The Horse, The Wheel, And Language, by David W. Anthony | Literature Review

Like many books in my collection, I have gotten my way to this one in an effort to cure my tsundoku.


Ordinary Person. IndoEuropeanLanguageFamilyRelationsChart. Wikipedia. 2020. CC BY-SA 4.0.

This book is about the spread of the Indo-European languages. The first part deals with the methodology of determining how these languages were spread, while the second part deals with detailing the migrations themselves based on archaeological findings. The third part deals with how they spread across Europe and Asia; and about the non-Indo-European cultures that adopted the horse-drawn chariot.

A criticism of this book is that Anthony does drag on to conclude whether the use of wheeled carts and wagons yoked by horses really did motivate the dispersion of the Indo-European languages. Though, it is a book nearly 500 pages, so it is to be expected.

David W. Anthony

He noted that while he is an archaeologist, he is not proficient in linguistics, and as made it known in the book. Anthony humbles himself before the the human condition of the genetic and linguistic ancestors of billions of people around the world. He even admits that the PhD dissertation that he did on isotopes was proven to be wrong.


Archaeology plays a significant role in the search for the Indo-European migration from the Black Sea to Europe and the Indian subcontinent. This is especially the case, since the isotopes within the bones of the remains determine the diet of the people who lived in a certain area ate. Furthermore, the remains of cattle and horses determine which species of cattle were used for wool production.

The major theme about this book is about how all of the Indo-European languages, from Welsh to Hindi, are all related, and more so about how there may be a common ancestor for them. This was noticed by the linguist Sir William Jones who wrote a handbook of the Persian language. He then discovered that the languages Persian and Hindi have a lot in common with the European languages, such as Greek and Welsh. Throughout the book, there are juxtapositions made with the translations of basic words, such as wheel and two.

It also gets into detail about the historical implications of this discovery. While it became a staple of linguistic academia, it was subverted by nationalists who wanted to prove that they themselves were the progenitors of the Indo-European civilizations. More specifically, the Aryans which existed in modern day Afghanistan, Iran, and northern India were the subject of appropriation, notably by the Nazis, who sought to uncover supposedly lost remnants of this supposed Aryan civilization. In reality, the Aryans, like every other proto-Indo-European group, were nomadic, not advanced or physically or racially pure. Another thing to note is that the concept of race is very recent and subject to interpretation by any individual anthropologist and by skull sizes.

It has been established that the Indo-European nation lived near the Black Sea area within the Eurasian steppes. Because these were steppes, this required the people to migrate in order to search for amenable living conditions. As such, wagons and horse-riding were needed in order to proceed. It has been speculated that wagons and chariots were an innovation introduced by the Indo-Europeans to the rest of the known world. This is especially the case since the words for transportation and animal domestication in Indo-European languages can be traced there. Horse domestication also came with it the stratification of society, specifically with the horse being seen as a status symbol. There were also countless raids performed by young men who wanted to plunder wealth in order to pay for the bride-price.

However, there is yet to be a consensus as to where the first horse was domesticated. Also, there is the issue of the fact that proto-Indo European itself is not a completely solid interpretation of the language that may have been spoken in the grasslands of southern Russia. Since it is a reconstructed language, it only takes into account the similarities of all Indo-European languages, and not the millenia of diachronic development. The book is mainly theoretical, since it seeks to provide counterarguments to refute them, like for instance the theory that the Indo-European languages intermingled with the languages spoken by the Neolithic farmers, in spite of the fact that these languages would be creoles, which would not have a complicated grammar that plenty of Indo-European languages do.

Geography is another theme in the book, since it takes into account the Indo-European language, so it therefore takes into account Europe, the Middle East, and India–but mostly on the Black Sea region and Anatolia. Anthony speculates that Indo-European languages spread throughout Europe the same way that the Bantu languages spread throughout Central and Southern Africa. Geography also determined how societies traded, since the steppes were wide and without much vegetation, they were used more as avenues rather than as settlement. The main settlements which sometimes grew into cities sprung up nearby rivers and oases.

