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5.0 out of 5 stars a wonderful intellectual adventure in archaeology and linguistics, 27 Aug. 2011
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This review is from: The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World (Paperback)
Though this is a book that advances a highly complex set of academic arguments - that the spread of proto-indo-european languages was not accomplished by violence, that linguistic methods can supplement the physical evidence to pinpoint its origins and fundamental splits - it is also highly readable for interested laymen. I myself cannot judge his ideas against the evidence, but I learned an immense amount about the transition from the late neolithic to the bronze ages, where a single population divided and moved into both Europe and S Asia, disseminating a root language, technologies, a new economic and agricultural system, and finally an innovative socio-political system. The essence of Anthony's argument, in my reading, is that all these interacted to produce a relatively peaceful expansion.

First, in 5500 BC, the proto-indo-europeans (PIE) were small bands of foragers based in the Pontic-Caspian riverrain and seaside regions. While neolithic agricultural techniques were spreading, PIE adopted herding techniques of grass-eating species, enabling them to convert previously useless steppe grasses into animal protein. This vastly increased their range of potential living spaces. Horses, in particular, represented a good food source: they could paw through snow to grass, rather than depend on their noses like sheep, which preferred to starve than scrape their tender snozes as winter wore on. This hugely increased their wealth and nutritional options, expanding their population, prestige, and power. In this way, they became a significant cultural force. (Interestingly, it appears that 2 offshoots - the Hittite language groups and the Tocharians - split off prior to this, around 4500-4000 BC.)

Second, a series of stunning technological inventions increased their mobility and speed over unprecedented ranges. Not only did the wheel make its appearance, but so did the wagon and eventually the chariot. This reinforced PIE economic power and, particularly with the chariot and the newly acquired ability to ride horses instead of just eating them, made them a formidable military power as well. They were able to protect themselves as well as raid others and then beat a hasty escape. The need to protect herds also enhanced the status of male warriors. Finally, as their herds grew to enormous proportions, PIE sought new grazing areas, spurring further spreading west, northwest, and southeast.

Third, according to Kennedy, PIE developed a political system based on 2 customs that enabled them to incorporate local peoples relatively peacefully, with the adoption of PIE dialects and intermarriage eventually mixing the populations. On the one hand, with their wealth and economic system, PIE developed client-master relations with locals, in effect incorporating them into a lower rank of their hierarchy. This was accomplished to their mutual advantage, trading prosperity for peace and stability. On the other hand, there was a system of guest-host relations, also to promote peace and sharing, in particular in feasts given by PIE to prove the superiority of their economic-agricultural system. In this way, over thousands of years, PIE dialects spread to autochtons as they were absorbed into a quasi-political order. Though Anthony did not quite prove to my satisfaction that this was accomplished without depending on a great deal on warfare, I admit it is possible it happened non-violently.

By 3200 BC or so, the PIE had created a gigantic diaspora of related but independent regions. With the perfection of bronze smelting, the relative uniformity of the many groups facilitated trade, initiating an unprecedented era of prosperity that lasted through 2000 years, to the iron age. It was during this time that PIE split into Celtic, Italic, Germanic, Indo-Iranian, Baltic, and Slavic groupings (to name a few!), eventually leading to the modern languages that a full 70% of the world speaks today. This is absolutely wonderful stuff for the brain, a rare intellectual adventure. You can also gain a deep understanding of the Bronze Age, though little of the culture can be known with any specificity. It is also a primer on historical linguistics, lucidly written, that examines the structure of PIE languages; for example, its grammar is elaborately structured to reflect time and action, which is not the case with other basic root languages (Hopi, for example, incorporates one's assessment of the accuracy of a source of information into its grammar, shaping thought in an entirely different way).

That being said, this is a very academic book. THere are long passages where seemingly obscure points are proven. They can be tedious to the uninitiated and easily skipped. For myself, I dislike long descriptions of graves and pottery shards, of which there are very many; the same goes for the linguistic reconstruction of PIE, which necessitates long discussions of word roots and their evolution into modern usages. Of course, to be scientific, these arguments must be made. To his credit, Anthony always brings the reader back to remind us of where he is going and what it means, which make the book a consistent pleasure.

I recommend this book with the greatest enthusiasm. It is also beautifully written and has plenty of personal observations, such as his efforts with his wife to prove that horses were ridden by gauging wear on horse's teeth, that are funny and instructive.
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