Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Horse the Wheel and Language 3

This concludes 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 two posts.

Wagon life
The real explosion of steppe culture seems to have come, however, between 3300-3100BC with adoption of wagons:
As the steppes dried and expanded, people tried to keep their animal herds fed by moving them more frequently. They discovered that with a wagon you could keep them moving indefinitely. Wagons and horseback riding made possible a new, more mobile form of pastoralism. With a wagon full of tents and supplies, herders could take their herds out of the river valleys and live for weeks or months out in the open steppes between the great rivers—the great majority of the Eurasian steppes. Land that had been open and wild became pasture that belonged to someone. Soon these more mobile herder clans realized that bigger pastures and a mobile home base permitted them to keep bigger herds. Amid the ensuing disputes over borders, pastures and seasonal movements, new rules were needed to define what counted as an acceptable move—people began to manage local migratory behaviour (p.300).
If you were not part of the new life and its evolving rules and agreements you became even more clearly culturally Other, a contrast that helped define and mark identity. The steppe nomad became a people who lived on wheels:
Their new economy took advantage of two kinds of mobility: wagons for slow transport (water, shelter, and food) and horseback riding for rapid light transport (scouting for pastures, herding, trading and raiding expeditions) (p.302).
A combination that greatly increased the scale of herding:
A diet of meat, milk, yoghurt, cheese, and soups made of wild Chenopodium seeds and wild greens can be deduced, with a little imagination, from the archaeological evidence. The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European vocabulary tells us that honey and honey-based mead were also consumed, probably on special occasions. Larger herds meant greater disparity in herd wealth, which is reflected in the disparities of wealth of [steppe] graves. Mobile wagon camps are almost impossible to find archeologically, so settlements become archaeologically invisible where the new economy took hold (p.303).
The last point likely has wider implications: one wonders if the lack of cities and monuments has led to a subtle, or not-so-subtle, scholarly discounting of steppe cultures.

One technique for managing the new mobility was to incorporate some fluidity in social relations—notably, the guest-host connections and obligations (p.303); also a point with potentially much greater implications. The notion of the oath-bound warrior; not kin but freely undertaking a connection as strong as, or even stronger, than kinship—that, in some ways, overrode kinship—was to reach as far as knightly service in Latin Christendom, the sworn samurai of Japan and the beholden warriors of Islam. All of which likely ultimately had steppe cultural roots.

Anthony points to an intriguing gender division between western and eastern Pontic-Caspian steppes culture(s) that is also reflected in differences between western and eastern Indo-European languages. The eastern steppe life was more mobile, lacked grain imprints on pots, more male-centred in religion and ritual, have far higher percentage (80%) of male graves. The western steppe life was more settled, had grain imprints on pots, was more female-inclusive in religion and ritual. All of which may have contributed to the feminine grammatical category that was a defining innovation of Proto-Indo-European (Pp304-5).

Anthony holds that this horse-herding wagon culture of the Pontic-Caspian steppes fits time, place, material and linguistic features to be the original Indo-European culture. It also generates the right migrations in the right direction and sequence to generate the various offshoot languages (p.306), the evidence for which Anthony discusses (Pp306ff).

The earliest identified evidence for steppe vehicles are around 3000BC, though Anthony believes they likely appeared between 3500-3300BC. As we do not know where the wheel-and-axle was invented, we have no idea from whence they came to the steppes. There is only minimal evidence for warfare as the cause of the spread the wagon cultural horizon:
Rather, it spread because those who shared the agreements and institutions that made high mobility possible became potential allies, and those who did not share these institutions were separated as Others. Larger herds also probably brought increased prestige and economic power, because larger herd-owners had more animals to loan or offer as sacrifices at public feasts (p.317).
As Anthony takes us through the historical evidence, one striking feature is that the grain content of diet appears to shrink as the horizon spreads (p.320). The wagon cultural horizon seems to have spread across the entire Pontic-Caspian steppes around 3400-3200BC; signs of a competitive advantage, aggressively exploited (hence Anthony’s confidence that the cultural horizon was wagon-based).

Anthony disputes the scholarly assumption that pastoralism is dependant on settled cultures for grain and metal. Economically, Bronze Age pastoralism seems to have been substantially self-sufficient: mining its own metal ores, leaving a few people to tend river valley barley or millet fields. It was the creation of royal bodyguards ballooning into armies that made Iron Age and Medieval nomadic states dependant on interaction with settled societies (Pp321-2).

Graves, as ever, provide important indicators. In the eastern steppes, sheep or goat bones predominated (65%), followed by cattle (15%), horses (8%), dogs (5%). In the western steppes, cattle (60%) were more numerous than sheep (29%) (p.324).

