Third Book Report – Indo European Studies

12 10 2013

Mallory, J.P. In Search of the IndoEuropeans. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1989.

This book considers the history and roots of the Indo-European languages. It is a search for the original homeland and peoples from which this family of languages, now spoken by over half the world, came. The central thesis of the book is that the first Indo-Europeans lived in the Ponti-Caspian region in south Ukraine between 4500 and 2500BCE. From there they spread out east into Iran and India and west into the Balkans and North-Central Europe. The author looks at the linguistic and archaeological evidence available to him in the late 1980’s to come to a fascinating conclusion that the world was completely changed by the actions of this pastoral nomadic community through their ingenuity in using the horse and wheel.

Chapter one begins by looking at the key figures and history of Indo European studies since the 18th century, explaining the linguistic similarities between many different languages and the theoretical models of development put forward by various scholars. The next two chapters look at the development of Indo-European cultures in Asia and Europe. He concludes that the evidence shows they were an intrusive people that mixed in with local populations. Chapter four was the most interesting chapter for me. The author looks at Proto-Indo-European culture, primarily from linguistic evidence as he believes there are major problems with just looking at archaeological evidence. The linguistic evidence suggests that they lived in a diverse environment, had an economy built primarily on stock-breeding and had invented the wheel, pottery, dairy products, ploughs, boats, weaponry and, most importantly, domesticated the horse. Their social organisation appears to have been male dominated and may have had a king or clan leader. In the next chapter, he looks at Indo European religion and focuses a lot on Dumezil’s theory of Tripartition ie that society was split into three functions – priest-kings, warriors and herder-cultivators. He especially considers how it relates to mythology. The author also considers the role animals, and particularly the horse, may have played in their religion.

The problem of where the Indo-European homeland might be is investigated in chapter six. Mallory points out the similarities with the Finno-Ugric languages and the important role this plays in helping to locate the homeland. He then looks at the internal linguistic evidence, linguistic palaeontology and archaeology to come to the conclusion that the homeland was in the Pontic-Caspian region – the Kurgan steppe and forest steppe of southern Ukraine. He also considers other theories about the location of the homeland e.g Renfrew’s theory of an origin in South east Europe but persuasively tears it apart. In Chapter seven, the author looks at the archaeology of the Proto-Indo-Europeans and finds a close match with the Eneolithic cultures of the Pontic area e.g the Yamnaya culture. Finally, he explores the Indo-European expansions in chapter eight. He starts with the expansion into Asia, followed by the Balkans and then South West Europe. He looks at the arguments for expansion into the Caucasus but concludes that there is not enough evidence. He argues persuasively for the Asian and Balkan migrations but, after reviewing the evidence for different expansions into central and northern Europe via the Corded Ware culture, he finds that there is no enough evidence to satisfactorily prove it at this time. He finishes by looking at how languages expand and suggests that it was primarily through the migration of small groups into different areas as well as changing social and environmental factors that proved most advantageous to the spread of the Indo-European language.

I learned a lot about the book, including how well established the Indo-European theory is despite the fact that it still has big holes. I enjoyed finding out more about Dumezil’s theory of Tripartition in more detail as well as what the culture of the Proto-Indo-Europeans was like. I was disappointed to discover that there was no archaeological links between the Pontic-Caspian area and Central & Northern Europe as it calls into question the links between the Proto-Indo-Europeans and my own country – the United Kingdom. However, this does show that the author was being honest and not trying to twist the evidence to fit his own theories. Consequently he has sparked an interest in me to research more recent scholarship to see if any advances have been made in this area. I liked the fact that he always pointed out assumptions or where there was a lack of evidence or debate within the linguistic and archaeological communities. My biggest criticism has to be the lack of large scale maps and in different time periods so that I could orient myself and understand how the smaller maps related to the larger world.

Overall this was a much more interesting book than I thought it would be, even if I found it hard going at times. I learned a lot and am inspired to research the topic further. I would definitely recommend the book to anyone interested in ancient cultures or ancestry. However, I’m not sure that it will influence my own practice other than to emphasise the importance of the tripartite system to a Druidic worldview.