Deep History

While all this local politics business has been exercising me for weeks now, I have just about managed to keep up my reading. This month’s tome has been David W. Anthony’s extraordinarily fine 2007 volume:  “The Horse, the Wheel and Language“.

It has a sub-title that I am sure came from the publisher’s marketing department rather than from the author — “How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World.”  However, this is not a text that is aimed at the popular market. It is a thoroughly documented 500-page academic essay on the development of culture and the birth of various language families within the period from about 9,000 years ago to roughly 4,000 years ago in the area stretching from south-east Europe through the central Asian steppes.

That probably doesn’t sound particularly exciting to most people. But for the minority of us who try to keep up with research on the period between the last glaciation (say, 20,000 years ago) and the birth of “modern” society (5,000 to 8,000 years ago), who are fascinated by the origin and development of languages, and who are interested in the beginnings of certain cultural forms (hierarchy, for example) and technologies, this is a work of seminal importance.

Anthony brings together his own archaeological work and the previously unavailable texts of the most recent generation of Russian and East European scholars and creates a highly refined synthesis that argues, convincingly to me, at least, that horses were first domesticated in the grasslands of the central Eurasian steppes, and that horse-riding played a significant role in the expansion of what would become the Indo-European languages (including, much later, the dominant English language).  Along the way, he examines the beginnings of Indo-European myths, the establishment of the guest-host relationship, leadership functions, funeral practices, the purpose of feasting, the origin of wagons and chariots, and a wide range of other topics that, in their modern manifestation, dominate our lives today.

Anthony writes very well but it cannot be denied that, for the general reader without some background in these subjects, there are some difficult sections.  They are well worth the effort, though, for the understanding that this research brings with it.  I cannot recommend this too highly to anyone interested in this stuff.

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3 Responses to Deep History

  1. Dorothy D. Barkley says:

    Thanks Jak, I have always wondered how such distinct languages could have developed in such close proximity in Europe when in North America, disallowing accent, they remain one and the same. I have put a hold on it at the library.

    Title obviously reminds one of Jared Diamond’s books. D

  2. Bill Lee says:

    Readers and others can download a PDF scan at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/53970256/DAVID-W-ANTHONY-The-Horse-The-Wheel-and-Language

    ( You trade City Council documents uploads for free downloads)

    You are into Conceptual History, and “saddle points” of Reinhart Koselleck ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reinhart_Koselleck , but the Spanish version is more authoritative )

  3. Bruce Macdonald says:

    Thanks a lot Jak, I’m on my way to get the book. Meanwhile the Genghis Khan exhibit at the PNE relates to the topic…

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