Andrew Lawler describes an interesting approach to linguistic archaeology.
Measuring teeth from dead horses in upstate New York seems an unlikely way to get at the truth behind some of the most controversial questions about the Old World. But David Anthony, a historian and archaeologist at Hartwick College, discovered that by comparing the teeth of modern horses with their Eurasian ancestors, he could determine where and when the ancient ones were ridden. And answering that seemingly arcane question is important if you want to explain why nearly half the world today speaks an Indo-European language.
The origin of Indo-European tongues has roiled scholarship since a British judge in eighteenth-century Calcutta noticed that Sanskrit and English were related. Generations of linguists have labored to reconstruct the mother from which sprang dozens of languages spoken from Wales to China. Their bitter disputes about who used proto-Indo-European, where they lived, and their impact on the budding civilizations of Mesopotamia, Iran, and the Indus River Valley are legion.
That contentious debate, says Anthony, has been “alternately dryly academic, comically absurd, and brutally political.” To advance their own goals, Nazi racists, American skinheads, Russian nationalists, and Hindu fundamentalists have all latched on to the idea of light-skinned and chariot-driving Aryans as bold purveyors of an early Indo-European culture, which came to dominate Eurasia. So the search for an Indo-European homeland is now the third rail of archaeology and linguistics. Anthony compares it to the Lost Dutchman’s mine—“discovered almost everywhere but confirmed nowhere.”
Read the whole thing.
Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.