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New York Times[A]uthoritative . . .
— John Noble Wilford
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.
"David W. Anthony argues that we speak English not just because our parents taught it to us but because wild horses used to roam the steppes of central Eurasia, because steppedwellers invented the spoked wheel and because poetry once had real power. . . . Anthony is not the first scholar to make the case that Proto-Indo-European came from this region [Ukraine/Russia], but given the immense array of evidence he presents, he may be the last one who has to.... The Horse, the Wheel, and Language brings together the work of historical linguists and archaeologists, researchers who have traditionally been suspicious of each other's methods. [The book] lays out in intricate detail the complicated genealogy of history's most successful language."--Christine Kenneally, The New York Times Book Review
"[A]uthoritative . . . "--John Noble Wilford, New York Times
"A thorough look at the cutting edge of anthropology, Anthony's book is a fascinating look into the origins of modern man."--Publishers Weekly (Online Reviews Annex)
"In the age of Borat it may come as a surprise to learn that the grasslands between Ukraine and Kazakhstan were once regarded as an early crucible of civilisation. This idea is revisited in a major new study by David Anthony."--Times Higher Education
"Starting with a history of research on Proto-Indo-Europeans and exploring how this field for obvious reasons assumed an ethno-political dimension early on, leading PIE scholar Anthony moves on to established facts . . . then shifts his focus to the interrelation of the three essential elements of horse, chariot, and language and how the first and second provided the means for the spread of Indo-European languages from India to Ireland. The bulk of the book contains the factual evidence, mainly archaeological, to support this argument. But a strength of the book is its rich historical linguistic approach. The combination of the two provides a remarkable work that should appeal to everyone with an interest not just in Indo-Europeans, but in the history of humanity in general."--K. Abdi, Dartmouth College, for CHOICE
"David Anthony's book is a masterpiece. A professor of anthropology, Anthony brings together archaeology, linguistics, and rare knowledge of Russian scholarship and the history of climate change to recast our understanding of the formation of early human society."--Martin Walker, Wilson Quarterly
"The Horse, the Wheel, and Language brings together the work of historical linguists and archaeologists, researchers who have traditionally been suspicious of each other's methods. Though parts of the book will be penetrable only by scholars, it lays out in intricate detail the complicated genealogy of history's most successful language."--Christine Kenneally, International Herald Tribune
"The Horse, the Wheel and Language maps the early geography of the Russian steppes to re-create the lost world of Indo-European culture that is as fascinating as any mystery novel."--Arthur Krim, Geographical Reviews
"In its integration of language and archaeology, this book represents an outstanding synthesis of what today can be known with some certainty about the origin and early history of the Indo-European languages. In my view, it supersedes all previous attempts on the subject."--Kristian Kristiansen, Antiquity
When you look in the mirror you see not just your face but a museum. Although your face, in one sense, is your own, it is composed of a collage of features you have inherited from your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on. The lips and eyes that either bother or please you are not yours alone but are also features of your ancestors, long dead perhaps as individuals but still very much alive as fragments in you. Even complex qualities such as your sense of balance, musical abilities, shyness in crowds, or susceptibility to sickness have been lived before. We carry the past around with us all the time, and not just in our bodies. It lives also in our customs, including the way we speak. The past is a set of invisible lenses we wear constantly, and through these we perceive the world and the world perceives us. We stand always on the shoulders of our ancestors, whether or not we look down to acknowledge them.
It is disconcerting to realize how few of our ancestors most of us can recognize or even name. You have four great- grandmothers, women sufficiently close to you genetically that you see elements of their faces, and skin, and hair each time you see your reflection. Each had a maiden name she heard spoken thousands of times, and yet you probably cannot recall any one of their maiden names. If we are lucky, we may find their birth names in genealogies or documents, although war, migration, and destroyed records have made that impossible for many Americans. Our four great-grandmothers had full lives, families, and bequeathed to us many of our most personal qualities, but we have lost our ancestors so completely that we cannot even name them. How many of us, just three generations from now, can imagine being so utterly forgotten by our own descendents that they remember nothing of us-not even our names.
