begile.

Scientific updates: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0AGw8...

Profile Image for Terence.
1,152 reviews386 followers
August 16, 2008
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Admittedly it does get bogged down describing archeological sites but you can skim through those sections without missing anything.

Anthony combines linguistics and archeology to localize the origins of the Indo-European language family and plot its spread across Eurasia, similar to Spencer Wells' efforts to combine genetics and archeology to trace the spread of humans from Africa.

The author marshalls the evidence to argue that Proto-Indo-European (PIE) emerged in the Pontic-Caspian steppe between 4500 and 2500 BC, and that it got its greatest impetus to expansion with the introduction of wheeled transport around 3300 BC with the Yamnaya cultural horizon. The herders in this region of the steppe were the first to domesticate the horse (as a source of food, only later were they ridden to control larger herds and range over larger territories). Anthony is also able to document the rise of social hierarchies as exemplified in grave sites, and shows how the wheel opened up the deep steppes to year-round exploitation.

Anthony shows that this increased economic exploitation led to increased competition and violence. While the reader doesn't need to subscribe to a theory of peaceful, sedentary, matriarchal cultures mowed down by savage, nomadic, patriarchal war machines, it is true that violence was less efficient and effective before the introduction of horses and wheels. One can find evidence of cultures suddenly disappearing from the stratigraphic record and graves full of bodies hacked apart by axes. But he also shows that the relationship between the herder and the cultivator was never so simple; indeed, the violent marauders of lurid legend were often the exception rather than the rule. The relationship was mediated by a system of patron-client/host-guest customs. A tradition which, to varying degrees, stretched from Europe to East Asia.

This parallels the argument Karen Armstrong makes that the great moral traditions of the Western religions arose between 2500 and 1500 BC as a response to the incredible violence inherent in the cultures that arose with the horse-riding steppe herders.

The obvious success of PIE-speaking cultures made their dialects prestigious and worth knowing, dominating and eventually driving non-PIE languages to extinction in most areas Indo-Europeans reached. In addition, PIE cultures appear to have been very inclusive, basing identification on language and ritual rather than race and ethnicity, which also helped facilitate their spread. This tradition was long lived: Rome's success two thousand years later owed much to her ability to accomodate foreign elites and co-opt them into the ruling hierarchy.

I could have wished for a little more explanation of the language side of the equation. Unfortunately, Anthony is an archeologist and not a linguist and he gave it short (if interesting) shrift.

Despite that, if you're at all interested in this topic, I can easily and with confidence recommend this book.
Profile Image for Adam  McPhee.
1,238 reviews168 followers
February 1, 2023
If books are time machines then I believe this is the furthest back I have ever cast my mind for any length of time. Covers the neolithic Eurasia through to the bronze age, arguing that Proto-Indo-European was such a successful language not simply because of warfare but because it was capable of 'franchising,' in a way, by showing off to the world through ritual feasts how they had better technologies and customs.

I did a big thread of the most fascinating bits, and there are many, here.
Profile Image for Laurie.
161 reviews44 followers
January 17, 2016
David W. Anthony's The Horse, The Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World (HWL), is a worthy addition to Indo-European scholarship. Using a synthesis of linguistics and many recent additions to the archaeological record from Russia and other Central Asian countries, Anthony attempts to answer the lingering questions of the Proto-Indo-European languages: "namely, who spoke it, where was it spoken and when."

The focus here is on science and reasonable conclusions; not on ideology. In the first chapter, Anthony make is clear that he despises the use of scholarship on this subject by governments or groups who wish to claim the Proto-Indo-European language speakers as descendants of a "pure race" or for any use in determining national superiority. Anthony is very conscious to state that the use of the term "Aryan" is only applicable in the context of Iran and India and only within the construct of a religious/language group; not a genetically similar group of people. After the first chapter the term is never used again.

Almost two-thirds of the bookshelves into the archaeological history/cultures from Southern Europe to just east of the Ural mountains of Eurasia; particularly the Pontic-Caspian steppe region. This thorough (almost too thorough) examination of midden, grave goods, and building structures turns some major theories of Proto-Indo-European language speakers on their heads. For example, most authorities credit the invention of the chariot to Near Eastern societies around 1900 to 1800 BCE. Through an analysis of horse teeth found in steppe graves to determine whether or not horses were bitted and an examination of very early spoked wheels and cheekpieces also found in those same graves, Anthony posits that chariots were actually first developed by people of the steppe regions around 2000 BCE.

My only two criticisms of HWL are that the book really isn't an examination of how the Proto-Indo-European speakers "shaped the modern world" which I would have liked. The analysis really stops at the Bronze age. Also, while the Notes to Chapters and References sections are well done and helpful the index is much less so. Several times I attempted to look up concepts specifics referenced in the volume but could find no corresponding listing in the index.
Profile Image for Brian.
647 reviews79 followers
October 6, 2016
I feel a little bad rating The Horse, the Wheel, and Language at all, because it's primarily advancing an argument that I simply do not have the qualifications to evaluate. I have no background in archeology at all, and my background in linguistics is a single survey-level course in university and an amateur interest thereafter, so the hundreds of pages of descriptions of grave-sites and red ochre placement and pottery sherds made my eyes glaze over and are part of why it took me so long to finish the book. Simply because of that, I can't give it too many stars, but I did find a lot of interesting tidbits inside mixed among the archeological descriptions.

