From the Horse's Mouth

By Lawler, Andrew | Humanities, September/October 2008 | Go to article overview

From the Horse's Mouth

Lawler, Andrew, Humanities

Pinpointing a home of the first Indo-European speakers is a charged task that David Anthony takes seriously.

Measuring teeth from dead horses in upstate New York seems an unlikely way to get at the truth behind some of the most controversial questions about the Old World. But David Anthony, a historian and archaeologist at Hartwick College, discovered that by comparing the teeth of modern horses with their Eurasian ancestors, he could determine where and when the ancient ones were ridden. And answering that seemingly arcane question is important if you want to explain why nearly half the world today speaks an Indo-European language.

The origin of Indo-European tongues has roiled scholarship since a British judge in eighteenth-century Calcutta noticed that Sanskrit and English were related. Generations of linguists have labored to reconstruct the mother from which sprang dozens of languages spoken from Wales to China. Their bitter disputes about who used proto-IndoEuropean, where they lived, and their impact on the budding civilizations of Mesopotamia, Iran, and the Indus River Valley are legion.

That contentious debate, says Anthony, has been "alternately dryly academic, comically absurd, and brutally political." To advance their own goals, Nazi racists, American skinheads, Russian nationalists, and Hindu fundamentalists have all latched on to the idea of light-skinned and chariotdriving Aryans as bold purveyors of an early IndoEuropean culture, which came to dominate Eurasia. So the search for an Indo-European homeland is now the third rail of archaeology and linguistics. Anthony compares it to the Lost Dutchman's mine-"discovered almost everywhere but confirmed nowhere."

With his grizzled beard and affable manner, the fifty-nine-year-old Anthony is an unlikely candidate to wade into such dangerous territory. His father-an intelligence officer during and after World War II-taught the nonIndo-European tongue of Japanese at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia. Young David dreamed about the new-world Inca and Maya, cared little for livestock, and grew up unaware of the fierce arguments about who lived on the vast Eurasian steppes five millennia ago. The closest he got to the Old World was studying Spanish views of Inca history in Seville's archives. But to convince potential graduate schools he had broad interests, he wrote a paper on Indo-European origins. "That paper," he recalls, "became the rest of my life."

The quest has led him to some strange places, from the inside of horses' mouths to six vodka-drenched banquets hosted by hospitable Kazakhs in a single day. Now Anthony is putting himself in the scholarly crosshairs. His recent book, The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, posits a location for that fabled Indo-European homeland, based on extensive research in linguistics, zoology, and old-world archaeology. Such chutzpah is enough to get attention in today's academic world. Yet Anthony is also not a linguist or zoologist; his excavations have been mainly at North American prehistoric sites, and he claims not to know how to even ride a horse. But he has pieced together a comprehensive and remarkably vivid picture of the life and times of Bronze-Age riders who live on in the vocabulary of nearly half the world.

To unravel the mystery of Indo-European, he taught himself Russian to closely examine archaeological reports in obscure Soviet-era journals mostly ignored in the West. What he found were not the remains of crude barbarians living on the distant fringes of the civilizations blooming five thousand years ago on the banks of the Nile, Indus, and Tigris and Euphrates. Instead, these peoples of the steppes stretching from Bulgaria to Turkmenistan made quick and efficient use of the newly invented wheel, mined ore to forge metal tools and weapons, and lived in substantial villages and towns. They also participated in a vast network of trade that brought Afghan lapis lazuli to Egypt and Persian Gulf shells to the Central Asian deserts. …

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