In traditional societies, where life is still structured around family, extended kin, and the village, people often are more conscious of the debts they owe their ancestors, even of the power of their ghosts and spirits. Zafimaniry women in rural Madagascar weave complicated patterns on their hats, which they learned from their mothers and aunts. The patterns differ significantly between villages. The women in one village told the anthropologist Maurice Bloch that the designs were "pearls from the ancestors." Even ordinary Zafimaniry houses are seen as temples to the spirits of the people who made them. This constant ac knowledgment of the power of those who lived before is not part of the thinking of most modern, consumer cultures. We live in a world that depends for its economic survival on the constant adoption and consumption of new things. Archaeology, history, genealogy, and prayer are the overflowing drawers into which we throw our thoughts of earlier generations.
Archaeology is one way to acknowledge the humanity and importance of the people who lived before us and, obliquely, of ourselves. It is the only discipline that investigates the daily texture of past lives not described in writing, indeed the great majority of the lives humans have lived. Archaeologists have wrested surprisingly intimate details out of the silent remains of the preliterate past, but there are limits to what we can know about people who have left no written accounts of their opinions, their conversations, or their names.
Is there a way to overcome those limits and recover the values and beliefs that were central to how prehistoric people really lived their lives? Did they leave clues in some other medium? Many linguists believe they did, and that the medium is the very language we use every day. Our language contains a great many fossils that are the remnants of surprisingly ancient speakers. Our teachers tell us that these linguistic fossils are "irregular" forms, and we just learn them without thinking. We all know that a past tense is usually constructed by adding -t or -ed to the verb (kick-kicked, miss-missed) and that some verbs require a change in the vowel in the middle of the stem (run-ran, sing-sang). We are generally not told, however, that this vowel change was the older, original way of making a past tense. In fact, changing a vowel in the verb stem was the usual way to form a past tense probably about five thousand years ago. Still, this does not tell us much about what people were thinking then.
Are the words we use today actually fossils of people's vocabulary of about five thousand years ago? A vocabulary list would shine a bright light on many obscure parts of the past. As the linguist Edward Sapir observed, "The complete vocabulary of a language may indeed be looked upon as a complex inventory of all the ideas, interests, and occupations that take up the attention of the community." In fact, a substantial vocabulary list has been reconstructed for one of the languages spoken about five thousand years ago. That language is the ancestor of modern English as well as many other modern and ancient languages. All the languages that are descended from this same mother tongue belong to one family, that of the Indo-European languages. Today Indo-European languages are spoken by about three billion people-more than speak the languages of any other language family. The vocabulary of the mother tongue, called "Proto-Indo-European", has been studied for about two hundred years, and in those two centuries fierce disagreements have continued about almost every aspect of Indo-European studies.
But disagreement produces light as well as heat. This book argues that it is now possible to solve the central puzzle surrounding Proto-Indo-European, namely, who spoke it, where was it spoken, and when. Generations of archaeologists and linguists have argued bitterly about the "homeland" question. Many doubt the wisdom of even pursuing it. In the past, nationalists and dictators have insisted that the homeland was in their country and belonged to their own superior "race." But today Indo-European linguists are improving their methods and making new discoveries. They have reconstructed the basic forms and meanings of thousands of words from the Proto-Indo-European vocabulary-itself an astonishing feat. Those words can be analyzed to describe the thoughts, values, concerns, family relations, and religious beliefs of the people who spoke them. But first we have to figure out where and when they lived. If we can combine the Proto-Indo-European vocabulary with a specific set of archaeological remains, it might be possible to move beyond the usual limitations of archaeological knowledge and achieve a much richer knowledge of these particular ancestors.
I believe with many others that the Proto-Indo-European homeland was located in the steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas in what is today southern Ukraine and Russia. The case for a steppe homeland is stronger today than in the past partly because of dramatic new archaeological discoveries in the steppes. To understand the significance of an Indo-European homeland in the steppes requires a leap into the complicated and fascinating world of steppe archaeology. Steppe means "wasteland" in the language of the Russian agricultural state. The steppes resembled the prairies of North America-a monotonous sea of grass framed under a huge, dramatic sky. A continuous belt of steppes extends from eastern Europe on the west (the belt ends between Odessa and Bucharest) to the Great Wall of China on the east, an arid corridor running seven thousand kilometers across the center of the Eurasian continent. This enormous grassland was an effective barrier to the transmission of ideas and technologies for thousands of years. Like the North American prairie, it was an unfriendly environment for people traveling on foot. And just as in North America, the key that opened the grasslands was the horse, combined in the Eurasian steppes with domesticated grazing animals-sheep and cattle-to process the grass and turn it into useful products for humans. Eventually people who rode horses and herded cattle and sheep acquired the wheel, and were then able to follow their herds almost anywhere, using heavy wagons to carry their tents and supplies. The isolated prehistoric societies of China and Europe became dimly aware of the possibility of one another's existence only after the horse was domesticated and the covered wagon invented. Together, these two innovations in transportation made life predictable and productive for the people of the Eurasian steppes. The opening of the steppe-its transformation from a hostile ecological barrier to a corridor of transcontinental communication-forever changed the dynamics of Eurasian historical development, and, this author contends, played an important role in the first expansion of the Indo-European languages.