The basic thesis of the book is that it's possible to use linguistic reconstruction married to archeological evidence to determine where the speakers of Proto-Indo-European originated, and the answer is in the Russian steppes, near the Urals. I thought this was a settled question and had assumed that was widely known, but see above about my lack of qualifications.

There are a lot of interesting points made about historical linguistics. For example, what does it mean to reconstruct a language which was spoken over millennia? Surely the language must have changed quite a bit over that time, right? This is true, and it's important to remember that a reconstructed language is a bit like the Oxford English Dictionary, which contains hundreds or thousands of words which haven't been in common use for decades, and some that haven't been used for centuries. Despite that, it's still possible to learn a lot about Proto-Indo-European speakers just from the words we've been able to reconstruct. They were familiar with honeybees and drank fermented honey (PIE *médʰu, descended through the millennia to us as "mead"), which means they must have come from an area with honeybees. They had words for horse and cow and sheep, as well as for wool, which required a mutation among sheep for longer hair before it could be woven. They had a word for the wheel. They had words for sky gods and the sacrifices necessary to propitiate them. They had words for plowing, milking, grinding meal, and other agricultural and herding practices.

Apparently horses were originally domesticated not for riding or as beasts of burden, as one might expect from their uses in the modern day, but for meat! There are a lot of examples of wild horse bones found in middens of early steppe settlements or nomad camps, in some cases more than 60% of animal bones, and at least one subspecies of steppe horse was hunted to extinction. Even after domestication, horses formed the bulk of the meat diet for millennia as well as being frequently used for sacrificial feasts.

Riding did come about relatively early, though. Anthony did studies on horse teeth from Don and Dneiper river civilizations, showing that they demonstrated wear patterns consistent with organic (rope, leather, etc.) bit use even if metal bits weren't found in the remains. The nomad horse archer wouldn't develop for millennia due to the lack of other technologies, though--the steppe riders had no stirrups and their bows were around 1.5 meters long, far too long to use on horseback. What probably happened is that they'd ride their horses to a raiding site, steal animals--PIE also has a word for "bride price," so it may have been young men seeking to get married--and use their horses' mobility to flee with their loot. Horse-riding also allowed much larger herds to be cultivated by the same number of people, increasing inequality as some people could afford large herds. Anthony mentions that herding leads to a shift toward patriarchy, but sadly doesn't really develop the concept.

There's a bit at the beginning about how language can spread due to prestige rather than through conquest. If neighboring cultures perceive that speakers of another language have higher status, they'll encourage their children to be bilingual, and eventually the original language will be lost. This might be part of how Proto-Indo-European spread, coupled with gaining tribe members from agricultural societies, because a mobile herd is easier to defend than stationary agricultural land.

I wish I had a better background to appreciate all the information in here, instead of getting lost in the maze of Bug-Dnieper and Sintashta and Dnieper-Donets II and Cucuteni-Tripolye and all the other names of the steppe and near-steppe cultures. I could still pick out enough to interest me, but someone without the appropriate background might be best reading the first hundred pages and putting the book down after that. There's a lot that's interesting in here, but quite a bit of wading to get to it.
Profile Image for Terry .
394 reviews2,142 followers
July 1, 2019
3.5 stars

_The Horse, the Wheel, and Language_ investigates the possible origins of the Proto-Indo-European language, the reconstructed language posited by philologists and historical linguists to be the mother tongue from which a host of modern languages were derived, including English, French, German, Italian, Punjabi, Spanish, Russian and Persian to mention only a few. The mere reality of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is contested by some, who insist that a purely hypothetical language, produced by linguists by using linguistic and grammatical ‘rules’ discovered in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to reconstruct a dead language based on scraps of evidence and the corelation of words and concepts that appear to share a common ancestor is skating on thin ice. Thus Anthony begins his book by setting up a defense of the concept of PIE, the work of language reconstruction, and an overview of the building blocks of language and the apparent rules behind them that are the primary tools of historical linguists. From this he moves on to a discussion of the dating for the lifetime of PIE, setting out the possible dates and sequence of early PIE daughter languages.

Two key questions arise: when was PIE spoken (what are its birth and death dates), and where did this occur (what is the ‘homeland’ of the PIE peoples)? A combination of linguistic and archaeological evidence is used to discover this. Anthony begins his investigation of the first question by examining key vocabulary in PIE and its daughter languages centring on the concept of wheels/chariots/wagons, as well as words and concepts related to wool and corelating this with the archaeological record for evidence of such objects that have been found. This then leads to the question of what is the PIE homeland? The debate has raged since the question was first asked, making it everywhere and nowhere, often pushed by nationalistic and racial/racist ideologies. Once again using some PIE vocabulary (such as the words for “bees” and “honey”, which let us know something about the physical and natural characteristics of the landscape, and words for “horse”, “sheep”, “wool”, “milk”, “pig”, “grain”, and “chaff”) Anthony contends that we can ascertain that these peoples were farmers and herders, not hunter-gatherers, who lived in an area whose climate was conducive to bees and the kind of plants that allowed the creation of honey, all of which helps to narrow down the possible locations. Anthony admits that many Archaeologists argue the validity of using a hypothetical reconstructed language as the basis for any hypothesis, though he makes, I believe, a strong case for its validity.

