11 January 2010
I bought this book because I had long been interested in the spread of Indo-European languages, and wanted to know more about the lifestyle in the Indo-European homeland of the Eurasian steppe, and confront it with other contemporary cultures in Europe and the Middle East. David Anthony does a good job at reviewing the archaeological evidence for the steppe culture, the North Caucasus, Central Asia, the Carpathians and East Balkans, but does not explain how people lived in other regions where IE languages spread, not even nearby Anatolia.
I would have liked to see a review of the archaeological sites of the Unetice, Tumulus and Urnfield cultures of Central Europe (the forerunners of the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures), so as to determine how Proto-Celtic cultures related to the steppe cultures. Unfortunately there isn't a single mention of any of them, even though the author spends two whole chapters to discuss the Central Asian cultures of the same period (Andronovo, Sintashta, Bactria-Margiana). I don't suppose I am the only European reader more interested in the Italo-Celtic and Germanic branches of Indo-European civilization than in the Indo-Iranian one.
One of my main interest was to compare the anthropological features of steppe people with those of territories supposedly invaded by the Indo-Europeans. I chose this book because its author is a professor of anthropology (and not archaeology or linguistics). I was very disappointed as Pr. Anthony does not give any anthropometric measurement of the skeletons in the sites studied, apart from a brief and very basic distinction between wide-faced and low-skulled steppe people and the narrow-faced high-skulled people of Old Europe. Instead of comparing pottery styles, that are obviously not related to ethnicity and language as he explains many times in the first part of the book, I wish he could have compared body height and built, head shape, facial and cranial morphology, hair colour, and so on. He doesn't do it because he thinks that Indo-European languages spread almost exclusively through cultural contact and elite dominance, rather than through substantial migrations (this is stated in the last pages chapter 6 and in chapter 14). I am surprised that he would still hold such a position in 2007, when Y-DNA haplogroups had already clearly established a undeniable genetic connection (namely the dominance of haplogroups R1a and R1b) between all the Indo-European speakers from Western Europe to South Asia. Anthony does not mention genetic studies once, except to say in chapter 6 that the flow of Y chromosome was very low at English/Welsh border so that the two regions contrasted in gene pools. This is not even correct; there is a clinal east-west gradation from Wales to East Anglia, and Y-DNA is western England is about as much Celtic as Germanic.
I do not want to sound too negative. The book is interesting, especially for those with little prior knowledge about Indo-European studies. It can however be long-winded, both in the archaeological descriptions (use more data tables and less prose, please) and the tedious way in which he is defending things that hardly controversial any more, like the value of historical linguistics or the geographic location of the Indo-European homeland. I already agreed with all that before opening the book, so I found it was pointless and irrelevant for me.
The author makes some interesting analogies between Neolithic Europe and Native Americans and Africans. But he is obviously not a linguist and makes basic mistakes in his European examples. The French pronunciation of "cent" is not "sohnt" (p. 25). The final "t" is silent and it sounds more like "san" than "sohn" ("sohn" is how Saône, the river, is pronounced). It may sound trifle, but it is not when the example is used to compare the evolution of the pronunciation of the Indo-European word for "hundred". Similarly, but about history this time, Anthony writes (p. 106) : "After the fall of Rome German speakers moved into the northern cantons of Switzerland, and the Gallic kingdom of Burgundy occupied what had been Gallo-Roman western Switzerland. The frontier between them still separates ecologically similar regions within the modern state that differ in language (German-French), religion (Protestant-Catholic), architecture, the size and organization of landholdings, and the nature of the agricultural economy." This is wrong on many levels. Burgundy was a Germanic kingdom, not a Gallic one. Protestantism doesn't date from the 6th century, but the 16th century ! The Catholic-Protestant border is not between French and German speakers. French-speaking Swiss are Protestant, while their neighbours in France are Catholic. German-speaking Swiss are both Protestant and Catholic, depending on the canton, and most South Germans and Austrians are Catholic, like the French. The cultural differences are sometimes stronger between France and French-speaking Switzerland than between French- and German-speaking Swiss. The architecture looks Swiss everywhere in Switzerland. This is the kind of little details that I noted all along the first part of the book which tend to discredit a bit Anthony. Apart from that this book is still worth reading if you want to learn the basics about the Indo-European homeland and its archaeology. But keep in mind that you won't learn anything on the topic related to genetics or anthropology.