book-reviews

The Horse, The Wheel and Language

by David W. Anthony

Rating: ★★★★

This book is about culture. Specifically, it is about the oldest discernible culture at the top of the Indo-European language tree, about the context in which it evolved and how it came to spread across Eurasia. In targeting this topic, Anthony brings together evidence from historic linguistics and archaeology -- including little-understood Soviet archaeological work.

This isn't a light and airy book. It doesn't spin a hypothesis and embellish it with fancy -- Anthony is a professional archaeologist, and he spends most of this book talking about the archaeological evidence of the period. At times this does get a little dry, but I found myself getting hooked on the grand narrative being presented through the tabulations of pottery styles, animal bones and radiocarbon dates. You get to see the grand powers that move humanity at work: innovations, climate change and population pressures all bubble up in the back-and-forth of cultural drift. There are some fascinating mysteries here.

The question that Anthony addresses -- the location of the Proto-Indo-European homeland -- is one with a troubled history. A crazed variety of solutions have been proposed, many of them associated with nationalist ideologies or even more esoteric reasoning. This is perhaps one reason why Anthony goes to such lengths to present his evidence along with his theory; the struggle for consideration of the solution in academia must be a tough one. Anthony does not devote much space to alternate theories, but from what I see his position is convincingly backed-up, and he might well be said to have solved this debate.

Though not a casual read, this book is definitely well-written and accessible enough for the layperson to understand. If you are interested in the history of languages or metallurgy, the origins of horseriding, chariots or wool, then you will like this book. If you want to see history moving in the fragments of the ages, then you will like this book.