Linguists and Chauvinists
The Indo-European problem was formulated in one famous sentence by Sir William Jones, a British judge in India, in 1786. Jones was already widely known before he made his discovery. Fifteen years earlier, in 1771, his Grammar of the Persian Language was the first English guide to the language of the Persian kings, and it earned him, at the age of twenty-five, the reputation as one of the most respected linguists in Europe. His translations of medieval Persian poems inspired Byron, Shelley, and the Europe an Romantic movement. He rose from a respected barrister in Wales to a correspondent, tutor, and friend of some of the leading men of the kingdom. At age thirty- seven he was appointed one of the three justices of the first Supreme Court of Bengal. His arrival in Calcutta, a mythically alien place for an Englishman of his age, was the opening move in the imposition of royal government over a vital yet irresponsible merchant's colony. Jones was to regulate both the excesses of the English merchants and the rights and duties of the Indians. But although the English merchants at least recognized his legal authority, the Indians obeyed an already functioning and ancient system of Hindu law, which was regularly cited in court by Hindu legal scholars, or pandits (the source of our term pundit). English judges could not determine if the laws the pandits cited really existed. Sanskrit was the ancient language of the Hindu legal texts, like Latin was for English law. If the two legal systems were to be integrated, one of the new Supreme Court justices had to learn Sanskrit. That was Jones.
He went to the ancient Hindu university at Nadiya, bought a vacation cottage, found a respected and willing pandit (Ramalocana) on the faculty, and immersed himself in Hindu texts. Among these were the Vedas, the ancient religious compositions that lay at the root of Hindu religion. The Rig Veda, the oldest of the Vedic texts, had been composed long before the Buddha's lifetime and was more than two thousand years old, but no one knew its age exactly. As Jones pored over Sanskrit texts his mind made comparisons not just with Persian and English but also with Latin and Greek, the mainstays of an eighteenth-century university education; with Gothic, the oldest literary form of German, which he had also learned; and with Welsh, a Celtic tongue and his boyhood language which he had not forgotten. In 1786, three years after his arrival in Calcutta, Jones came to a startling conclusion, announced in his third annual discourse to the Asiatic Society of Bengal, which he had founded when he first arrived. The key sentence is now quoted in every introductory textbook of historical linguistics (punctuation mine):
The Sanskrit language, what ever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure: more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists. Jones had concluded that the Sanskrit language originated from the same source as Greek and Latin, the classical languages of European civilization. He added that Persian, Celtic, and German probably belonged to the same family. European scholars were astounded. The occupants of India, long regarded as the epitome of Asian exotics, turned out to be long-lost cousins. If Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit were relatives, descended from the same ancient parent language, what was that language? Where had it been it spoken? And by whom? By what historical circumstances did it generate daughter tongues that became the dominant languages spoken from Scotland to India?
These questions resonated particularly deeply in Germany, where popular interest in the history of the German language and the roots of German traditions were growing into the Romantic movement. The Romantics wanted to discard the cold, artificial logic of the Enlightenment to return to the roots of a simple and authentic life based in direct experience and community. Thomas Mann once said of a Romantic philosopher (Schlegel) that his thought was contaminated too much by reason, and that he was therefore a poor Romantic. It was ironic that William Jones helped to inspire this movement, because his own philosophy was quite different: "The race of man ... cannot long be happy without virtue, nor actively virtuous without freedom, nor securely free without rational knowledge." But Jones had energized the study of ancient languages, and ancient language played a central role in Romantic theories of authentic experience. In the 1780s J. G. Herder proposed a theory later developed by von Humboldt and elaborated in the twentieth century by Wittgenstein, that language creates the categories and distinctions through which humans give meaning to the world. Each particular language, therefore, generates and is enmeshed in a closed social community, or "folk," that is at its core meaningless to an outsider. Language was seen by Herder and von Humboldt as a vessel that molded community and national identities. The brothers Grimm went out to collect "authentic" German folk tales while at the same time studying the German language, pursuing the Romantic conviction that language and folk culture were deeply related. In this setting the mysterious mother tongue, Proto-Indo-European, was regarded not just as a language but as a crucible in which Western civilization had its earliest beginnings.