By presenting evidence from a large number of archaeological sites which are then related to the linguistic record and concepts that appear to be key to the PIE cultures Anthony builds a strong argument for his characterization of what the original PIE cultures were like. They were a people that discovered and implemented a cattle and sheep herding economy which co-existed with the rise of a newly hierarchical society. Using this evidence Anthony argues that PIE spread widely through the Pontic-Caspian steppe zone around 3000 BC. The PIE culture’s early domestication and use of horses was key to this spread. Initially Horses appear to have been domesticated purely as a food source that was more viable in the winter than cattle or sheep though once domesticated they were eventually ridden (first probably as herding transport which allowed herds and their territory to grow far larger, and then as transport to and from cattle raids, and only later in a full battle context). The exact dates of horse domestication have been (like everything else investigated in this book) hotly contested, though the author came up with an innovative, and seemingly convincing, manner of investigation though his implementation of the examination of bit wear on horse’s teeth as a new key archaeological clue to when horse domestication first occurred, helping to pinpoint both a time and place for the PIE cultures.

This heightened mobility provided by their early use of horses allowed the PIE speakers to have much greater grazing areas, and thus larger herds, making them very wealthy. When they came across non-PIE speakers in their travels on the steppes this wealth, along with their greater knowledge and use of horses, gave PIE speakers great prestige and, Anthony argues, allowed them to promote their own culture and ultimately ‘adopt’ these peoples as dependents. PIE culture (and thus language) promoted verbal contracts and sacred (religious) oaths for the exchange of wealth along with guest-host obligations. Anthony argues that it is these key elements of their culture that allowed them to promote patron/client relationships (basically legitimizing inequality) with some of the other cultures they met. They could integrate these new peoples/cultures into their ‘tribe’ as dependents with no social stigma, primarily using the promise of wealth. As these relationships grew and expanded they became integrated as a people, losing genetic homogeneity, but maintaining cultural homogeneity due to the social-cultural ties that bound them in patron-client relationships and their shared use of the now dominant PIE language that only served to reinforce their cultural ideals.

Sandwiched in between the arguments Anthony makes is a lot of archaeology and I have come to appreciate how integral this discipline has been to our understanding of ancient cultures while at the same time I become more convinced than ever that my early assessment (after my Indiana Jones daydreams of adventure were shattered) that archaeology is also one of the most boring studies one could pursue. Still, without the evidence that Anthony carefully presents from site after archaeological site his argument wouldn’t have much of a leg to stand on. It may not be worth much since I’m neither an expert in linguistics nor archaeology, but I have to say that I’m pretty convinced by Anthony’s arguments about the origins, movements, and influence of the PIE ‘culture(s)’. I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in the origins and growth of Indo-European cultures, especially in regards to the key role that seems to have been played in their growth and development by the domestication of horses, the innovation of the wheel (which ultimately led to the chariot, but also opened up the previously unusable area of the steppe grasslands as a newly rich and profitable zone of influence), and the use of cultural ideals as promoted by their language in the growth and, ultimately, vast success of the PIE speakers. Just be prepared for a *lot* of archaeology.
Profile Image for Kaśyap.
271 reviews125 followers
July 19, 2021
One half linguistic mumbo jumbo and the other half of cherry picking and correlating archaeological data to fit in with a preconceived theory, while ignoring the data that doesn't fit in with their thesis. A thesis which has racist and colonial origins.
The entire Proto Indo-European theory is a linguistic theory probably inspired by a biblical notion. A linguistic paradigm that has even been rejected by some scholars. To prove a migration theory, you have to show evidence for the diffusion of a complete material culture. Something that hasn't been done here. Whereas in India, while there is no evidence of any cultural break, both the archaeological and literary evidence in India show a continuity of even material culture going back to atleast as early as 4th millennium BCE. There is no archaeological evidence of any large scale migrations or invasions into India. And I have read that we have evidence that shows a continuity of crop patterns from the Harappan times, with no new crops being introduced at the time of supposed migrations.

