Book of the Week

January 24, 2008

In the age of Borat it may come as a surprise to learn that the grasslands between Ukraine and Kazakhstan were once regarded as an early crucible of civilisation. This idea is revisited in a major new study by David Anthony.

The author is best known for his innovative work on the domestication of the horse, now thought to have taken place by 3500BC on the steppe north of the Black and the Caspian seas. For Anthony this fact is intimately bound up with the origins and spread of Indo-European languages. To understand why, you have to enter the complex world of comparative linguistics, and even then you may be left feeling that you have been chasing an illusion.

More than two centuries ago, William Jones, a British judge in India, demonstrated that the main language groups of Europe derive from a common ancestor, also shared by the classical languages of India and Iran. This implied an ancient divergence from a shared source, Proto-Indo-European, aspects of which could be reconstructed through the comparison of known languages. Early 20th-century researchers subsequently observed family resemblances between the kinds of society described in the Homeric epics and the liturgy of the Vedas. Particular emphasis was placed on shared military values and symbols of male prowess. In consequence, the expansion of Indo-European peoples from an assumed homeland became bound up with research into the origins and spread of the horse-drawn chariot.

But Anthony does not examine these intellectual foundations critically enough before building on them anew. He proposes the existence of a "Proto-Indo-European homeland" between the Dnieper and Ural rivers. Yet many technological attributes identified as quintessentially "Proto-Indo-European" are attested far beyond this region. Cattle herding, wool-bearing sheep and wheeled transport can all be traced to the Middle East. Even the earliest evidence for horse domestication derives from sites east of this zone, in northern Kazakhstan.

The first chiefly burials north of the Caucasus contain styles of weaponry and personal ornament that originate in the cities of lowland Mesopotamia. And the most intriguing thing about the invention of the horse-drawn chariot in the early second millennium BC is its rapid diffusion to areas as distant as Shang China, Mycenean Greece and Egypt. If such cultural cross-fertilisation was the norm in prehistory, then the whole procedure of reconstructing language-history as a series of divergences from a single root is brought into question. The burden of proof remains with those who want to treat "Proto-Indo-European" as something more than what it is: a construct of modern philology and not, as this book insists, a "dead language".

In Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind, Colin Renfrew provides a lively overview of the state of archaeological research, set against a wealth of personal experience. But this short book is more than a brief history of the discipline. It is also an exploration of his interest in "cognitive archaeology": the study of how the human mind develops through its engagement with the material world.

Archaeology, Renfrew reminds us, is a relatively young field of study with an extraordinary remit: to describe and analyse the greater part of the human past, for which no written sources exist. It is only in recent decades that a reliable chronology for world prehistory has come into view, as a result of advances in radiometric dating. The geographical extent of archaeological knowledge is only now beginning to attain truly global proportions. Yet many archaeologists, Renfrew points out, have lost their appetite for the big questions of prehistory, retreating into narrow regional specialisms or obscure theoretical debates.

For Renfrew, the most urgent problem of human prehistory is what he calls the "sapient paradox". Fossil and DNA records show that modern humans evolved in Africa some 150,000 years ago and spread throughout much of the world by 40,000BC. Why then is so much of what we regard as typical human behaviour attested only after the end of the last Ice Age? Here, Renfrew refers principally to our evolved capacity for symbolic expression; our enormous reliance on cultural constructs such as money, writing and religious institutions to shape our lives and give meaning to our deaths. For millennia, he observes, human beings appear to have made little use of this capacity in ordering their relations with one another and the world around them. With notable exceptions, such as the Palaeolithic cave art of France and Spain, it is only after about 10,000BC that we begin to see a steady move towards engagement with the expressive properties of stone, clay and metal as a means of giving form to ideas and social relations.

Once this process was in motion, it quickly accelerated. Cultural innovations began to outstrip genetic adaptation in determining the course of change in human communities. The reproduction of social institutions and values became dependent on the production of ever more complex material forms such as temples, burial monuments and systems of measurement. Later chapters explore this spiralling entanglement of mind and matter in later prehistory through an extraordinary range of examples. Even equestrian steppe warriors and chariots make a brief cameo appearance - not as manifestations of a primordial ethnic unit, but as "new associations producing new kinds of identity, which caught the imaginations of the time".

Renfrew meets his own challenge with style and vigour, providing stimulating asides on key questions such as the origins of social inequality, the use of currency and the impact of literacy on human reasoning. Specialists and general readers will find much to debate in this important and highly readable study.

THE AUTHOR

Archaeologist Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn is renowned for his work on radiocarbon dating, European prehistory, DNA and archaeogenetics and the origins of language.

He developed the Renfrew hypothesis, which argues that Proto-Indo-Europeans lived 2,000 years before the Kurgans in Anatolia (now Turkey), spreading to Greece, then to Italy, Sicily, Corsica, the Mediterranean coast of France, Spain and Portugal. He is a pioneer in the development of social archaeology and is dedicated to preventing the looting of archaeological sites and raising awareness of the ethical aspects of his profession. His last book was Figuring It Out: The Parallel Visions of Artists and Archaeologists (2003).

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

By David W. Anthony
Princeton University Press
566pp
£19.95
ISBN 9780691058870
Published 14 January 2008.

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