After the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, the Romantic conviction that language was a defining factor in national identity was combined with new ideas about evolution and biology. Natural selection provided a scientific theory that was hijacked by nationalists and used to rationalize why some races or "folks" ruled others-some were more "fit" than others. Darwin himself never applied his theories of fitness and natural selection to such vague entities as races or languages, but this did not prevent unscientific opportunists from suggesting that the less "fit" races could be seen as a source of genetic weakness, a reservoir of barbarism that might contaminate and dilute the superior qualities of the races that were more "fit." This toxic mixture of pseudo-science and Romanticism soon produced its own new ideologies. Language, culture, and a Darwinian interpretation of race were bundled together to explain the superior biological-spiritual-linguistic essence of the northern Europeans who conducted these self- congratulatory studies. Their writings and lectures encouraged people to think of themselves as members of long-established, biological-linguistic nations, and thus were promoted widely in the new national school systems and national newspapers of the emerging nation-states of Europe. The policies that forced the Welsh (including Sir William Jones) to speak English, and the Bretons to speak French, were rooted in politicians' need for an ancient and "pure" national heritage for each new state. The ancient speakers of Proto-Indo-European soon were molded into the distant progenitors of such racial-linguistic-national stereotypes.
Excerpted from THE HORSE THE WHEEL AND LANGUAGE by DAVID W. ANTHONY Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted January 11, 2009
The early chapters' focus on language is fairly absorbing, and goes by well, even if the points might go a little further than the proof can support. The specific language examples are thought-provoking. The sections on the horse are not quite as satisfying, but there are still interesting ideas related here. The biggest flaw of the book starts sneaking in around Chapter 8, when the names assigned to cultures fly in with a somewhat confusing presence, and little authorial guidance as to how the non-specialist should rank them, or keep them all in mind. By the time you reach chapter 11, it starts to feel like a long slog of pottery sherd descriptions, place names, kurgans and the idea that there were a lot of little settlements all over the Eurasian steppes. The author undoubtedly knows what he's talking about; a little more context (or means to orient the non-specialist reader) and thematic focus would have helped.
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Posted August 29, 2012
I bought this book because I thought it would illuminate prehistoric language and thought, as in Old Testament times, and shifts in values with cultural changes. There was some of that: pastoral nomads of 5000 BCE felt they had a contract with the Gods and could make demands on them. (Curiously, Egyptians in their golden millenium felt the same entitlement.) The various cultures speaking Proto-Indo-European extended the same obligations among mortal classes, including host vs. guest and conquerer vs. client. This early social contract was lost in Christianity. The paradox is that the culture required young men to raid nearby settlements for cattle.
It is a technical book, amply documented with maps and illustrations but still leaving a layman like me with questions: Were those female carvings the first pornography? (That seems to have been lost in Christianity too.) What was all the red ochre in the grave sites for? What is an oblast and why does my dictionary not have the word? PIE's could not write, but could they not count either, even though they were great traders? (That would seem to explain why they did not invent money, but how could they measure the right proportion of tin to copper in their bronze?)
There is interesting discussion of horses progressing from a mere source of protein to beasts of burden to mighty chariot steeds. Another paradox is that a nomadic culture pioneered metal smelting and created a bronze and iron industry that made it rich. Their wealth and military power created prestige that accounts for the success of their language, which spread and morphed into seventy modern languages. Proto-Indo-European descendant languages are now spoken by a majority of the people on Earth.
All this is proved in exhaustive detail, mostly from the analysis of potsherds. Anthony mentions the irony that garbage pits survive longer than temples and palaces. Grave sites were the other archeological lode. Other remnants of Proto-Indo-European culture are in the languages we speak today, from which linguists have identified thousands of words from the mother of all mother tongues, revealing partially what they thought and talked about.
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Posted May 27, 2011
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