Secondly, the Rigveda is situated completely in Indian geography. By the astronomical references mentioned there we can say that it is at-least older than 2400 BCE. The dates of theese so called Aryan migrations/invasions don't fit in as well. The Harappans and the Vedic people live and flourish in the same time period and in the same geography. It makes sense to conclude that they are the same people.
Profile Image for Manybooks.
3,071 reviews104 followers
February 26, 2021
Well to tell the truth, I have actually read David W. Anthony’s The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World more than once (and also a few times not actually in its entirety but just perusing in detail certain chapters for academic and usually linguistic writing and research purposes). And yes indeed, I have really and truly hugely enjoyed how the author manages to write his text both engagingly and intellectually, how in The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World David W. Anthony never loses sight of the fact that he also needs to keep his readers interested in his topic of archaeology and language (and how recent archaeological evidence now pretty much proves what many historical linguists have indeed been pointing out and claiming for many decades, namely that the original homeland of the speakers of PIE, of Proto-Indo-European were the Eurasian Steppes and that on horseback, PIE speakers then moved on from those steppes to spread both their culture and their language into Europe as well as into the East, not only spreading Proto-Indo-European but also imposing its culture and finally of course making the many emerging daughter languages of PIE into one of the most successful and one of the most universally spoken of the world’s language groups).

Sometimes a bit too heavy duty with the archaeological examples for me (as I am definitely rather more of a linguist), but I do appreciate and understand that the solid archaeological evidence David W. Anthony lists as examples in The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World really does much to prove the theoretical linguistic reconstructions regarding PIE and that this language, that Proto-Indo-European was originally spoken not in Northern Europe, not in India, not in Colin Renfrew’s ancient Anatolia but in the Eurasian, the Russian, Ukrainian, Latvian and Lithuanian steppes. And thus, while I sometimes do tend feel a bit overwhelmed with and by the plethora of archaeology and archaeological terms encountered in The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, I do also well realise the necessity of this and very much in fact both applaud and celebrate that David W. Anthony has (at least in my humble opinion) pretty well now shown and demonstrated without much doubt and based on solid physical archaeological proofs the likely location of the original so-called homeland of Proto-Indo-European and from where (riding on horses) the speakers of PIE then expanded and pushed their cultures and their language into much of the world (and with such a huge and all encompassing, lasting success).
Author 3 books102 followers
December 21, 2014
Educated in an era when the Tigris-Euphrates "Fertile Crescent") region was credited with the invention of the chariot, this work's most fascinating contribution to our understanding of world history to me was the identification of the Pontic-Caspian steppes as the origin of horse-riding about 4200-4000 BCE, and the invention of wheeled vehicles around 3300 BCE. Chariots used in warfare utterly changed world history, so dating their appearance is important because it helps us understand so many other bits and pieces we have of ancient history in the region (including Indian and Chinese history). Author David Anthony reminds us that the oldest images in Near Eastern art of spoked wheels (which identifies chariots used in warfare from carts used for other more domestic purposes) appear about 1900 BCE, which leads us to the realization that chariots were developed first in the steppes, and "introduced to the Near East through Central Asia". The appearance of chariot-riding warriors can explain the sudden appearance (and disappearance) of armed settlements, large-scale migrations, technologies that focus on instruments of war, the replacement of the heroic warrior with the strategizing general of armies, etc. Even if you're not interested in language, this detail-rich volume has many threads for historians to follow; it is a monumental work for anyone.
Profile Image for Bryn Hammond.
Author 12 books343 followers
December 23, 2013
I haven't felt equipped to review this -- at least until I get to that 2nd reading. A shame not to say that I thought it fantastic, though. A couple of notes:

I am a non-linguist (severely, I think) and can find language discussion in Indo-European books scary. Here I didn't, and besides there isn't over-much of it.

Its section on frontiers -- frontier theory and how frontiers work -- was enlightening for me, even outside the scope of this book. I think I met Frontier Studies here.

If I was bored, ever, it was very briefly (and certainly about language). I was absorbed for much the most of it, and can report states of excitement. It's a great book on the subject: I trusted the author and he spoke to my interests, so rather than try the uncertain waters of what else is written, I'll anchor here and study this one.
Profile Image for Barnaby Thieme.
504 reviews228 followers
December 11, 2014
This rather technical overview of recent archaeological and linguistic scholarship sheds important light on the mysterious Proto-Indo-European-speaking Bronze Age cultures and offers a tentative picture of their development and spread across the Steppes until they impacted an area stretching between Western China and Atlantic Ocean. The author pays special attention to evidence for the domestication of the horse around 4000 BCE and draws attention to his original work analyzing bit wear patterns on teeth.

Readers who are primarily familiar with the characterization of Proto-Indo-Europeans drawn by Dumézil and Gimbutas (like myself) will find out to their surprise and delight that breakthroughs in archaeology in recent decades have forced us to substantially revise their theories. For example, Gimbutas's concept of peaceful matriarchal cultures being militarily overrun receives a strong challenge, as does her excessively reductive view of a homogenous Kurgan culture. But the basic pattern Gimbutas suggested remains intact.

Even with massive amounts of linguistic evidence, the attempt to reconstruct a culture that left few material traces will always invite lively controversy. But Anthony's book offers an excellent overview of the state of the field from one vantage point, at least, and is persuasive in his overall case.

