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Review: ‘The Horse, The Wheel and Language’ by Prof David W. Anthony

The Wheel revolutionised transport and warfare.

My journey into the world of genetics and archaeology has been, as I suspect it has for most people, something of a reverse encounter. I started with an interest in nationalism and, consequently, then developed an interest in European Paganism after my Christian pretence faltered and my atheistic zeal began to diminish. This led me to research the history of Paganism in Northern Europe and then, inevitably, I discovered the work of George Dumézil – through Alain de Benoist – who is perhaps the best-known authority on comparative mythology. Dumézil had advanced a theory, based on the linguistic work of earlier scholars, that native Indo-European religions all shared similar traits that suggested a common source. An example of this is the prevalence of a “thunder God”, like Thor (Germanic), Zeus (Hellenic) and Indra (Vedic), or the primordial Sky Father, worshipped as Jupiter (Roman), Tyr (Germanic) and Dyáuṣ Pitṛ́ (Vedic). For whatever reason, awareness of this link gripped my imagination like nothing before it, and I felt compelled to find out more and, naturally, to investigate the much-hypothesised genetic link between Celtic and Germanic people in Northern Europe and the Persians of Iran and the inhabitants of Northern India. My intellectual journey through this topic culminated in David Reich’s 2018 book Who We Are And How We Got Here. Reich’s ground-breaking work over the last few years, during what he terms the genome revolution, has finally offered something close to concrete evidence that there is a deep genetic affinity between these peoples (chapters 5 & 6). Reich’s work these last few years has built on the revolutionary study published in 2015 (Haak et al.) that confirmed that massive migrations from the Pontic-Caspian Steppes spread the Indo-European languages across Eurasia. However, Reich’s work deals primarily with the genetic evidence which, whilst offering proof of a theory, doesn’t deal much with real people and the real events that took place all those thousands of years ago. How did these migrations take place? Was it military conquest or peaceful assimilation? Where did the chariot feature in these events? What did they eat? Who did they pray too? After binge-reading Reich’s book over a 48-hour period, I immediately ordered David Anthony’s 2007 work The Horse, The Wheel and Language which, I had been assured, would satisfy my curiosity above and beyond the raw genetic evidence produced by David Reich’s book.

It has taken me slightly longer to complete Anthony’s book, partly due to its greater length (466 vs 286 pages), but also because its written in a somewhat more convoluted fashion – that is not intended as criticism, for it is understandably difficult to write flowing prose describing pottery styles and how one undertakes radiocarbon dating of horse bits and burnt wood. Another reason that this book is a longer read is that it contains infinitely more information than the vast majority of books on the market, covering almost every prominent Indo-European culture from 4500-1500 BCE, as well as numerous pre-IE cultures of ‘Old Europe’ that bordered the Pontic-Caspian Steppe during this period. I must admit, making sense of this wealth of information and storing it inside my mind has been no easy task, and I will undoubtedly be forced to re-read certain sections many times more as I forget the extensive detail laid out therein. Overall, however, this book should be commended for the sheer amount of information it presents, and therefore it deserves a praiseworthy review simply for being the most comprehensive analysis of Indo-European history released to date. It is worth noting, too, that David Anthony is considered a leading authority on the subject of Indo-Europeans – it is no mystery why.

Prior to Anthony’s work in this field, the Botai Culture (3700-3100 BCE, Kazakhstan) had long been considered the site of the first horseback riding. It had been hypothesised, based on archaeological evidence, that horses had been domesticated during this period. However, David Anthony and his colleagues devised a new method for analysing the status of horse remains from prehistoric times, examining the lower second premolars of skeletons for signs of bit wear. Anthony has concluded, from his work on the remains of horses, that riding probably originated in the Pontic-Caspian Steppe before 4200 BCE and that the Botai Culture learned this practise from their Western neighbours, possibly via migrants of the Indo-European Afanasievo Culture (home of the Tocharian branch of the Indo-European languages) who migrated across the Steppes to the Altai Mountains c. 3300 BCE. Interestingly, Anthony also found, from analysing horse DNA then and now, comparing modern and ancient horses, that all domesticated horses alive today descend from a single male ancestor – the first domesticated male horse. This aspect of Indo-European culture is important because, as we know, our ancestors of the Steppes were pastoralists and horseback riding revolutionised this mode of living, enabling larger herds to be managed by fewer people, thereby liberating more males of the society to engage in other aspects of life, such as religion, migration scouting and even the warrior profession.

This seemingly long-winded explanation, described in Chapter 10 of Anthony’s book, lays the foundations for later chapters which describe “folk migrations” which carried entire populations out of the Steppes and into Europe, Central Asia and the Indian Sub-continent. The information surrounding horse domestication is important and placed chronologically in this book after descriptions of localised Steppe-related cultures but before the massive migrations that took the various branches of Indo-European around Eurasia. It’s not worth detailing all the various cultures and micro migrations that took place prior to the main expansion, but there were crucial cultures that bordered the Steppes and showed strong Steppe influence such as the Dnieper-Donets II, Cucuteni, Tripolye and the precursor to Yamnaya, the Khvalynsk Culture. Anthony linked the emergence of these cultures, around the 5th millennium BCE, with the decline of what Maria Gimbutas termed ‘Old Europe’ – the sedentary agricultural societies that existed prior to Indo-European expansion. This period was defined by what Anthony calls the patron-client relationship; he hypothesises that prominent Indo-European chiefs used their wealth and prowess, gained through herding and raiding, to wield political power over an expanding geographic zone. This influence also spread early Indo-European rites and rituals, including the proto language. The result of this process was the Yamnaya Horizon, a period in space and time that occupied the Pontic-Caspian Steppes after 3300 BCE and, crucially, where the chariot was developed.