The human bones indicate people who were very tall, robust, with few signs of systemic infections and whose teeth typically entirely free of caries (like the teeth of foragers), indicating a diet free of starchy carbohydrates. In the middle period, they do show significantly more signs of childhood anaemia, indicating a diet too rich in dairy foods:
Health often declines in the early stages of a significant dietary change, before the optimal mix of new foods has been established (p.326).
Genetic research on lactose tolerance suggests it emerged in the steppes west of the Ural Mountains between 4600-2800BC (p.326).

The linguistic evidence is for a patriarchal culture that gave thanks to Sky Father for sons, fat cattle and fast horses, where kinship was patrilineal. The evidence of the kurgan graves is more complex as 20% (in the east) or more (in the west) contained adult females, suggesting some women were assigned to traditionally male leadership roles. Suggestively, a thousand years later, 20% of Scythian-Sarmatian “warrior graves” contained females dressed for battle as if they were men (p.328-9). The archaeology of kurgan graves—by far the most dramatic archaeological evidence from the period—is frustratingly suggestive (Pp329ff).

Language spread
All this is leading up to the big question: how did Indo-European languages get to be so dominant over such a wide area? Which is a matter of language replacement far more than population replacement. Language replacement is typically a process of prestige (to the new language) and stigmatisation (for the old) for which:
the possibilities are much more varied than just invasion and conquest (p.340).
Continuing to use modern examples to inform analysis of the past, Anthony notes that:
the general situation in Europe after 3300BCE was one of increased mobility, new pastoral economies, explicitly status-ranked political systems, and inter-regional connectivity—exactly the kind of context that might of led to the stigmatization of the tightly closed identities associated with language spoken by localized groups of village farmers (Pp340-1).
Anthony suggests a range of factors that could have given the horse-breeding wagon folk of the steppes status which can be summarised as:
having the largest, strongest and most manageable horses;
far greater mobility (including raiding threat);
belief in the sanctity of oath-bound contracts and in protecting clients in return for services;
the institutions that managed mobility provided ways of incorporating outsiders;
public feasts as statements of prestige and vectors of recruitment.
That is, the Indo-Europeans had wealth, connections and ways of incorporating outsiders going for them (Pp341-3). On the issue of wealth from horses, Anthony notes that, in the C16th, the Bukhara khanate exported 100,000 horses a year to the Mughal rulers of India (p.341). The scale of horse-trading from the steppes to the river-valley civilisations was immense for millennia: it was the basis of the Silk Road, for example.
Anthony’s tentative conclusion is that:
the spread of Proto-Indo-European was more like a franchising operation than an invasion. Although the initial penetration of a new region … often involved an actual migration from the steppes and military confrontations, once it began to reproduce new patron-client agreements … its connection to the original steppe immigrants became genetically remote, whereas the myths, rituals, and institutions that maintained the system were reproduced down the generations (p.343).
Then it is on to more of Anthony’s beloved archaeological evidence for migration and cultural change (read: cultural replacement) (Pp343ff).

In particular, what became the Germanic languages likely evolved out of migrations up the Danube Valley around 3100-2800BC (Pp360-1). What caused the migrations is an open question: Anthony suggests that the pull of raiding and client possibilities was a likely cause, possibly via brotherhoods of young oath-bound warriors dressed in belts and little else (p.364). The agrarian villages, lacking central authority, provided opportunities for warrior chiefs to become the protector-patrons of client-servitors (p.366), leading to the origins of the Germanic, Italic and Celtic languages (p.370).

The oldest chariots found anywhere were in a fortified settlement at Sintashta, east of the Ural mountains in the northern steppes (p.371). The radiocarbon dates range from 2800-2700BC to 2100-1800BC, likely due to a later culture using a site used by a previous culture (Pp374-5).

The find was something of an archaeological marvel:
The details of the funeral sacrifices at Sintashta showed startling parallels with the sacrificial funeral rituals of the Rig Veda. The industrial scale of the metallurgical production suggested a new organization of steppe mining and metallurgy and a greatly heightened demand for copper and bronze. The substantial fortifications implied surprisingly large and determined attacking forces. And the appearance of Pontic-Caspian kurgan rituals, vehicle burials, and weapon types in the steppes east of the Ural River indicated that the Ural frontier had finally been erased (p.375).
All of which raised lots of questions, Anthony taking us through the historical evidence (Pp371ff).

