Saturday, October 26, 2013

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

Just finished the most amazing book: The Horse, The Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony. It is a wonderful mix of historical linguistics and archaeology, packed with information from Russian research not seen in English before.

Tl;dr summary: Half the world speaks Indo-European languages, which spread from folk who domesticated the horse and used the wheel to carry their culture and language out from the Eurasian steppes. Among the cultural concepts discussed is how differing moral codes can hold neighboring cultures apart, creating long-lasting cultural borders.

I came to the book from The History of English podcast which I discussed earlier on this blog. This whole wonderful journey started with Eike Hein's frequent recommendation of The Decipherment of Linear B, which I also blogged about late last summer. One of the comments by Adrian Łubik on G+ led me to the history podcast, which led me to The Horse, The Wheel and Language. And the side voyage through an alternative old world with the Kushiel's Legacy books made this journey even more enjoyable and enlightening.

You would think that the beginnings of English, its forebear languages and the people who spoke them would be a dry, dusty topic, throwing no light on our culture, beyond our languages themselves. And oh, by our languages I mean most all of the languages spoken west of Russia and China, and north of Africa. This includes not only Greek and Latin and the rest of the Romance languages, but also the north Indian languages, all of the Norse and Germanic languages including English, and also all the Celtic tongues. Of course now this also includes most of North and South America as well.

How did a small group of prehistoric foragers spread their language over most of the world? To answer this question, the book uses not only the latest linguistic research, but also the archaeological evidence from all over Old Europe, the steppes covering the Ukraine and southern Russia, and many other Indo-European sites. Much of this research was unavailable to the West until recently.

One important discussion early on is explaining why this sort of analysis has not been done before. The sad truth is that with early linguistic and fragmentary archaeological evidence, some terrible theories of the "true homeland of the pure-blooded Aryans" were created and used to bloody effect. Race itself is only a social concept, not a biological reality. What Anthony examines is the evidence of the lives of these people, how they lived and died, what they ate, their social structures, migrations, and language.

Some of this evidence is tenuous, but the difference between groups becomes more clear and obvious at the borders between them. As we know, most borders are porous, and people move back and forth even in modern times, where we have states enforcing those borders. However, some cultural borders are long-lasting, even with no state involvement. A modern example Anthony uses is the English / Welsh, and the English / Scots. People might move back and forth between these regions of the UK, but the cultural difference and even language difference remains. Cultural borders are even stronger when there is also a geographic difference (ecotone) which differentiates how people make a living. The river valleys, steppe, and steppe-forest acted as borders separating people in the Eurasian steppe region for hundreds and in some cases, thousands of years.

Anthony says:
The North Pontic societies east of the Dniester frontier continued to live as they always had, by hunting, gathering wild plants, and fishing until about 5200 BCE. Domesticated cattle and hot wheatcakes might have seemed irresistibly attractive to the foragers who were in direct contact with the farmers who presented and legitimized them, but, away from that active frontier, North Pontic forager-fishers were in no rush to become animal tenders. Domesticated animals can only be raised by people who are committed morally and ethically to watching their families go hungry rather than letting them eat the breeding stock. Seed grain and breeding stock must be saved, not eaten, or there will be no crop and no calves the next year. Foragers generally value immediate sharing and generosity over miserly saving for the future, so the shift to keeping breeding stock was a moral as well as an economic one. It probably offended the old morals. It is not surprising it was resisted, or that when it did begin it was surrounded by new rituals and a new kind of leadership, or that the new leaders threw big feasts and shared food when the deferred investment paid off. These new rituals and leadership roles were the foundation of Indo-European religion and society. [p154-155]
Another contrast between the older societies and those of  the new farming and herding, was whom they worshipped. The goddesses of Old Europe were maiden/mother/crone figures, found in most rooms of each house, where people lived in villages. The steppe dwellers worshipped a sky god, and often a war god, and sacrifices were blood and meat. Images were not found; instead, piles of bones from the ritual feasts. So the gods that people worshipped typified the society: the partnership societies had goddesses and god who seemed friendly, helpful, and part of everyday life, while the herders and farmers worshipped distant, untrustworthy gods who had to be placated with blood sacrifices.

