Book Review: The Horse, The Wheel, And Language

The Horse, The Wheel, And Language: How Bronze-Age Riders From The Eurasian Steppes Shaped The Modern World, by David W. Anthony

Reading this book was an immensely curious experience for many reasons [1]. Nonetheless, although it was an unusual experience, it was a most excellent book, without question. At over 450 pages, this book was an unusually large page-turner about ancient history. This is an unusual experience, for the book manages to combine a great deal of ingenuity, wide-ranging reading that show expertise in a wide variety of intriguing technical problems, including (most intriguingly) a way to determine the period in history when horses were first domesticated by a statistical analysis of bit wear on horses’ teeth, which required years of study in an area that no one had apparently thought to do previously. The book is full of reading obscure to Western audiences, including Soviet and post-Soviet explorations of critical ruins in Ukraine and neighboring countries. Perhaps most intriguing, and worthwhile, is the way in which the author seeks to blend the best insights from the language reconstruction of proto-Indo-European and its various daughter languages, as well as insights from archaeology, and then to find a way for both language and the archaeology of pre-literate civilizations to shine a light on each other and blend in harmony.

In terms of its organization and structure, this book is written in a very careful manner. Part One manages to state the goal of combining the study of language with that of archaeology. This part of the book includes chapters on the politics of language, the form of reconstructing a dead language, as well as the bounds for the end of the proto-Indo-European language before it split off into different subfamilies, the way that pro-Indo-European, as reconstructed, contained intriguing language relating to wool and wheels, an examination of the search for the homeland of the early Indo-European peoples, and some deep thoughts about the archaeology of language relating to persistent frontiers relating to language and ecology. Part Two looks at the opening of the European Steppes, with chapters on how one reconstructs a dead culture through accurate dating (apparently a problem due to the fish-heavy diets of the people of the time), the rise of farming and herding in the steppes, the relationship between cows, culture, and the rise of highly hierarchical forms of tribal government, as well as an intriguing chapter on the domestication of the horse and the tale of horse teeth, and the end of Old Europe as a result of the invasion of the Balkans by proto-Anatolian peoples that were apparently the ancestors of the Hittites, as well as the relationship between the early Indo-Europeans and the wealthy Maikop chiefs of the Caucasus piedmont and the Tripoyle towns of what is now Romania and neighboring areas, as well as the change to society that resulted from wagons. This part, and the book as a whole, concludes with chapters on the Western Indo-European languages and how those languages spread without necessarily there being a conquest of Europe by those peoples, the Indo-Iranian chariot warriors of the Northern steppes and their journeys, and the way in which the Eurasian steppes were opened as a result of expanding horse and wagon culture, followed by a chapter that summarizes the main points of the book on words and deeds, and how ultimately linguistics and archaeology are complementary rather than contrary in nature.

It is clear that this book is written in such a way and with such a standard of excellence that it is worthy of honor and a wide audience. Nevertheless, the audience for books about the Bronze Age and Neolothic Age as it relates to steppe horsemen would not necessarily be great. There are, though, at least a few audiences who are likely to appreciate this particular book, whether or not they agree with its arguments. Students of ancient history, language, culture, and religion, will find much to appreciate here. Those who have an interest in either or both linguistics as well as archaeology will also find much to appreciate in the detailed and technical discussion the author provides. Additionally, at least part of this book will be of interest to those who enjoy reading about horses and their importance to history, as well as in their behavior when dealing with bits. In short, there are many audiences who will appreciate this book, which lives up to its title (unlike some books with overblown and exaggerated titular claims), and which provides a demanding and highly technical but also immensely interesting and worthwhile examination in the history of a pre-literate culture of immense worth and with useful implications for the spread of English and other languages as an aspect of prestige culture as well as a result of folk migrations.

[1] Among those reasons was the fact that the arguments this book uses the same sort of arguments for the theory of the Indo-European languages coming from the Eurasian Steppes just north of the Black Sea as many of my fellow brethren use to argue for the Israelite origin of many Western European peoples: the names of rivers, worship practices, similarities of personal names and worship practices, and so on.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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