This is very much a warrior culture:
Warfare, a powerful stimulus to social and political change, also shaped the Sintashta culture, for a heightened threat of conflict dissolves the old social order and creates new opportunities for the acquisition of power (p.393).
In the case of the chariot warrior culture, climate change seems to have been a factor, as it was in other times and places:
during the climactic crisis of the late MBA [Middle Bronze Age] in the steppes, competing steppe chiefs searching for new sources of prestige valuables probably discovered the merchants of Sarazam in the Zeravshan valley, the northernmost of outpost of Central Asian civilization [which] … created a new relationship that fundamentally altered warfare, metal production, and ritual competition among the steppe cultures (p.393).
The markers of increased warfare being:
the regular appearance of large fortified towns; increased deposit of weapons in graves; and the development of new weapons and tactics (p.393).
The extra weapons being (on the evidence of the surviving points) javelins and chariots (Pp395-6).

A chariot is:
a two-wheeled vehicle with spoked wheels and a standing driver, pulled by bitted horses, and usually driven at a gallop … Chariots were the first wheeled vehicles designed for speed, an innovation which changed land transport forever. The spoked wheel was the central element that made speed possible (p.397).
Anthony’s thorough definition of a chariot brings out how many different elements had to come together. Accepting a steppe origin for chariots overturns the established view that chariots were invented in Near Eastern societies around 1900-1800BC. Anthony takes us through the debate and evidence, arguing for javelin-throwing warrior-drivers who could throw javelins further than a man on horseback (Pp397ff).

I find a steppe origin for chariots highly plausible, given that the steppes were the source of later innovations in horses (e.g. the stirrup). Anthony assembles considerable evidence and reasonable inference for his view.

Chariots fit right in with a chiefly warrior culture:
Chariots were the supreme advertisements of wealth; difficult to make and requiring great athletic skill and a team of specially trained horses to drive, they were available only to those who could delegate much of their daily labor to hired herders. A chariot was material proof that they drive was able to fund a substantial alliance or was supported by someone who had the means (p.405).
the evidence from fortifications, weapon types, and numbers, and the tactical innovation of chariot warfare, all indicate that conflict increased in both scale and intensity in the northern steppes … after about 2100BC.
With chariots playing an important role. Anthony connecting the archaeological evidence of prestige feats and sacrifices with the linguistic evidence of the Rig Veda and Avesta to identify these chariot people as the original “Aryans”:
Between 2100 and 1800BCE they invented the chariot, organized themselves into stronghold-based chiefdoms, armed themselves with new kinds of weapons, created a new style of funeral rituals that involved spectacular public displays of wealth and generosity, and began to mine and produce metals on a scale previously unimagined in the steppes (p.411).
It is one thing to identify an origin time, place and culture for the Indo-European “explosion”, the trick is to provide a coherent analysis—congruent with the evidence—that ends up with the historical spread of Indo-European languages from Sri Lanka (Sinhala) to the far edges of Europe.

This is the subject of the penultimate chapter, The Opening of the Eurasian Steppes. Anthony starts by looking at the archaeological evidence for the Near East after Sargon of Akkad imposes the first unified rule over the first cities of Mesopotamia from the perspective of looking for steppe connections (Pp412ff). Including, the first evidence for the appearance of horses in the Near East around 2100BC (Pp416-7). With the tin of Sarazm (tin being the most important traded good of the Bronze Age) being likely the connection that brought horses, chariots and steppe cultures to the river valley civilisations of the Near East and the Indus, based on examination of the archaeological evidence (Pp418ff). Anthony concludes that:
The steppe world was not just a conduit, it also became an innovating center, particularly in bronze metallurgy and chariot warfare. The chariot-driving kings of Shang China and Mycenaean princes of Greece, contemporaries at opposite ends of the ancient world at about 1500BCE, share a common technological debt to the LBA [Late Bronze Age] herders of the Eurasian steppes (p.435-7).
The “settling down” in fortified settlements of the Middle and Late Bronze Age in the steppes Anthony ascribes to defending the best winter forage and copper mines in a period of extended climactic crisis (Pp440ff). Steppe metallurgy included lost-wax casting and hollow-mold casting (probably learnt from the BMAC culture) producing products that included socketed spearheads (p.444).

Connecting material evidence and language is inherently difficult, nevertheless Anthony seeks to trace a series of “daughter cultures” across the steppes based on:
an extraordinary burst economic, military, and ritual innovations by a single culture—the Sintashta culture (p.450).
Certainly, the congruence between Rig Veda passages Anthony cites (and Mycenaean culture as revealed by archaeology and preserved in Homer) with the Sintashta archaeology is striking; Anthony reinforcing the point with discussion of the evidence on extensive trade across the steppes and evidence of “proto-Vedic” cultures (Pp450ff).

