Saturday, February 23, 2013

Riding into the dawn of history, with the Indo-Europeans

Review of David Anthony's "The horse, the wheel, and language."

The nineteenth century experienced a rush of excitement about the linguistic consanguinity among the Indo-European languages and thus the cultures of India, Iran, and Europe. The most exotic cultures were joined through an invisible history that was at last re-bridging their farthest-flung representatives through the English colonial project.

By the next century, this connection curdled into the Aryan theory of racial distinction from the semitic and other "races", buttressing with pseudoscience the already virulent antisemitism of Christian Europe.

Anthony's book brings the whole story up to date, covering vast grounds of archeology and linguistics that give us more information about the Indo-Europeans, resolving many of the big questions about them, principally where and when they originated.



The first thing to say is that whatever the Aryans were at the outset, they soon lost themselves (genetically speaking) in the vast bodies of humanity they collided with. Their dominance, based on the military advantages of horse-riding, chariot-fighting, and outstanding metalwork, gave their language a privileged status. But they practiced a client-patron form of rule, and accepted into their culture whoever conformed to the cult (best represented in the Rig Veda (~3500 ybp, or years before present), but also reflected strongly in the Roman culture), so by the time of the Nazis, there was no such thing as an Aryan.
"The Rig Veda (of India) and the Avesta (of Iran) agreed that the essence of their shared parental Indo-Iranian identity was linguistic and ritual, not racial. If a person sacrificed to the right gods in the right way using the correct forms of the traditional hyms and poems, that person was a Aryan. Otherwise, the individual was a Dasyu, again not a racial or ethnic label but a ritual and linguistic one- a person who interrupted the cycle of giving between gods and humans, and therefore a person who threatened cosmic order, r'ta (Rig Veda) or asa (Avesta)."

One of the most interesting observations from the linguistics is the inexorable change languages undergo. The English of only 1,000 years ago is unrecognizable to us. So not only can one make conclusions of common origin based on linguistic similarities, one can make negative conclusions from a lack of similarity and also rough timing conclusions about when branches split off from each other.

For instance, the Indo-European languages have a lot in common- many root terms and core concepts, like horses, gods, wheels, wool, carts, portable wealth, dogs, milk, and much else. They have such a strong core that they can not have diverged more than 5 or 6 thousand years ago. This core must have functioned as a coherent cultural language for a group that couldn't have occupied a terribly large territory originally, given the technologies of the time, or persisted for a very long time in that early state, yet which subsequently spread like wildfire to all corners of the western ancient world, and may have significatly influenced the rise of Chinese culture as well.

The linguistics point to some key innovations- the domestication of horses (estimated about 7000 ybp), horseback riding (~6200 ybp), the invention of the wheel (estimated at ~5700 ybp), and the use of wheels on light, one- or two-person war chariots (estimated at ~4000 ybp). There is also the adoption of long-haired (mutant) sheep for wool production, and entry into the bronze age proper, developing arsenic and tin alloys with copper into a regular industry. All these steps were evidently first taken in the Pontic steppes, the regions North of and around the Black and Caspian seas.

Why? Well, the first reason is that this is one of the few regions horses remained in the wild. People in this area had already domesticated pigs, goats, sheep, and cattle. But horses are another kettle of fish! All domestic horses trace their ancestry on the male side to a single male progenitor, indicating the difficulty of establishing a domestic herd. Horses were hunted commonly for food, one of those "pre-adaptations" one hears about so often in the evolutionary stories. So it would naturally be in this region as well that horses were first domesticated for food, then ridden for better managment, and lastly ridden and harnessed for many other purposes.

While Anthony's expertise generally leads to grievous over-writing on the archeological issues he is most familiar with, his work on bit wear is quite significant, finally figuring out how to tell whether horse remains show signs of riding, by way of the slight damage done by bits placed before the molars by horses chewing on them. This is how he roughly dates the advent of horse riding to about 6200 ybp in the Kazak to Caucasas area. One can only imagine how daunting the prospect of riding the first horse must have been, and how bizarre one's first sight of another human on horseback.

Anthony describes an interesting process where the productivity of the steppes was transformed by the horse and wheeled carts, from a wasteland where herders could visit only on brief forays from the river valleys, into a perpetually productive zone where they could nomadically herd as far afield as they pleased. A bit like how the iron plow transformed the farming (and destruction) of the steppe / prairies in later times. This economic change also introduced the possibility of vast accumulation (and vast differences) in wealth, stored on the hoof as livestock. Which then fostered a cultural transformation towards much more differentiated status hierarchy / patriarchy, where the rich were buried in very labor-intensive monuments.

It obviously also knitted together large regions not previously in contact, between these steppe areas and the more urban areas to their south, and across the steppes even over to China. Again, this is more than a little like the later rise of the Mongols, who ranged even more widely using the same technology of horse-based nomadism to make of Central Asia a highway of conquest and trade- the silk road. Anthony highlights a large amount of Russian archeology from the last forty years that has not been very accessible or appreciatedd to the West, and focuses particularly on one culture at the southern end of the Urals, the Sintashta, which seems to embody the ur-Indo-European culture.

Sintashta grave, with metalwork, horse remains, and chariot remains. At lower right are horse bit cheek pieces, whose knobs are believed to have been placed inward against the horse's lips, giving the driver/rider even more control with a very light touch.

These people (about ~4000 ybp) built compact, strongly palisaded encampments, filled with bronze workshops. They buried a small proportion of their population in kurgan graves, which were a steppe specialty of a large circular built-up mound with a central grave, often structurally supported with wooden bulwarks. These particular graves contained a good deal of bronze, and war chariots. Most interestingly, they contained horse-intensive sacrifices eerily similar to the central horse sacrifice ritual described in the Rig Veda, with heads and feet arranged artistically around an overturned pot. (The rest of the animals were served in the feast; unfortunately, I can not offer an image of such a grave that does it justice).
"Similarities between the ritual excavated at Sintashta and Arkaim and those described later in the Rig Veda have solved, for many, the problem of Indo-Iranian origins."

So there we have it, the origin in time and space of the Indo-Europeans, more or less. What they brought to the rest of the world, in addition to their language, continues to ring down the ages. Roman culture was a typical example. The patron-client system was honed to perfection in Rome, making of the paterfamilias practically a god, to be revived periodically via the public parade of his death mask. Women were of vanishingly little account, on the other hand. This culture was starkly patriachial. When the Romans invaded Britain, they were astonished to see war chariots being driven about- something the Romans had only heard about in the Greek epics of a by-gone age, despite their own carefully tended "sporting" rituals of chariot racing and other manly feats of brutality and human sacrifice.

In our own day, we remain inheritors of many of these traditions, struggling still to overcome patriarchalism, colonialist tendencies, a large cast of sky-gods, and our love of speedy chariots. Perhaps our love of technological innovation will start to solve some of these problems, rather than feeding greed and powerlust as it has so often in the past.

Wotan takes leave of Brunhilde, Konrad Dielitz, 1892.

  • A contrary view of the origins. The Anatolian branch is accepted by both sides as particularly early, but whether it was the immediate precursor to most of the rest of the Indo-European family is in question.
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