The layperson or generalist will probably struggle with the hundreds of pages of close inventories and analyses of numerous specific burial sites -- I did, at least. But those portions can be skimmed and the general sense of the book profitably extracted. This is bound to be a standard treatment for many years, if not the only one.
181 reviews9 followers
November 13, 2021
Ever since a British linguist in colonial India discovered connections between Sanskrit and European languages, explanations have been put forth for these connections by the inquiring minds of the world. Some of these explanations were built around the existence of a prehistoric super-race who dominated the world from the Rhine to the Ganges, spreading their language everywhere they went. It speaks to the resilience of these ideas that David Anthony feels (probably correctly) that he must thoroughly expound upon his work as a matter of linguistics and archaeology, and that ethnicity is not a major concern of either discipline.

That being said, Professor Anthony attempts to track down the source of the Indo-European languages as to the location and chronology of people speaking the early forms of these languages. In doing so, he comes across early-adapters of the technologies of using domesticated horses and wheeled conveyances for transportation. He suggests that the words associated with these new technologies were integral to the spread of the language spoken by those adapting these technologies. He rejects the notion that a small group used their mastery of horseback riding to conquer the world, rather suggesting that the benefits of the technology were obvious to everyone who came into contact with its purveyors. As everyone picked up the new technology, they started using the words that came with it.

I am not qualified to peer review this work and I got the impression that the author was writing for an audience that is so qualified. Much of the detail of what bones were found in which grave and the nuances of pottery styles were lost on me. However, I did find his concepts interesting and admired his attention to addressing the disagreements on these subjects among his colleagues.

In my student days, history started with cuneiform and hieroglyphics. I was therefore gratified that humanity was doing a lot of of interesting things for millennia before they thought about writing it down. I was also glad to see that for centuries horsemeat was an intergral part of the diet of many of my ancestors. This makes me feel better about an occasional fasdt food burger of questionable origin.
Profile Image for Christopher.
1,250 reviews144 followers
May 7, 2011
Most of the languages of Europe and western Asia can be traced back to a common ancestor spoken several thousand years ago termed Proto-Indo-European. The exact population who spoke this language has long been cause for speculation. While scholars have turned away from the racist fantasies of past centuries -- a tribe of blond, blue-eyed "Aryans" pouring out of the north and subduing lesser peoples -- they nonetheless could only suggest that the homeland of Proto-Indo-European was probably somewhere in the steppes of Ukraine and southern Russia. David W. Anthony's THE HORSE, THE WHEEL AND LANGUAGE is a powerful work of synthesis that offers a very convincing thesis of where PIE was spoken and how exactly it spread.

The opening part of the book sketches the history of Indo-European studies and presents the basics of historical linguistics and the comparative method. Anthony lists the problems of Colin Renfrew's alternative theory, that the Indo-European languages spread much earlier when farming came to Europe from Anatolia, namely that the languages are too similar for such an ancient common ancestor and that they share a common terminology for the later technology of horses and wagons.

The bulk of the book then seeks to connect PIE and intermediary proto-languages to cultures attested in the archaeological record. It's worth mentioning that THE HORSE, THE WHEEL AND LANGUAGE is a serious work of archaeology: details of bone findings, pottery traditions and tomb burials are listed exhaustively. Even non-archaeologists can make it through the book (I'm a linguist, for example), but it requires dedication.

The new findings that led Anthony to create the book are twofold. On one hand, there are Soviet archaeological reports on Ukraine and the Russian steppe that only now are drawing attention internationally. The other new work is Anthony's own: along with colleague Dorcas Brown, he discovered that bits left distinctive wear on the teeth of horses, which helps determine the date that horses were first ridden and how horsemanship spread. Examining cultural changes in Eurasia, he shows the probable split of the Tocharian, Germanic, Italo-Celtic, Balto-Slavic and Indo-Iranian branches. This spread of Indo-European languages happened less through deliberate and brutal invasion (as the old fantasy of the Nazis and other racist romantics held) than through gradual new societal configurations where IE speakers allied themselves with speakers of other languages, who then adopted IE dialects along with other innovations they found desirable. Also, he overturns Gimbutas' rosy claim (popular with some feminists) that Old Europe was a perfectly peaceful matriarchy before those bad horse-riding patriarchal barbarians did them in -- the archaeological record shows that Old Europe was caught up in warfare before the arrival of horsemanship.

(Only Greek is a hard nut to crack; the first Mycenaean remains show clear similarities to steppe cultures, but there's no apparent migration from the steppe to the Aegean.)

Indo-European studies are often resisted by Hindu fundamentalists who wish to regard India as the cradle of world civilization, and Sanskrit as a divine language emanating from the gods (which the other IE languages are only a corrupted form of) instead of one just offshot of Proto-Indo-European among others. Anyone attempting to do secular science risks being attacked as a racist and an agent of colonial oppression. Anthony avoids the polemics of how the Indo-European languages spread into India, but he makes a strong case that the Indic proto-language and the mythology of the Rig Veda were formed already in what is now Tajikistan. This explains its continuing relationship with early Iranian and the origin of the Mitanni.