Anthony says,
Participation in long-distance trade, gift exchange, and a new set of cults requiring public sacrifices and feasting became the foundation for a new kind of social power. Stockbreeding is by nature a volatile economy. Herders who lose animals always borrow from those who still have them. The social obligations associated with these loans are institutionalized among the world's pastoralists as a basis for a fluid system of status distinctions. Those who loaned animals acquired power over those who borrowed them, and those who sponsored feasts obligated their guests. Early Proto-Indo-European included a vocabulary about verbal contracts bound by oaths ... used in later religious rituals to specify the obligations of the weak (humans) and the strong (gods).... As leaders acquired followers, political networks emerged around them--and this was the basis of tribes.
... The Pre-Proto-Indo-European language family probably expanded with the new economy during the Early Eneolithic in the western steppes. Its sister-to-sister linguistic links may well have facilitated the spread of stockbreeding and the beliefs that went with it. [p191]
When I read the paragraphs I quoted, I couldn't help but think about an article I had read earlier, about an interesting aspect of American politics today: Tea Party radicalism is misunderstood: Meet the “Newest Right.” In the article, the author, Michael Lind says,
... The dominant members of the Newest Right are white Southern local notables—the Big Mules, as the Southern populist Big Jim Folsom once described the lords of the local car dealership, country club and chamber of commerce.  These are not the super-rich of Silicon Valley or Wall Street (although they have Wall Street allies). The Koch dynasty rooted in Texas notwithstanding, those who make up the backbone of the Newest Right are more likely to be millionaires than billionaires, more likely to run low-wage construction or auto supply businesses than multinational corporations. They are second-tier people on a national level but first-tier people in their states and counties and cities.
These are the same people! The same leaders (patrons) who got big herds, and got clients by lending out stock, only now their stock is cars and trucks, construction jobs and such. To be clear, Anthony never draws such a link; this is entirely my own comparison.

When in Genesis 4:9 of the Christian Bible, God asks Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?" He said, "I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?" It seems to me that Cain answers a question with a question in the same way that the leaders within this cultural system always have done. They do not feel a responsibility to the poor, the widow, the orphan. Their morality is based on saving for the future, and building a following, a clientele. The thing is, we live in a world where there is food enough for everyone. There is no need to starve the children! There is plenty of seed corn.

To tie up this long review, I'll close with a final quotation, from Anthony's summary chapter, Words and Deeds, page 459:
Innovation in transportation technology are among the most powerful causes of change in human social and political life. The introduction of the private automobile created suburbs, malls, and superhighways; transformed heavy industry; generated a vast market for oil; polluted the atmosphere; scattered families across the map; provided a rolling, heated space in which young people could escape and have sex; and fashioned a powerful new way to express personal status and identity. The beginning of horseback riding, the invention of the heavy wagon and cart, and the development of the spoke-wheeled chariot had cumulative effects that unfolded more slowly but eventually were equally profound. One of these effects was to transform Eurasia from a series of unconnected cultures into a single interacting system. How that happened is a principal focus of this book.
[p461]...The institutions that regulated peaceful exchange and cross-cultural relationships were just as important as the institution of the raid.
The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European vocabulary and comparative Indo-European mythology that two of those important integrative institutions were: the oath-bound relationship between patrons and clients, which regulated the reciprocal obligations between the strong and the weak, between gods and humans; and the guest-host relationship, which extended these and other protections to people outside the ordinary social circle.
Archaeology and Language
Indo-European languages replaced non-Indo-European languages in a multi-staged, uneven process that continues today, with the world-wide spread of English. No single factor explains every event in that complicated and drawn-out history--not race, demographics, population pressure, or imagined spiritual qualities. The three most important steps in the spread of Indo-European languages in the last two thousand years were the rise of the Latin-speaking Roman Empire (an event almost prevented by Hannibal); the expansion of Spanish, English, Russian and French colonial powers in Asia, America and Africa; and the recent triumph of the English-speaking Western capitalist trade system, in which American-business English has piggybacked onto British-colonial English. No historian would suggest that these events shared a single root cause. If we can draw any lessons about language expansion from them, it is perhaps only that an initial expansion can make later expansions easier (the lingua franca effect), and that languages generally follow military and economic power.