Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Horse the Wheel and Language 2

This continues my review of archaeologist David W. Anthony’s The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World begun in my previous post and which will conclude in my next post.

Part Two The Opening of the Eurasian Steppe begins with explaining Anthony’s approach to archaeology in the chapter “How to Reconstruct a Dead Culture”. The division of prehistoric time into Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages began with a C19th Dane (Christian Thomsen) hired at aged 27, with no degree but noted for practicality and industry, to arrange Danish Museum items for display (p.123). The Bronze Age began when bronze made of an alloy of copper with a bit of arsenic began to be used; later tin replaced arsenic. It starts in Europe in the Caucasus around 3700-3500BC, appears in the Pontic-Caspian steppesand the lower Danube around 3300-3200BC but not in Western Europe until around 2400-2200BC. Before the Bronze Age in the steppes was the Eneolithic period—the Copper Age—a stage Western Europe did not go through, moving straight from the Neolithic (New Stone Age) to the Bronze Age (p.125).

In Western archaeology, Neolithic is defined by the means of production—the arrival of farming or herding—while the Mesolithic is defined by the arrival of pottery. In Soviet and post-Soviet archaeology, Neolithic is defined by the arrival of pottery: the usage Anthony follows (Pp125-6).

Then comes the vexed notion of culture: due to internal variety hard to define except in contrast to some neighbouring culture. Culture involves shared patterns of life and a sense of a common past (however invented). Archaeologists have to define culture by material leavings, so it is networks and clumpings of similar material leavings they use to identify distinct cultures. This includes the notion of horizon, a small clumping of traits that spreads quickly and widely without presaging basic cultural changes (Pp130-2).

Cattle and sheep were probably introduced into the Pontic-Caspian steppes from the Danube valley and Balkans, where a network of farming settlements were “the most technologically advanced and aesthetically sophisticated culture” in Europe from about 4000-2000BC, creating a frontier between native foragers and immigrant farmers that lasted for about 2,000 years (p.132). The introduction of cattle to the steppes was crucial, as cattle promote social differentiation that created the chiefly culture central to Indo-European history (p.133).

There is no evidence of domesticated animals in the steppes before 5200-5000BC. The great limiting factor for human habitation is the bitter cold of winter, which can get down to -37oC. The dominant steppe mammals were various forms of equids (wild horses and onagers), which were hunted (typically by driving them into ravines) (Pp135-6).

Domesticated cattle and sheep began a transformation of how humans used and lived in the steppes. They were identified and used as currency and gifts and covered in poetry, songs, tales and art. (Anthony starts the chapter with two archetypal Indo-European myths that connect cattle to life, warrior culture and the gods [p.134].) Herd animals are “grass processors”: they turn grass into wool, felt, clothing, tents, milk, yoghurt, cheese, meat, marrow and bone. Herds can grow rapidly but are threatened by disease, bad weather or theft, creating a boom-and-bust economy encouraging flexible social organisation. That herd animals are easy to steal encouraged brothers to stay together; hence the patrilocal and patrilineal family systems of herding cultures (p.137).

The replacement of foraging by farming culture (and peoples) is a long historical pattern, which continues to this day:
Forager languages were more apt to decline in the face of agricultural immigration. Farmers had a higher birth rate; their settlements were larger, and were occupied permanently. They produced food surpluses that were easier to store over winter. Owning and feeding “cultured” animals has always been seen as an utterly different ethos from hunting wild ones (p.146).
It is likely the Danubian-Balkan settlement culture spoke an Afro-Asiatic language (p.147). Anthony describes in loving detail the archaeological evidence from the farming and adjacent forager cultures (Pp147ff).

Chiefs first appear in the archaeological record of the Pontic-Caspian steppes with the domestication of animals in 5200-5000BC; marked by sacrificial feasts, ornaments and stone maces (p.160). Pottery is required for metallurgy but the strangeness (and value) of what metalsmiths produce encourages magical status for what they do (p.163). Anthony covers, in more loving detail, the archaeological evidence for the Danubian-Balkan farming culture interaction with the steppes of cows, chiefs and copper; the latter a pattern of life still largely confined to river valleys (Pp164ff).

