Friday, August 13, 2021

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

The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern WorldThe Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I came to this book through The History of English podcast, hosted by Kevin Stroud. Stroud starts his history thousands of years before English appears one the scene by starting with the history of Proto-Indo-European. One of his main sources was David Anthony’s The Horse, The Wheel, and Language. Those episodes fascinated me so I got Anthony’s book to dive deeper into it. And deeper it is! Anthony’s book, though quite readable, is a scholarly work of archaeology. There are dozens of dozens of pages detailing archaeology sites and finds, including pottery and burial descriptions. This is important material for grounding the argument he is making, but it wasn’t what I was ultimately reading the book for (I admit to skimming through the more detailed descriptions of pottery and their dating).

The overarching theme of the book is that the Eurasian Steppes (roughly the areas of modern-day Ukraine and Kazakhstan near the Black and Caspian Seas) is the source for not just the languages that large portions of the world speaks, but also of important aspects of European and Asian cultures. At the very least cultures from the US to India to China to Iran and Russia can trace concepts and words back to these people living on the steppes 6000 years ago.

So first the language: appealing to historical linguistics, Anthony discusses how Proto-Indo-European has been reconstructed. He explains the history of how this work came to be and what its major findings are. He explains the research that shows how the various language groups, Italic, Germanic, Iranian, and so on grew out of this earlier (reconstructed) language. This is interesting in itself, but Anthony also ties this into archaeology. Using evidence from the history of various material cultures in this region, he’s able to piece together the connections between where these cultures were and how they lived with aspects of the historical linguistics. This provides a lot of support to the idea that Proto-Indo-European language (and culture) originated here in the steppes.

So that’s the “language” part of the book’s title. The "Horse" and the "Wheel" come in to it in really interesting ways. Anthony explains his work on piecing together the evidence for the domestication of horses. Wild horses were native to this steppe region and at first, as he argues, were probably domesticated for food and only later used for riding. He examines how the domestication of horses fit in with the further growth of the herding of cattle and sheep. The mutual growth of these features leads to increases in wealth, resources, and populations. And this leads to outward movement and trade.

This opens up more contact with the other cultures around them: in particular the Mesopotamian cities that were also growing in power in this period (the bronze age). With this contact there is trade and technology sharing. The steppes cultures appear to have adapted the wheel from somewhere further south and developed what might have been the first chariots (which then spread back to the south and east to China). This led to a broad but loose culture of related languages and kin groups spreading from eastern European to China and into areas around modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. It became, as Anthony says, “a single interacting system.” This corridor became a conduit for transcontinental trade and technology, predating the Silk Road by a millennium or more.

This was a fascinating book. It is readable, but gets pretty detailed at times. I learned a lot of pre-ancient history I had no idea about; the amount we can know of people living 6000 years is incredible (though we know so very little). It leaves me with the thought that history is so very full.

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