Anthony is seeking to change our view of the steppes from:
a remote and austere place, poor in resources and far from the centers of the civilised world
during the Late Bronze Age the steppes became a bridge between the civilizations that developed on the edges of the continent in Greece, the Near East, Iran, the Indian subcontinent, and China. Chariot technology, horses and horseback riding, bronze metallurgy, and a strategic location gave steppe societies an importance they never before had possessed (p.456).
Turning the steppes into a “corridor of communication” which “permanent altered the dynamics of Eurasian history” (p.457).

This was the start of a dynamic that was not going to end until the Romanov and Qing Empires conquered and devastated Central Eurasia, creating the Central Eurasia-as-poverty-struck-backwater of the last few centuries which has done so much to hide its history from Western understanding: including the understanding of how much of it is the history of our (i.e. Western/Anglosphere) origins.

In his final chapter, Words and Deeds, Anthony asserts that the fall of the Iron Curtain, making steppe archaeology much more accessible, recent archaeological discoveries and advances in linguistics have made questions about the origins of the Indo-Europeans answerable in the way they were not previously (p.458). The wheel and the horse matter because:
Innovations in transport technology are among the most powerful causes of change in human and social political life (p.459).
From private automobiles creating suburban life to turning the Eurasian steppes into connector of cultures across Eurasia. Anthony summarises his central argument and contentions with admirable clarity (Pp460ff). In particular, that the steppes being a corridor of communication was far from “automatic”: on the contrary, transmission of ideas and cultures was blocked by persistent cultural frontiers that lasted for millennia (p.463).

The full story of the spread of Indo-European languages (a continuing one, with the spread of English) is far too long and complex to be pinned down to a single set of causes:
If we can draw any lessons about language expansion … it is perhaps only that an initial expansion can make later expansions easier (the lingua franca effect), and that language generally follows military and economic power (the elite dominance effect …) (p.464).
Network economics and status, in other words. Anthony’s model is based on the spread of steppe chiefs with a set of institutions that could incorporate outsiders:
Long after the genetic imprint of the original immigrant chiefs faded away, the system of alliances, obligations, myths, and rituals that they introduced was still being passed on from generation to generation. Ultimately, the last remnant of this inheritance is the expanding echo of a once-shared language that survives as the Indo-European language family (p.464).
A pattern that works, incorporates, accrues prestige and is mobile is an inherently plausible mechanism for such language spread.

Briefly considering past misuse of the notion of 'Aryan', Anthony sets out his methodological approach—create an explanatory narrative congruent with the facts and not-contradicted by facts outside the narrative—rather nicely (Pp464-5). In doing so, we cannot retrieve the names of individuals from so long ago, but we can retrieve much of how they lived and thought. Anthony provides an apposite quote from the Rig Veda:
That man is no friend who does not give of his own nourishment to his friend, the companion at his side. Let the friend turn away from him; this is not his dwelling-place. Let him find another man who gives freely, even if he be a stranger. Let the stronger man give to the man whose need is greater; let him gaze upon the lengthening path. For riches roll like the wheels of a chariot, turning from one to another (p.466).
It is a very sad historical irony that an ancient work that incorporated this firm statement that people should be judged by the content of their character and lauded open-minded generosity was used to support racist fantasies of genetic supremacy.

Archaeology relies on many ironies of survival (e.g. that wooden structures are preserved by burning). In his closing words, Anthony points to:
another irony rarely appreciated: that in the invisible and fleeting sounds of our speech we preserve for future generations of linguists many details of our present world (p.466).
Provided, of course, scholars and their audiences are willing to listen to what linguists have to say.

The Horse, the Wheel and Language is a splendid journey through the difficulties and possibilities of archaeology, especially an archaeology open to what other disciplines (notably linguistics) have to say. It is also blessedly free of jargon and the burdens of Theory, allowing the evidence to speak in all its possibilities and ambiguities. (Though a list of acronyms would have been helpful.) It provides engaging and vivid insight into the evidence about our distant progenitors, those who created where we came from.


  1. 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.

    Indeed. Note however that mere increased mobility can increase the opportunities for raiders, as it permits them to reach and attack people with whom (1) there are no moderating previous contacts, and (2) who do not know where they live; furthermore, unless the victim groups have similar mobility, (3) even if the victims know who launched the attacks, retaliation is difficult.

    Tribal societies are always raiding and counter-raiding. Victim groups which could be raided but could not effectively retaliate would be viewed with increasing contempt: eventually you get the classic contempt of nomad warrior for the settled agriculturalist. This is true even if the nomads themselves have a settled element: they can always exempt their own kin from this contempt, or gradually change their society so that the functions of the settled element are increasingly performed by slaves (perhaps taken on those raiding expeditions), with the masters dwelling in the settlements but using their greater wealth and freedom to join the raiding parties.