College Quarterly
Winter 2008 - Volume 11 Number 1
Reviews The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World
David W. Anthony
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

The Torah, the Holy Bible and the Qu’ran, the sacred books of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, contain an ample stock of fascinating myths and legends running from the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden (Genesis 3) and the great flood (Genesis 7) to one of the first reports of genocide (Numbers 31). Less well recognized, however, is one of many other incidents in which God punished humanity for its sin – in this case its pride.

In Genesis 7, the story is told of the tyrant Nimrod, who presided over the post-Noachian city of Babylon (which, by the way, carries two antique meanings – the gate of heaven and a terrible confusion of sounds). Nimrod, it is said, sought to build a tower (more precisely, a pyramid) that would rise up to Heaven. God, of course, would have none of that, and promptly punished all of humanity for its hubris. “The people is one, and they have all one language,” God observed. “Let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” This was done, and the people, in linguistic isolation, were thereupon scattered around the globe.

Almost every prehistoric society has, of course, its own myths of origin. A respectable number have a legend of a great flood. Some embrace the notion of a celestial saviour, who will redeem humanity at some future date. Of interest here is that many societies also have a story to explain different etiological narratives and thus comprehend why people speak Japanese or German, Hungarian or Hawai’ian, Swahili or Tlingit.

Anticipating present-day debates about multiculturalism, accounts differ as to whether linguistic diversity was a blessing or a curse; however, the fact remains that disparate cultures on all the populated continents use supernatural entities to explain why different languages exist.

A more secular account might employ Darwinian methods to describe the evolution of the many idioethnic languages currently spoken on Earth. Best evidence suggests that there are approximately 7000 different languages (not including regional or subcultural dialects and creoles) in contemporary use, although – like plants and animals – many are endangered or on the brink of extinction. What evolutionary theory has in common with religious accounts is the idea that, long ago, human beings had but one tongue.

This, of course, makes eminent sense in terms of our scientifically validated common African origin. The questions of precisely how and according to what timeline, the multiplicity of syntactical, grammatical and lexicological forms came into being and, in many thousands more cases, died out continues to fascinate philologists, anthropologists, linguistic historians and evolutionary theorists of various sorts.

A part of the answer came about in the nineteenth century when Western scholars posited the existence of an ur language from which many others derived. Called “Proto-Indo-European,” it is now commonly accepted as the source of the Germanic, Baltic, Slavic, Celtic, Latin, Hellenic, Iranian and Sanskrit sub-species. This Indo-European language family is, however, only one of about one hundred scientifically recognized groups, not to mention almost another one hundred “isolates” such as Basque, which have no known “relations” other than those that have already perished. Much as with problems of biological speciation and the sometimes arcane dilemmas of taxonomy, the exact geometry of human languages is controversial. Sometimes there is heated disagreement about what properly goes with what, and whether a distinct speech such as Jeju is a Korean dialect or a separate language.

These quarrels can, of course, be left to the amusement of experts. Of concern here is one vital family, the Indo-European, and the profound question of how it quickly burst out of its original geographic confines, diversified and was eventually acknowledge as the common source of speech for 45% of the human population (over 2.5 billion people), and together with Sino-Tibetan, for two-third’s of humanity today.

What cannot be deferred is a comment on an exciting new book by David W. Anthony, which goes some distance toward explaining the dynamics of language, ably assisted by technology. Dr. Anthony is an archaeologist with a special interest in the prehistoric relationships between humans and horses, especially in the Eneolithic period and notably on the steppes of Eurasia. A teacher at Hartwick College, a small liberal arts and science institution in Oneonta, New York and curator for anthropology at the Yager Museum, he began leading field expeditions to Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan in 1989. In The Horse, the Wheel and Language, he dares to cross over some jealously guarded disciplinary borders, and offers an academically excellent and engagingly entertaining account of how early technological innovations led to the dominance of Indo-European in the modern world.

The innovations involve energy and transportation. Anthony’s work on horses and human society has won scholarly attention for two decades. He has shown clearly that horses served a important symbolic and material purposes (not least as a prime source of meat) well before their domestication. Then, once domesticated horses were found useful for riding and pulling in about 2000 BCE, the entire structure of ancient societies abruptly changed.

Using measurements of the wear on teeth presumably caused by ancient bits, Anthony makes compelling case that the Eurasian steppes were among the first places in which horses were used to carry riders. He also employs mitochondrial DNA to add support for his views about the migration patterns of modern horses, and concludes that the Eurasian steppes were also the location for the making of the first chariots, a military innovation that permitted the massive expansion of peoples and their Proto-Indo-European languages over vast territories in a remarkably short period of time.

As cave paintings at Lascaux attest, feral horses were known in much of Europe and elsewhere as early as 30,000 BCE. It was, however, the invention of spoke-wheeled chariots that altered the ancient cultural landscape forever. Chariots were devastating weapons of war. When used against foot soldiers, they allowed their owners a tremendous advantage. They normally held a charioteer and a second warrior equipped with javelins, bows and arrows and other projectiles. Faster than infantry, they could attack from a distance or swoop in on enemy soldiers. And, as their use spread westward to Europe and eastward to India and China, the technological footing for ancient empires carried culture and language as well.

Thanks to Marshall McLuhan and his followers, we have become familiar with the notion that innovations in communications technology from cuneiform writing to the printing press, and from the telegraph to the Internet all transform not merely the mode of communication but the structure and content of the message that is communicated. An equally important area of interest is the dissemination of language. Proto-Indo-European was, so to speak, the lingua franca of the preliterate world. It rode horseback to its current status as the most successful language family the world has yet seen and, if for a time, English happens to be the principal language of commerce and communications, it will have Bronze Age steppe-dwellers to thank for its pride of place.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

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