There is evidence of trade networks of impressive geographical reach. Trade, gift exchange and new cults of sacrifice and feasting provided means of social power. Herding, being a volatile pattern of production, requires and creates networks of herd animals lending; encouraging networks of hospitality and clientage while creating increasingly divergent societies depending on whether they adopted herding or not (Pp190-1).

About horses
The classic animal of pastoralist power is the horse: but when and where the horse was first domesticated is still not well understood (p.192). So Anthony takes us through the evidence, including teeth evidence concerning the use of bits (Pp193ff).
In particular, the genetic evidence is compatible with horse domestication being based on a single domesticated wild stallion (p.196). Wild stallions are headstrong, violent and instinctively declined to challenge by biting and kicking. Docile mares could be found at edges of herds: a docile stallion was rare and unlikely to reproduce in the wild:
Horse domestication might have depended on a lucky coincidence: the appearance of a relatively manageable and docile male in a place where humans could use him as the breeder of a domesticated bloodline. From the horse’s perspective, humans were the only way he could get a girl. From the human perspective, he was the only sire they wanted (p.197).
The true horse, Equus caballus ranged across the Pontic-Caspian steppes. Domestication probably started by controlling lead mares, using horses as good source of winter meat, around 4800BC; long after sheep, goats, pigs and cattle had been domesticated in various parts of the globe (Pp200-1). A range of evidence suggests both domestication and horse-riding (Pp219ff).

Horse riding makes herding far more efficient—a man on foot can herd about 200 sheep with a good herding dog: put the man on horseback with the same dog and they can herd about 500. Horse-riding greatly increased the efficiency, so greatly intensified the patterns of, herding economy and culture: larger herds meant more social differentiation while easier stealing and expanded hunger for pastures increased warrior status (p.222).

The invention of the short, recurved compound bow (more power with less length) around 1000BC meant bows were powerful yet compact enough to shoot over the horse’s rear. Socketed bronze arrowheads replaced the previous split-shaft arrowheads, and could deliver far more power. The possibilities of horse-based power were greatly increased. Technology was not sufficient on its own, however:
The technical advances in bows, arrows, and casting were meaningless without a matching change in mentality, in the identity of the fighter from a heroic single warrior to a nameless soldier (p.224).
The ideology of personal glory was no longer enough. Once someone on the edge of the civilised world organised the new horse archers into disciplined units (apparently around 1000-900BC), cavalry swept chariots from the battlefield (Pp222-4).

Decline and fade
Around 4300-4200BC, the settled farming culture of the Danubian valley and Balkans was at its peak, with thousands of permanent settlements. Then, around 4200-4100BC, the climate got colder and floods became more frequent. From about 3960-3820BC, there was a bitterly cold period. Between 4200-3900 over 600 settlements were burnt and abandoned. The milder weather then returned, but the Danubian-Balkan culture did not: female figurines stopped being used regularly while metallurgy, mining and ceramic technology declined sharply. At least part of the story of what happened includes warfare (Pp227-8).

In the Balkans, in what had been a well-cultivated, densely settled landscape, no permanent settlements can be dated between 3800-3300BC. The culture declined elsewhere, with the exception of a late-blooming expansion towards the Dneiper, in contact with the steppe cultures. Anthony takes us through the archaeological evidence (Pp229ff).

This is a frontier interaction, and frontiers:
can be envisioned as peaceful trade zones where valuables are exchanged for the mutual benefit of both sides, with economic need preventing overt hostilities, or as places where distrust is magnified by cultural misunderstandings, negative stereotypes, and the absence of bridging institutions (p.236).
The rampaging nomad on horseback being the archetypal “dangerous frontier warrior”, yet prior to the technology and mentality of horse archers developing, any raiding on horse-back was at most a matter of small tribal bands. Evidence strongly suggests that some steppe people rode horses by about 3700-3500BC: horse-riding may have begun before 4500BC (p.237).

This frames discussion of the archaeological evidence on the end of the Danubian-Balkan culture (Pp238ff). Then it is the beginnings of contact with the urban civilisations of the Middle East and the final period of the steppe Copper Age (Pp263ff).

This review concludes in my next post.

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