The wheel, according to Anthony, was not invented by the Proto-Indo-Europeans of the Yamnaya Horizon, but rather was an import from Mesopotamia. However, Mesopotamian wheels were heavy, solid lumps of wood that were used primarily for transport wagons pulled by oxen; it was the Indo-Europeans who invented the spoked wheel that made rapid transport possible as well as chariot warfare that revolutionised conflict. I won’t detail Anthony’s detailed explanation for this here, but his comprehensive analysis lends weight to this theory and places it above all others. The inclusion of this aspect of history in the book is extremely helpful, for it links what we know of genetic evidence with the vague references to chariot warfare in early Indo-European scriptures such as the Iliad and the Rigveda – in a sense, it decides the argument that has long raged over the Rigveda as to whether it contains imaginative fantasy or a description of actual events in favour of the latter. The history of the spoked wheel is also of primary importance because it makes possible the spread of Indo-Europeans across large areas in a short space of time that would not have been possible prior to this invention. David Anthony deserves commendation for including this and really exploring in detail the evidence for it.

It wasn’t until I reached Chapter 15 that I began to come across terminology that was familiar to me. Over the course of my research into the ancestors of European peoples, I’d frequently come across the Corded Ware Culture (or Corded Ware Horizon) which is considered the ancestor of the Germanic and Baltic ethnolinguistic groups. I found Anthony’s explanation of this culture to be adequate and also how this culture founded the Balto-Slavic and later Germanic linguistic groups. A point of interest here is the hypothesis that Proto-Indo-Iranian split from the easterly-most boundary of the Corded Ware Horizon that later went on to found the cultures that preceded the ancestor of Indo-Iranian and Indo-Aryan cultures. It was interesting to note that an archaeological analysis of the Corded Ware Horizon found it was an amalgamation of Old-European material culture with Yamnaya funeral rites and other innovations, which supports the theory that Germanic languages consist of a large, pre-Indo-European substrate. However, I did feel that if this book had a weak point, it was in its lack of elaboration on the progression of the Corded Ware culture as well as the absence of any information on the subsequent Bell Beaker Culture which carried the Italic and Celtic languages to Western Europe. Such an important spread of language and culture probably deserved more page-time that was devoted to it, although it must be said that information on westward migrations to Gaul, Iberia and the British Isles was relatively sparse until the genetic research of 2015-18. I felt that, given the author’s almost apologetic approach to studying the Corded Ware Horizon due to its implication in Nazi-era archaeology, he perhaps failed to do it full justice due to political considerations which is unfortunate, if predictable.

Unlike with most books that gradually diminish in quality as they progress, my interest was renewed when I reached Chapter 15, 371 pages in, which deals with the north-eastern spread of Steppe Culture into Central Asia and Siberia. In particular, this book focuses heavily on the Sintashta Culture, an Indo-European culture situated north-east of the Caspian Sea and one that is usually considered part of the wider Andronovo Horizon. This culture, which existed for a relatively short space of time between 2100-1800 BCE, depended heavily on chariot warfare and was the first to really develop fortified settlements indicative of a war-torn environment. Interesting, it is also regarded as the ancestral culture of the Proto-Indo-Iranians, or as we more commonly know them, the Aryans. Anthony suggests that the Sintashta Culture probably spoke a language that was the common ancestor of Sanskrit and Old Avestan, and that they developed a material and spiritual culture that was heavily influenced by both their Steppe origins and the bordering “BMAC” (Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex). This predominantly Indo-European culture then migrated southwards to Anatolia in the West, where it founded the Mitanni state in Northern Syria, and to India in the East, where it grew into the Indo-Aryan culture exemplified by the Rigveda (composed c. 1500 BCE). This description by Anthony, complete with extensive archaeological evidence and comparisons with linguistic evidence, proved invaluable to me and helped to fill in the many gaps evident between Steppe cultures and that of the Vedic Indo-Aryans.

I have deliberately left any analysis of the linguistics chapters until now, despite this appearing first in Anthony’s book. That’s because, for the most part, the linguistic evidence was already widely understood prior to this book and what really mattered was the means by which it spread, which depended on material innovations like horse domestication and chariot warfare that were the real substance of this book. However, Anthony does provide an interesting chronology of the development of Indo-European languages, using commonly appreciated linguistic rules to estimate the proto-stage of the various languages, as well as to estimate that late Proto-Indo-European was probably spoken no later then 2500 BCE. It is interesting to note from the chronology of the linguistic splits that Old Indic, the language that appears in Mitanni treaties and the Rigveda, shares some commonalities with Baltic languages (such as the word for hundred) which adds weight to the theory that the Sintashta Culture split from eastern Corded Ware, rather than travelling across the Steppes independently of it. It is, at times, difficult to follow Anthony’s explanations of linguistic evidence which is not aided by his detailed explanations of theories only to discredit them – one wonders if, to avoid confusing the reader, it is better not to mention discredited theories at all?

When this book is viewed as a whole, however, it is clearly an outstanding work that stands head and shoulders above any other book in its field. Its real value was only confirmed a decade after it was published, as genetic studies of autosomal DNA from the remains of humans from Britain to Afghanistan have proved Anthony’s analysis and his conclusions thereof to be almost entirely correct. The genetic evidence that has enabled us to trace a map of Indo-European expansion across Eurasia follows the precise map that could be drawn from reading Anthony’s work – all this, despite Anthony not having the genetic evidence to hand, obviously. For me, this gives Anthony an intellectual credibility above and beyond that of any other academic in his field. And, precisely for this reason, I would wholeheartedly recommend this book for anybody interested in the history and spread of Indo-European culture, religion, language and DNA across the world.

Buy Professor David W. Anthony’s book here.

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