The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze Age Riders from the Steppes Shaped the Modern World came out in 2007, just a few years before paleogenetics revolutionized the study of the European Bronze Age. It presents the archaeological case for the theory that the Indo-European languages were spread by Bronze Age people from the eastern European steppes who had mastered horse riding and lived at least partly as nomads. Their culture is called by archaeologists Yamnaya. I wanted to read the book because it is the most thorough treatment of this evidence in English, and because I wanted to see what sort of arguments dominated the field before genetics trumped them all.
As I have mentioned several times before, it is really hard to write about archaeology. Archaeological arguments turn on questions like how much one set of pots resembles another set, how different one way of making stone arrowheads is from another way, and whether cultural change in a region is sudden or gradual, and to really answer these questions you have do dig deep into the muck of pottery decoration, flint knapping, the calibration of radiocarbon dates, and the like. Plus, we have no idea what the people we study called themselves, so we dream up names for them based on the archaeological sites where they were first found. In Eastern Europe these are unpronounceable mishmashes like Starčevo–Körös–Criş or Krivodol-Sălcuţa-Bubanj. These days archaeologists are also very interested in climate change over time and thus our work fills up with arcana like Bond Events and the Piora Oscillation.
The basic problem with David Anthony's book is that while he tried to make it accessible to non-archaeologists he was unwilling to jettison the vast weight of archaeological terminology, I suppose because he also wanted it to seem professional to his peers. So a lot of the text looks like this:
Middle Bug-Dniester sites (Samchin phase), dates about 5600-5400 BCE, contained more domesticated pigs and cattle: at Soroki I/level 1a, a Middle-phase site, cattle and swine make up 49% of the 213 bones recovered (32% MNI).Thanks.
So, anyway, what does archaeology tell us about those Bronze Age steppes people who had such a huge impact on the future of Eurasia?
The genetic ancestors of the Yamnaya people were mostly the foragers who had lived in Ukraine for millennia, but they had adopted farming and the raising of cattle, sheep, and goats from neighbors, and they seem to have taken in some genes from them as well.
Stone mace head in the shape of a horse's head, Yamnaya culture
One thing they probably did for themselves is domesticate horses. The date of horse domestication is much disputed, and some experts think it took place as early as 6,000 BC. The current view is that horses were domesticated at least twice, once in Kazakhstan by the Botai people around 3800 BC and then again by the Yamnaya people's ancestors around 3600 BC, but that may well change. Horses were fundamental to Yamnaya life, prominent in their iconography and rituals, as well as in the Indo-European religion as we reconstruct it.
Depiction of a war wagon from the Standard of Ur
Incidentally nobody knows who invented the wheeled wagon. Some say it happened in Mesopotamia, others that it happened on the steppes. Radiocarbon dating has not settled the question because the dates for the earliest wagons in each place are about the same, suggesting that whoever invented them the idea spread very quickly.
Anyway wagons allowed the Yamnaya people to spread out across the steppes, which in turn allowed them to accumulate huge herds of animals. Their chiefs became rich. They developed some of the characteristics we associate with steppes nomads: they were violent, patriarchal, and much given to raiding. Sometimes they stole horses or other animals from each other, and sometimes they raided settled people to steal things to make their lives on the steppes easier. Of course sometimes they also traded with settled people; almost all nomads in history maintained trading relationships with settled communities. In fact some of the Yamnaya people still were settled in farming communities along the great rivers of the region.
Kernosovsky Stela, found in a Yamnaya kurgan
From language studies we know that they had poetry based on patterns of short and long syllables, as in Homeric Greek, and that these poems included both stories and praise poems directed to gods or human leaders. Their pantheon was led by a Thunder God and included a war god, a goddess of the dawn, and divine twins closely associated with horses.
Corded Ware pots from Germany, c. 2000 BC
They moved northwest into central Europe, where they fused with an older culture to create a vast culture zone called Corded Ware that stretched from Ukraine to Holland. (See map at top of the post. Besides the cord-marked pots the distinctive artifact of this culture was stone and copper battle axes, and before the Nazis they were often called the Battle Ax People. After the Nazis archaeology went pacifist and naming cultures after weapons became a no-no.)
Anthony thinks these early migrations closely map the later development of Indo-European languages. In his view the Corded Ware people spoke proto-Germanic, the Sintashta people spoke Indo-Aryan (the hypothetical ancestor of Persian and Sanskrit), the people who migrated up the Danube spoke proto-Celtic and proto-Italic, and those who settled in southeastern Europe spoke proto-Slavic. (Proto-Greek is hard to fit in, because it resembles Indo-Aryan more than any of the other western tongues.)