Wednesday, May 07, 2014

David W. Anthony - The Horse, The Wheel and Language

David W. Anthony has produced an important, stimulating and very detailed book. It is likely, for those interested in the origins of language and the archaeology of early communities in eastern Europe, to be a standard work for many years to come.

Anthony begins by looking at where language comes from, and how languages change. By knowing a language at a particularly point in history, we can trace it backwards, recreating its predecessors, and in turn, using this discovered language to find further insights to its ancient speakers.

Some linguists remain skeptical, arguing that there are too many generalisations and too many unanswered questions. But Anthony makes a very strong case that we can, and have, reconstructed key parts of the Proto Indo European (PIE) language that is the far predecessor of most of the key European and Asian languages that exist today. "If we cannot regard reconstructed Proto-Indo-European as literally 'real', it is at least a close approximation of a prehistoric reality."

Since PIE was never written down, we can never know for sure. But one test is that work on PIE has lead to the reconstruction of further words in languages that developed from it. These have since been confirmed by archaeological evidence.

The discussion on language is merely the introduction to a much larger work. Having constructed PIE, the author then discusses the people who spoke it. How and where they lived. We can tell from the language something about them, they had cattle, sheep, pigs and most importantly horses. They lived in an area were the wildlife included otters, beaver, wolf and bees.

The biggest clue appears to be the words in PIE for wheeled vehicles and their component parts. Archaeology gives us accurate dates for the development of the wheel which mean that "late Proto-Indo-European was spoken after about 4000-3500 BCE", so PIE spread outwards into Europe into a landscape densely populated by people speaking "hundreds" of different languages, most of them farming.

Once Anthony has narrowed down the geographic area of the PIE speakers (which is roughly that of the Eurasian Steppes, north of the Black Sea) much of the remainder of the book is a detailed explanation of what we know about the various communities. These is heavily archaeological and in places becomes reduced to lists of the contents of various burial sites in such detail that the wider historical story is obscured somewhat. The non-specialist such as myself may find this confusing, but we can be distracted by the many maps, photographs and line drawings of graves and grave-goods.

Having said that, the book is worth sticking with. Some of the sections are real gems. I was particularly taken by the chapter that details the archaeology of ancient horses. The author has spent years studying the effects of bits upon horse teeth. With this knowledge he can try to say from animals remains which communities had domesticated the horse for riding (or use in chariots) and which hunted the animal for food. I was also taken by the description of the nomadic communities of wagon based pastrolists, whose economies involved groups of people who farmed and mined metal ores, as well as those moving about the steppes herding animals.

In places this book isn't an easy read. There is overwhelming detail in places, and this sometimes obscures the bigger picture. It will be an excellent resource for students of archaeology, and not just those interested in Eastern Europe. For the layman, there are plenty of fascinating nuggets and a general approach to history, language and archaeology that is well worth reading.

1 comment: said...

sounds fascinating. thanks for sharing, I had not heard about his book