The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World - David W. Anthony I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Admittedly it does get bogged down describing archeological sites but you can skim through those sections without missing anything.

Anthony combines linguistics and archeology to localize the origins of the Indo-European language family and plot its spread across Eurasia, similar to Spencer Wells' efforts to combine genetics and archeology to trace the spread of humans from Africa.

The author marshalls the evidence to argue that Proto-Indo-European (PIE) emerged in the Pontic-Caspian steppe between 4500 and 2500 BC, and that it got its greatest impetus to expansion with the introduction of wheeled transport around 3300 BC with the Yamnaya cultural horizon. The herders in this region of the steppe were the first to domesticate the horse (as a source of food, only later were they ridden to control larger herds and range over larger territories). Anthony is also able to document the rise of social hierarchies as exemplified in grave sites, and shows how the wheel opened up the deep steppes to year-round exploitation.

Anthony shows that this increased economic exploitation led to increased competition and violence. While the reader doesn't need to subscribe to a theory of peaceful, sedentary, matriarchal cultures mowed down by savage, nomadic, patriarchal war machines, it is true that violence was less efficient and effective before the introduction of horses and wheels. One can find evidence of cultures suddenly disappearing from the stratigraphic record and graves full of bodies hacked apart by axes. But he also shows that the relationship between the herder and the cultivator was never so simple; indeed, the violent marauders of lurid legend were often the exception rather than the rule. The relationship was mediated by a system of patron-client/host-guest customs. A tradition which, to varying degrees, stretched from Europe to East Asia.

This parallels the argument Karen Armstrong makes that the great moral traditions of the Western religions arose between 2500 and 1500 BC as a response to the incredible violence inherent in the cultures that arose with the horse-riding steppe herders.

The obvious success of PIE-speaking cultures made their dialects prestigious and worth knowing, dominating and eventually driving non-PIE languages to extinction in most areas Indo-Europeans reached. In addition, PIE cultures appear to have been very inclusive, basing identification on language and ritual rather than race and ethnicity, which also helped facilitate their spread. This tradition was long lived: Rome's success two thousand years later owed much to her ability to accomodate foreign elites and co-opt them into the ruling hierarchy.

I could have wished for a little more explanation of the language side of the equation. Unfortunately, Anthony is an archeologist and not a linguist and he gave it short (if interesting) shrift.

Despite that, if you're at all interested in this topic, I can easily and with confidence recommend this book.