The Horse, The Wheel, and Language

David W. Anthony

Speculations based on the Indo-European family of languages have a bad history. Naive 19th century theories were often combined with Social Darwinism and racial prejudice, laying the foundations for the destructive Nazi fantasies of the Aryan race. The bad taste left by this could only amplify scholarly problems with the study of Proto-Indo-European, PIE—the proposed common ancestor of the Indo-European languages, for which no direct evidence survives—and attempts to pin this flighty linguistic reconstruction to a specific geographical “homeland”. Many abandoned the whole issue as a perilous red herring.

Reading this fascinating, tightly argued study, I’m reminded a little of Steven Pinker’s project in The Blank Slate. Pinker argues that the justified political motivations for being suspicious of sociobiology don’t entirely stand up to the weight of recent evidence from the discipline. A dangerous situation is created if an area of scientific enquiry is ignored or opposed on ideological grounds—however righteous the origins of these grounds are—when evidence generated by the enquiry, evidence that doesn’t necessarily support earlier, dubious interpretations, begins to accumulate. At some point, the unsavoury political associations must be disentangled from legitimate scientific evidence.

Anthony opens the conclusion to his book by declaring:

The Indo-European problem can be solved today because archaeological discoveries and advances in linguistics have eaten away at problems that remained insoluble as recently as fifteen years ago.

I’m not sure how widely this statement might be supported within the academic community, but I imagine, if it’s justified, it’ll take a while to seep out and permeate educated circles that have grown used to the conclusion that PIE is a fruitless and dodgy chimera.

Much of Anthony’s archaeological argument is based on his attempt to digest and interpret the vast amount of work done in southern Russia that has been exposed since the fall of the Iron Curtain. This seems crucial, as his thesis is—in line with his predecessors Marija Gimbutas and J.P. Mallory—that PIE was a linguistic cluster found among pastoral nomads of the Eurasian steppes, just north of the Black and Caspian Seas, between 4500 and 2500 BCE. Probably thanks to the walls of resistance he knows await his work, this book is rather heavy-going for a lay reader. Its introduction and general tone clearly have it targeted outside as well as within the academic community, but be prepared for a welter of archaeological detail: tables of radiocarbon dating, waves of oddly-named cultures, and endless discussions of shell-tempered clay pots with everted rims.

Anthony’s a good writer, though, and his structure is sound enough to make it easy to skim through the detail-heavy segments that aren’t of interest, picking up the gist from periodic summaries. He even steps back at one point to poke fun at the bewildering complexity that the archaeological richness and the competing terminologies between research streams from different countries in the region have produced. This passage had me in stitches, and is worth quoting in full:

There is a Borges-like dreaminess to the Cucuteni pottery sequence: one phase (Cucuteni C) is not a phase at all but rather a type of pottery probably made outside Cucuteni-Tripolye culture; another phase (Cucuteni A1) was defined before it was found, and never was found; still another (Cucuteni A5) was created in 1963 as a challenge for future scholars, and is now largely forgotten; and the whole sequence was defined on the assumption, later proved wrong, that the Cucuteni A phase was the oldest, so later archaeologists had to invent the Pre-Cucuteni phases I, II, and III, one of which (Pre-Cucuteni I) might not exist. (p. 164)

Anyway, belly-laughs are welcome, but not very thick on the ground.

The minutiae are sometimes fascinating in themselves, as well as being charged with the lure of the major discoveries they indicate. Anthony makes a good case for the earliest domestication and riding of horses in the PIE world via a painstaking analysis of the nature of bit-wear on horses’ teeth.

He challenges Gimbutas’ notorious assertion that the Indo-European “Kurgans” (named by her after their distinctive burial mounds) were responsible for waves of violent invasions of what she termed Old Europe—peaceable, goddess-worshipping Neolithic societies west of the Black Sea around the Carpathian and Balkan mountains. These cultures do indeed entail a preponderance of female figurines associated with domestic situations, but extrapolations about the spiritual beliefs they imply are bound to remain controversial. Anthony contradicts her “waves of invasion” vision with a complex analysis of the “patron-client” relationships he sees as the main method by which PIE spread west and south to seed its various branches. Apparently the English words “guest” and “host” both stem from the same PIE root, implying that both roles were part of a strong tradition of relations between nomadic tribes. Anthony ties this perception together with profuse archaeological evidence to demonstrate how oaths of loyalty as much as violent incursions may have helped PIE’s movements.

This is more a complexification than a direct refusal of Gimbutas’ hypothesis, though. It seems that climate change played a key role in the downfall of Old Europe, but while the PIE take-over wasn’t necessarily direct and brutal, these people were powerful and frequently violent. There’s an irony in the fact that seems it was Old European farmers expanding east around the mouths of the Danube and Dneister rivers that introduced animal herding to the early foragers of the Eurasian steppes. Anthony’s argument is that these foragers spoke what can be seen as the earliest variant of PIE. Gradually adopting cattle husbandry, and later domesticating the horse, opened up the previously hostile steppes as they moved from hunter-gatherer lives hugging the banks of rivers to the pastoral nomadism that livestock and the invention of wagons allowed. The mobility and power accumulated by these PIE cultures after their contacts with Old Europe subsequently allowed them to dominate their unwitting benefactors.

Another interesting conclusion here is that, while the steppe corridor from eastern Europe across to the western reaches of China has usually been seen as merely facilitating the cross-continent interactions between emerging civilizations in the Bronze Age, with its barbaric nomads picking up what riches and technologies they could as they passed along trade routes, it seems that in some ways cities such as those post-Sumerian centres in the Near East were dependent on PIE cultures for resources and innovation. Anthony argues that much of the huge amount of metals demanded by cities was imported from steppe cultures, and that the chariot—the speed-oriented militaristic advance on the plodding wagon—was invented among PIE cultures in the Ural mountains. The importance of a key centre here, the “fortified metallurgical industrial center” of Sintashta, only begun to be appreciated in the early 1990s. Specific aspects of burial practice here also strongly indicate that this area was the origin of the Indo-Iranian linguistic branches, corresponding closely as they do with the oldest strata in the Vedic epic the Rig Vega and its Persian cousin the Avesta. Picking up important religious facets such as Soma as they spread south and mixed with non-Indo-European Central Asian cultures, cultures such as those at Sintashta seem to have been major enthnolinguistic roots for Indo-Iranian civilization.

Anthony emphasizes that there is still much to be refined and discovered, and while I haven’t read other recent works on this topic to compare it with, the measured tone, wealth of evidence, and strong explanatory power of this book seems to make it a major contribution to a infamously thorny debate.