I was very impressed by THE HORSE, THE WHEEL AND LANGUAGE. My complaint are mainly limited to presentation. There are quite a few typos. Anthony also uses reconstructions of roots from the whole span of PIE studies, from Brugmann's early system to the latest laryngeal-filled forms. Still, these mistakes and inconsistencies do not affect his main thesis, are mere annoyances. The other infelicity is that he seems to accept Dumezil's theory of societal organization (among other PIE world and myth reconstructions) uncritically and does not even explain exactly what these ideas are to a general audience.

Still, this is a major achievement, and things can only get better in a second edition. This is a must-read for anyone interested in Indo-European linguistics or ancient history.
Profile Image for David H..
1,968 reviews18 followers
July 1, 2018
Anthony writes in his conclusion, "I have used a lot of archaeological detail in this account" and he sure did! This book is a very dense look at who the Proto-Indo-Europeans might have been (or probably were, in my opinion), looking at both the historical linguistics and the archeology.

I have an amateur interest in historical linguistics, so the first part of this book worked quite well for me (Proto-Indo-European is a "reconstructed" language based on all its descendants, likely to have existed around 4500-2500 BCE). However, the majority of the second part of the book I found I had to gloss over some of the excruciating detail that I quoted the author with earlier, because my knowledge of prehistoric cultures was extremely limited (especially with all the Russian and other Slavic names). I stuck with it, though, just trying to make sure I gleaned what the author was trying to tell me, but he does set it up enough that by the time Chapter 13 rolls around I felt like I had the basis to appreciate his arguments (because language leaves no traces, Anthony uses archeology to try to fill in the gaps--fairly convincingly, I should add).

I also can't wait to see what new developments might arise now since I feel that some of the steppe archeology mentioned here is still in its infancy, so I really look forward for either confirmation or further exploration of Anthony's thesis. The interconnectedness of (pre)historical cultures continues to amaze me, and this is the kind of book that really drives me to want time machines to be real (either like Connie Willis's Oxford Time Travel series or Orson Scott Card's Pastwatch), but alas, I'll have to rely on books like Anthony's to be my window.
Profile Image for Susanna - Censored by GoodReads.
540 reviews588 followers
May 28, 2008
The first several chapters, and the last several chapters are both excellent. The middle bogs down a bit. I'm interested in archaeology, but my eyes were crossing while trying to read some of the middle portion. Very interesting, however.
Profile Image for Elaine.
312 reviews58 followers
January 21, 2010
This is a fascinating study. He ties up what we know about the original Indo-European language with actual archaeological studies in the Steppes of Russia, probably their ancestral home. The Indo-European language family is the largest in the world, and its daughter languages include most of the European languages, many Indian languages, Iranian and languages in Afghanistan.

I will admit I am a linguist and know how to reconstruct dead languages. In order to do so, you have to understand the science of phonetics and also how words change over time. I don't think you need this knowledge to benefit from this book, however.

One thing that really hit me was Anthony's explanation of why the Indo-Europeans developed gender endings contrasting masculine with feminine. Virtually no other language group does this. That the I-E's also developed patriarchal gods rather than matriarchal ones. The importance of males became pronounced among the Indo-Europeans as a result of their domestication of horses and cattle (which they could do only after they had herding dogs, by the way.) Since cattle and horses are easy to steal, males became very important in guarding their livestock, taking precedence over women whose role was to plant and gather other foods.

Sometimes the archaeological descriptions become a little tedious. After a while I found myself skimming over detailed discussions of burial sites, but, other than that, this is a great read.
Profile Image for Gary  Beauregard Bottomley.
956 reviews566 followers
May 28, 2021
I really got into the first third of this book with the author’s mixing of linguistics with anthropology and how we probably really do know a lot of cool things about the formation of the proto-Indo-European language and the peoples who spoke it and how it could of maybe did develop with a lot of guesses that make a ‘just so story’ seem possibly believable. After all, who amongst us doesn’t love pre-history. I know I do.

People are not pottery but we have to look at pottery, cemeteries, bones and horses’ teeth in order to piece together what we know in order to get the set of facts we need to tell the most believable just so story. The author, for example, gave an excruciating detailed reckoning on horses’ teeth as they wear a bit and how we can get at when the horse was first domesticated. He’s telling the ‘how’ the data became meaningful while sometimes mentioning only in passing the ‘what’ and why that is meaningful. It’s great that a scientist focuses on the ‘how’ in excruciating tedious detail when they talk to other scientist, but as for me, I’ll trust the expertise of the expert and take their best story at face value.

This book clearly can tax the reader’s patience with it’s dwelling on long-winded discussions about the methodologies of the methodologies or how we know what we know while the author tediously tells the reader. I’m not a 3rd year college student who is majoring in linguistic anthropology who needs to know the esoteric designations for each field site or group of peoples or the distinctions between the Ukrainian and the Russian methodologies in research methods. Though, I do want to know about the development of the chariot and what that meant to the pre-historic civilizations under consideration which the author does give the reader, or I do want to know why the wagon itself can change everything and how it diffused across Europe and Asia and changed how people thought about themselves as people and how we know that to be true.

