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

The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World - David W. Anthony

I adored this book, but it's only getting 3 stars. Maybe 3.5, I'll decide by the end of writing this review


This book is utterly fascinating, but like most archaeology books, it tends to wander into "the contents of this grave site.... and the contents of that grave site..." cataloguing. But! It has plenty of horses. Which is always good in my book.  It's also very personable and has an easy to read style, it's not the typical dry archaeology tome. So it's straddling a line between popularised science a la Mary Roach or Jared Diamond, and a purely academic tome, and it would have been stronger if it had tipped all the way over into one or the other.


So, among other things, this is a story of how a dogged pair of US archaeologists discovered a way to tell when and where horses were domesticated by looking for something utterly obvious: wear from bits on the teeth. Which nobody had ever bothered to actually look for before, because nobody thought it could be measured - because a) horses aren't supposed to mouth their bits (any teenage girl with a fractious pony could have enlightened all of archaeology on the fact that they do, every damn one of them :) and b) it was assumed that early bits were typically organic, and wouldn't leave wear, like the jaw ropes that the plains indians used.


So Anthony and co went out and bought some young horses, and had students ride them using four different kinds of bits, from jaw ropes to modern snaffle bits. 600 hours of riding later, they actually measured the resulting tooth wear and discovered it was readily identifiable. Sometimes you just got to go out and test things! Also, I wish I was one of their students who got the job of riding the horses around!


And the point of this whole exercise was to map the domestication of the horse, and an attempt to identify the when and where the PIE people who gave us most of the languages of Europe actually lived.


But apart from being a history of the Eurasian steppe people from the neolithic to the iron age, the history of the taming of the horse and , proto-indo-european it's also a fascinating history of both archaeology and linguistics over the last hundred years or so, and the contributions that Russian archaeology that is only now being translated and added to the corpus has made in changing views on a lot of things.


This is very interesting to me in particular, because Swedish (actually, Nordic in general) social sciences is infused with a russian socio-cultural (or culture-historical) view. Early Russian psychologists and education theorists like Vygotsky and Lejontjev were contemporaries of much better known names like Piaget and Lewin and they have made a huge impact here in the north. While they are certainly known in the US, theories based off their work tends to be more in the direction of workplace psychology than learning, partly because their work published in the 30's was only translated to English in the 70's - including a rather famous if somewhat tragic exchange of views between Vygotsky critiquing Piaget, and Piaget answering, when that essay was finally translated, some 40 years later, and long after Vygotsky's death. And I just finished writing a junior thesis where the major theoretical basis was Culture-Historical Activity Theory, a direct off shoot of Vygotsky's work. 


Anyway, Psychology was not the only discipline that the iron curtain kept hidden for far too long, and a lot of this book touches down right there. Not only is there an enormous (truly astoundingly large) amount of archaeological data from digs in the former Soviet Union that is only now coming to light, but Russian archaeology was also clearly built on the same post-Marxist base that culture-historical psychology and education were: The big idea that culture is the force behind human development, and language, as forged by culture and history, is the main tool of mankind. That cultural boundaries are not where the pottery changes ("Pottery is not people") or where they grew wheat instead of millet, cultural boundaries fall where the language changes.


So taking this very Russian approach to a puzzle that has been fascinating anyone with even a passing interest in archaeology for the past couple of centuries, puts it all in a new perspective, and there is plenty of really interesting reading in this very long book. 


Recommended for: If you enjoyed Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, this is a more academic exploration of many of the same themes.