Thursday, June 02, 2016


I got a copy (again) via Interlibrary Load, of David Anthony's The Horse, The Wheel and Language, which I really need to buy my own copy of it seems, since I'll likely re-read it periodically like I do Mallory's In Search of the Indo-Europeans.  I'm feeling, because of it, the call to the great steppes of the world.  Sure, I'm way too far removed from the Pontic-Caspian steppes to ever feel like they're my home just because I had Yamnaya ancestors who lived there some four or five thousand years or so ago (or more) but I do admit that the next time I drive through Nebraska on my way towards the Rockies to go backpacking, I'll feel a different appreciation for them.

The biggest challenge I have reading this book is that although it's still relatively new (2007 publishing date, if I recall) it's already out of date in a number of issues; chiefly that there has been fascinating and very relevant newer genetic evidence that greatly enhances the theory—as well as impacting some minor details of it.  Much as with Mallory's book, I really wish that an updated and revised version would come out.  But likely neither will get the revision, which is too bad.

A few minor details are standing out to me this time.  When I read it before, I somehow missed out on why Anthony proposed an Afro-Asiatic identity for the Cucuteni-Trypillian cultural horizon and its antecedents in the Vinča and Starčevo and Criş cultures, but I saw it clearly this time around; he proposes that the archaeologically visible settling of Europe by Neolithic farmers, which is the basis of the discredited Colin Renfrew Anatolian Hypothesis, is Afro-Asiatic.  This is a rather remarkable claim; sure it's clear that Neolithic farmers did indeed spread at least some aspects of their culture into Europe from Anatolia (much earlier than the Indo-European spread into Europe from the steppes) and he calls it Afro-Asiatic because Neolithic farming techniques in Anatolia can ultimately be traced to Syria which later emerged as a place where Afro-Asiatic languages were spoken (it's even a competitive theory for the homeland of Afro-Asiatic languages.)  To my mind, this is the tail wagging the dog in a particularly egregious way, and it ignores the fact that when Anatolia first emerges into the historical record, it's the homeland of a number of languages, none of which are Afro-Asiatic.  Hattic and Kaskian, possibly related to each other (although that's unclear) in Anatolia, and various fragments of languages in the Aegean area that are also not considered Afro-Asiatic, such as the Eteocretan and Eteocypriot languages, Minoan, the Lemnos script, which appears to be closely related to Etruscan, although not geographically very close to it really, and even the elusive possibly pre-Indo-European Pelasgian substrate noted in ancient Greek.  Given that, it would be truly extraordinary to assume an Afro-Asiatic linguistic identity to cultures that would have had to travel through these other language families to still arrive north of them as Afro-Asiatic.  Personally, I think assigning a linguistic identity to the spread of farming is a quixotic quest; not only is it too far removed in time from anything that we can document and claim to be related to languages known of today to be meaningful, but farming is one of things that is so incredibly useful that it spread without needing to require folk migrations to explain it; much like the spread of the domesticated horse, the wheel or the chariot—all of which happened throughout the ancient world with remarkable rapidity and without having archaeologists call for invading Aryan hordes to explain them (not that archaeologists of the past weren't fond of invoking invading Aryan hordes.)

He also mentioned one word that seems to be a cognate between Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Semitic, but that's long been recognized and believed to have been a borrowing into both from some third source, most likely (*tawros for bull.)

Because of my renewed interest in this particular subject, I've also been browsing many of the Wikipedia articles that are relevant; which is a good source of more up to date genetic evidence, for example.  Although you'll find a number of unusual things in doing so.  On the Yamnaya culture page, for example, we're told that the Yamnaya people were demonstrated via ancient DNA study to have been overwhelmingly dark-eyed and dark-haired, with a more "Mediterranean" like skin tone.  If you read the Tashtyk, Tagar, and Andronovo culture page, they are said, via the same type of research to have been overwhelmingly light-eyed and light-haired, even though they are all descendants of the Yamnaya culture via the Sintashta culture which is between them in time.  The light-eyed and light-haired earliest Tarim mummies are also believed to be descendants of the Afanasievo culture, which is genetically indistinguishable from the Yamnaya.

All in all, I'm going to have to say the conclusion that the Yamnaya were darker, Mediterranean-looking people seems to be unlikely, given that most of their descendants obviously were not, but it's not strictly speaking completely impossible.  The light-haired light-eyed descendants in Europe itself, especially Northern Europe, could have picked up those traits from indigenous European stock of various types which mingled with the Yamnaya.  The Andronovo peoples and their descendants might possibly (there's some circumstantial evidence for this) have mingled somewhat with some proto-Uralic peoples from the northern edge of the steppe; cousins many times removed of the Finns and Estonians, so to speak.  This could have although again, it's starting to get a little bit less likely, have even explained the Tarim mummies as some type of early Indo-Iranians or Iranian people rather than Tocharians, and the Tocharians might possibly have had a darker ancestral Afanasievo appearance—although this is inconsistent with the identifies of groups like the Yuezhi and Wusun who were described by the Chinese as having green eyes and red hair and which are believed to have been Tocharian-speakers descended from the Afanasievo culture.  It also doesn't explain why the aristocratic, patrician core stock of both the Greeks and the Romans are universally described in a way that makes them sound like northern Europeans rather than like the current population of Greece or Italy—where the aristocratic patrician castes have largely been genetically swamped from what they were described as in ancient times.

The light-eyed light-haired European phenotype might possibly have come from other sources than the Yamnaya.  Although it's extremely unlikely.  It probably existed both among the Yamnaya and among various other ethno-linguistic groups that were indigenous to Northern Europe already.

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