Yes, the book does get long-winded and it takes a lot of patience to get at the wheat from the chaff. The author really made one other big mistake in his telling. He should have clearly stated what he was going to tell you, then tell you, and then tell you what he just told you and did that for each chapter. He doesn’t. He makes a lot of digressions in to how we know what we know and doing that I would lose the meaning of facts he was presenting and miss the just so story he was telling.

Yes, I did like this book. But, by no means could I recommend it if I don’t clearly tell the potential reader that it meanders with the how when the author could have been telling more about the what it means.
Profile Image for Maya.
1,205 reviews59 followers
February 18, 2009
I'd like to start my review of the book with part of the last sentence of the last chapter of the book:"...in the invisible and fleeting sound of our speech we preserve for a future generation of linguists many details of our present world." (p.466)

The main ideas of this book are a reconstruction of a dead language and how that is possible (in this case Proto-Indo-European) and dating it. The reconstruction of the lives and migrations of the Proto-Indo-Europeans including their possible homeland.

The author takes you on a ride through so many different cultures related to the Proto-Indo-Europeans and the branches related to them, and it was a surprise to me how man there are. The author uses words from the reconstructed languages, adds them to the archeology to give you a look into the lives of these cultures. He also explains the way language tends to follow and explores the reasons that people might replace one language with another.

Most people who think of the discovery of the Horse, and wheel will automatically think of war, but the author gives us a history of both and how they effected the lives of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, and the last thing that it effected was war.

All in all the book is full of surprises. It can and will give you ideas on other places in the world where you can apply the theories that the author presents to make a case of why this country is the way it is, linguistically.
Profile Image for Viktor Stoyanov.
Author 1 book155 followers
October 23, 2020
Много обстоен, клонящ към специализиран преглед. Това е една лингвистична археология в индо-европейския език и свързването му с модерните. Началните глави ми бяха страшно интересни - разбрах как по принцип се прави такова проучване и ми даде доста добра представа за настъпването на промени в езика и културата на народите. Вече към втората половина на книгата се поуморих и не можах качествено да попия всичко като послушна гъбка. По-скоро го избутвах и четох с големи прекъсвания. Някои от аргумените биха могли да се приемат, или оспорват от твърде тясно-специализирана група хора и не са за широка публика. Като цяло го приемам за полезно и информативно, но не и завладяващо четиво. Може би само някои практични примери, като това как е звучал английският преди столетия надвишава това равнище и отива към запленяване на читателя.
Profile Image for Ali.
1,259 reviews103 followers
March 6, 2014
A much more compelling story than the history of our "genes", this books traces the evolution of the common cultural and linguistic roots of societies as diverse as the Lithuanians and the Iranians, the Indian sub-continent and the British Isles. Anthony details a breathtaking range of scholarship, from the early linguistic chapters (which too tantalisingly brief) through frontier and migration theorists, to his own archaeology, to pull together his argued position for the development of a cohesive, culture in the Pontic Steppes, which pioneers horse domestication and the chariot warfare, and hence spreads (culture, not always people) outwards to dominate popular culture.

This thesis makes sense certainly, although I am in no position to make judgements on such a specialist area. The sense of how technology interweave with our lives gels well with how I see our society developing. Anthony's explanation of cultural spread, ideas of dominant cultures replacing those of less dominant, tribute and labour becoming mechanisms by which language and custom shift, makes a lot more sense than "these people moved here, beat everyone else up, and kept being exactly who they were".

The staggering fact that all our domesticated horses are probably descended from a single sire strongly supports the theory - as it indicates a time when domesticated horses from that bloodline must have been worth a fortune, as either the only domesticated horses, or as the best ones - well able to bestow dominant cultural status on the owners, and capable of spreading influence rapidly over large distance.

The narrative is fascinating, but for a newbie to the subject, all to often got bogged in the details of the various sites which haven't been widely described before, and which were most important to support Anthony's thesis. The overall picture - who these people were, what they thought, and how that has made us who we are, comes through in brilliant moments, only to get swamped again by a lengthy elaboration of the horse teeth found in a site. For example, a throw away line later in the book indicates that gendered language - a mainstay of our worldview - emerged in a definite period, after the development of the early split offs from PIE, but before the high period of the language. Differences in gender norms are noticeable between the East and the West - but the why and the implications are not drawn out.