While he encapsulates the ancestor-tribe as the Yamnaya culture, he adds that the Proto-Indo-European language cannot accurately define the language–or languages or dialects–that may have been spoken among these groups. Just as well, there is the issue of mythology that is concerned, since what they may have believed in may have been the very roots of many mythologies in the Indo-European languages. A most prominent example is the ways in which the Hindu texts Rig Veda and the Avesta accurately describe the Sintashta culture’s rituals and ways of living.

There is not one single tribe that spread “Indo-European” throughout Europe and Asia, rather they were interminglings of tribes, based on the evidence of the trade and conflicts that occurred in the archaeology, most prominently from the pottery. Anthony makes this point perfectly clear because the term Aryan had been corrupted to fit a racial agenda, despite the fact that the term had more to do with practitioners of the rituals that were practiced in those times. What may have actually happened was that since the pastoral Indo-Europeans were wealthy, this encouraged the pre-European cultures to abandon their own language and adopt the Indo-European languages.


This relates a lot to the inquiry that Guy Deutscher made concerning the linguistic links within the Indo-European language family tree. He noted that the greatest discovery in linguistic history is the discovery that the European languages were not related to Hebrew–as was originally thought–rather to such languages as Persian and Hindi.

As such, it is also interesting how Anthony references the different translations of the Lord’s Prayer in Modern English to Medieval and Old English in order to illustrate his point that languages are in a constant state of flux. This comparative example was used by David J. Peterson in his book about conlanging.

As far as Matthew Frye Jacobsen is concerned about the issue of race, while it was true that there were efforts by anthropologists like David Boas to distance themselves from the topic of race, it nevertheless remained a vital determiner of socioeconomic position. So, it is rather unfortunate that something as abstract and subjective as race could continue to influence life. Anthony himself, along with the historians he mentioned, have tried what they could to dispel the myth of the Aryan origin of the White race, pointing out that there were already cultures living outside of the Pontic-Caspian area before the Indo-Europeans started migrating, which eventually started intermingling with the Indo-Europeans; and the fact that the Pontic-Caspian area was the only, verifiable birthplace of the Indo-Europeans.

Writing Style

Dave. St. Govans. Wikipedia. 2008. CC BY-2.0. Change includes cropping.

He uses a lot of archaeological terminology, but also includes terms like kurgan and cromlech to refer to the settlements. Although an anthropologist, Anthony makes use of dense, concrete language when describing the artifacts that were found in the sites of the various cultures that existed thousands of years ago.

Real-World Application

A thing to keep in mind for anyone reading this is that not every piece of information is stagnant and undeniable. Anthony pretty much acknowledged that the dissertation that he industriously wrote, which would take many years, was proven not true. Though, it did not mean that it was Sisypean, rather it simply meant that new information about the isotopes was given clarity. It should motivate those who are fascinated by anthropology–on the very contrary. If this information is verifiable proven, then who knows what other unknown, debatable pieces of information can be verified?

However, as for the information that is already verified, it would serve to counter the mythology concocted by white supremacists about the supposed Aryan race. The reality is that the Indo-European cultures were just as human as the various cultures they came across, for their want of food, wealth, and clean water.

Recommend This To…

Unique Recommendation
  • Anyone interested in archaeology, since this book deals more with that than anthropology. This is the case, since there are no reliable written records in those times and the remains and artifacts themselves have to act as the reliable sources.
  • Any world-builder who is interested in how societies migrate and how language family trees expand. This would be an important source either for conlangs or for making cities–or both. The information can be intimidating, but Anthony will give you the best possible answers you need.


  • Anthony, David W. The Horse, The Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World. Princeton University Press. 2007.
  • Deutscher, Guy. “The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention.” 1st Edition. Metropolitan Books. 2006.
  • Jacobsen, Matthew Frye. “Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post–Civil Rights America.” Harvard University Press. 2009.
  • Peterson, David J. “The Art Of Language invention: From Horse-Lords To Dark Elves, The Words Behind Wordbuilding.” Penguin Books. 2015.

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