So much of what we regard to be universal culture is present in these different worldviews - tribute, obligation, hospitality, gender roles - and how much come from an evolving culture on the Pontic Steppes? The book didn't answer this question, frustratingly, but it did give me a great hunger to find out. And sometimes, more questions is all you can ask.
Profile Image for Michael.
218 reviews44 followers
December 2, 2010
Anthony has rendered a great service in making available information on the archaeology of the Bronze Age cultures of the Pontic-Caspian and Eurasian steppes contained in Russian language publications. The book features excellent notes and bibliography and extensive maps and illustrations. Many of the illustrations, however, are adapted from other publications and lack sufficient accompanying information to be useful for anything other than giving a general impression of the artifacts included in the kurgans of the various steppe cultures. Agreeing with Mallory on most points, Anthony does a good job of suggesting a mechanism for the spread of Proto-Indo-European and for its differentation into regional languages. Of particular interest is the detailed information on the development of wheeled vehicles and the uses of horses and how these developments affected the Bronze Age cultures of the steppes as well as the cultures of those with whom the PIE-speaking peoples had contact, including the civilizations of SW Asia and the Near East. Although he is an archaeologist and not a linguist, he does a credible job of defining the PIE problem and in suggesting some new ways to understand it.
Profile Image for Erik.
138 reviews18 followers
April 14, 2019
I was really excited to read this book to understand the origins of the Indo-European languages and especially the shared culture and mythology of ancient Greeks, Romans, Vikings and modern Hindus. However, this book is first and foremost a book of archaeology. I think it's probably a pretty good book of archaeology, but I found myself less than completely interested in analyses of grave sites, ratios of different animal bones and the wear on horse teeth caused by bits. There is a lot of parsing of evidence that is probably very exciting for archaeologists, but not the kind of grand narratives I had hoped to find. There are descriptions of how the development of horse herding and a nomadic lifestyle probably led to a patrilineal, male-centered society where brothers worked together to keep their herd safe from raids by other tribes, and how that is reflected in religious myths that have been reconstructed from descendant myths from later Indo-European cultures. That stuff is fascinating, but it doesn't come to life the way I had hoped.
Rating: 2.4
Profile Image for Tomás.
9 reviews2 followers
July 14, 2021
While the idea is brilliant, this is a terrible execution. The author gets carried away with lengthy, recurring passages describing cultures, their graves, pottery, lifestyle, eating habits, etc.
Even though it sounds like an interesting concept, he presents it like a shopping list. It's unengaging, dull, and often not accompanied by an explanation on why it's relevant to the topic of Proto-Indo-Europeans.
If you don't get lost amidst all that, the overall concepts and explanations make it an amazing read. But I can't stress it enough: there's a lot of filler regarding archaeological findings on dozens of cultures whose relationship with PIE itself is obscure at times.
Author 12 books6 followers
January 3, 2021
This is an amazing book for anyone with an interest in understanding the Indo-Europeans and the various ways that we are their heirs today.

Here, Anthony attempts to bridge the gap between the linguists and the archaeologists who have generally pursued their studies separately; by creating a zone of common ground, he has created a glimpse of the period 3500 BC to 1500 BC. He has shown us something of the people who spoke the ancestral form of so many languages today, and how they spread their culture beyond the steppes of Ukraine and southern Russia.

For those with an interest in ancient history, this will be an invaluable part of your bookshelf. Fair warning must be given, however: the subject matter can be difficult for those with no background in linguistics or archaeology.
Profile Image for Celia Yang.
33 reviews2 followers
September 15, 2021


Profile Image for David.
46 reviews1 follower
December 16, 2015
An eye opening and scholarly book which seeks to prove that the roots of our language came from those who tamed the horse and swept from the Steppes into Europe on chariots. Some fascinating insights with evidence to support the theory that I assume has or will prevail over earlier theories.
I normally read every word but unless you are an archaeologist it is not necessary to study the various detailed tables showing the location of each grave in each of the many digs associated with the various "horizons" of people who sweep through this book. You can still enjoy the book by skimming the technical proofs, and you can do so confident in the knowledge that the evidence is there.
I never thought of the shock, awe and terror which the first horsemen, and then the chariots, must have spread and the ease with which they must have conquered. All in all a fantastic piece of scholarship. Particularly recommended to European travelers and genealogists.
26 reviews
January 28, 2022
Fascinating combination of history, archeology,linguistics to tell the story of the origins of Proto-indo European language and its spread west, south and east. The domestication of the horse, first for food and then for transportation changed the world; along with the wheel and wheeled vehicles. They developed a pastoral culture that was self sufficient for food and that measured wealth and status in the size of their herds. It's always interesting to think that this culture made huge technological innovations that made them a dominant irresistible force. (And it now appears that most European males carry their DNA). But they never created an organized political structure, never created cities and did not develop writing. The legacy is our male-dominated culture and religious tenets that worship warriors and violence. Its in our DNA.
BTW..Western females have much less DNA from the Proto-Indo-European horse riders. just sayin...
Profile Image for Frank.
735 reviews38 followers
March 13, 2015
Experts tell us one of the most compelling accounts for origin of the Indo-European languages put the place of birth the Steppes north and east of the Black Sea. But, what if you are not satisfied to take expert pronouncements at face value and want to reach your own conclusion?

DWA provides an account of what may have taken place between Europe and Central Asia between about 5000 BCE - 3000 BCE, extrapolated from an extremely detailed analysis of trends in pottery, burial customs and the content of antique garbage dumps, the winter behaviour of horses and whatever other fragments his ingenuity can glean.

This is a book about archeology, not linguistics. Archeology is certainly inexact. It may even be fanciful. Nevertheless, one can't doubt the seriousness and commitment of its practitioners, and something of what they say is likely true. How much is hard to say.
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