Anthony is prepared to speculate, most obviously in linking cultures identified by archaeology with groups that spoke particular languages and in trying to reconstruct the social structures that might have underpinned cultural and linguistic changes, but he doesn't dramatise or exaggerate. Nor, despite the "Shaped the Modern World" of the subtitle, does he extend his horizons past 1500 BCE, or far outside the steppes.
Anthony is himself an archaeologist, but he places the archaeology in its broader context. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language begins with a brief introduction to Indo-European studies and controversies. A hundred pages then cover the linguistics: the reconstruction of Indo-European, dating its last speakers by linguistic comparisons of daughter languages, dating its earliest existence by common vocabulary — for wool, but above all for wheels and wagons — and locating it geographically by looking at vocabulary and at loans to and from Uralic and Kartvelian. And there is consideration of the ways archaeology and material culture can reveal language frontiers and migrations.
There is a brief introduction to aspects of archaeological method, to the labelling of eras, radiocarbon dating, and so forth. The remainder of the book is a summary of the archaeological record and a reconstruction of cultures across the Pontic-Caspian steppe, from around 6000 BCE down to about 1500 BCE.
The "First Farmers and Herders" came from Anatolia via Greece and reached the Prut-Dniester watershed around 5800 BCE as the Cris-culture, forming a frontier there with the Bug-Dniester Culture.
"In the Dniester valley, native North Pontic cultures had direct, face-to-face contact with farmers who spoke a different language, had a different religion, and introduced an array of invasive new plants and animals as if they were something wonderful. The foragers on the frontier itself rapidly accepted some cultivated plants and animals but rejected others, particularly sheep. Hunting and fishing continued to supply most of the diet. They did not display obvious signs of a shift to new rituals or social structures."
Moving from this frontier eastwards across the steppe, "Copper, Cows and Chiefs" describes the Cucuteni-Tripolye, Dnieper-Donets II, and Khvalynsk cultures.
"Chiefs first appeared in the archaeological record of the Pontic-Caspian steppes when domesticated cattle, sheep, and goats first became widespread, after about 5200-5000 BCE. ... Participation in long-distance trade, gift exchange, and a new set of cults requiring public sacrifices and feasting became the foundation for a new kind of social power."
Anthony now digresses with a kind of scientific detective story, explaining how scans of modern horses with and without bits give us a diagnostic that can be used with teeth from archaeological excavations. This reveals details about the likely domestication of the horse: "Riding began in the Pontic-Caspian steppes before 3700 BCE ... It may well have started before 4200 BCE. It spread outside the Pontic-Caspian steppes between 3700 and 3000 BCE." And Anthony considers some of its military and economic effects, most importantly in allowing mounted raiding and increasing the efficiency of herding.
"The End of Old Europe" describes social and political relations across the steppe/Old European frontier.
"If we are going to indict steppe raiders in the destruction of Old Europe, we first have to accept that they did not fight like later cavalry. Eneolithic warfare probably was a strictly seasonal activity conducted by groups organized more like modern neighbourhood gangs than modern armies. They would have been able to disrupt harvests and frighten a sedentary population, but they were not nomads."
"Pre-Anatolian languages probably were introduced to the lower Danube valley and perhaps to the Balkans about 4200-4000 BCE, by the Suvorovo migrants. We do not know when their descendants moved into Anatolia."
"Seeds of Change" covers the end of the Eneolithic. The Maikop Culture in the North Caucasus had contacts as far afield as Mesopotamia, and "the power of the Maikop chiefs probably grew partly from the aura of the extraordinary that clung to the exotic objects they accumulated, which were palpable symbols of their personal connection with powers previously unknown". In the west, a mystery is posed by Tripolye towns, which "mushroomed to enormous sizes, more than 400 ha, twice the size of the biggest cities in Mesopotamia", before being abruptly abandoned.
"Wagon Dwellers" describes the Afanasievo migration 2000km eastwards to the Altai, probably around 3700-3400 BCE. Surveying the evidence of wagon graves, herding and nutrition, and social organisation, it then centres the Yamnaya Horizon, "which meets the expectations for late Proto-Indo-European in many ways: chronologically, geographically, materially, and linguistically; and it generated migrations in the expected directions and in the expected sequence".
"The Western Indo-European Languages" looks at the evidence for westward migrations and the likely origins of language groups such as Slavic and Germanic.
"If I had to hazard a guess I would say that this was how the Proto-Indo-European dialects that would ultimately form the root of Pre-Germanic first became established in central Europe: they spread up the Dniester from the Usatovo culture through a nested series of patrons and clients, and eventually were spoken in some of the late TRB [Trichterbecker] communities between the Dniester and the Vistula. These later evolved into Corded Ware communities, and it was the Corded Ware horizon that provided the medium through which the Pre-Germanic dialects spread over a wider area."
"Chariot Warriors" looks at the north, at the emergence of cultures such as Fatyanovo and Abashevo in the steppe-forest zone, and in the east at the Sintashta culture.
"The geographical position of Sintashta societies at the eastern border of the Pontic-Caspian steppe world exposed them to many new cultures, from foragers to urban civilizations. Contact with the latter probably was most responsible for the escalation in metal production, funeral sacrifices, and warfare that characterized the Sintashta culture. ... Sintashta settlements were industrial centers that specialised in metal production"
Anthony argues for the importance and not merely ritual use of steppe chariots, and looks at similarities between Sintashta rituals and those described in the Rig Veda.
"The Opening of the Eurasian Steppes" describes the Petrovka and Andronova cultures, and in the north Seima-Turbino, the first forest culture to assimilate steppe culture in a major way, while developing its own metallurgy. There were trade networks across the steppes, notably in horses and metals, and interactions with and lexical acquisitions from the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex, but Anthony argues that Proto-Vedic culture derived from the steppe.
A brief final chapter "Words and Deeds" briefly summarises all this.
"We might not be able to retrieve the names or the personal accomplishments of the Yamnaya chiefs who migrated into the Danube valley around 3000 BCE, but, with the help of reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language and mythology, we can say something about their values, religious beliefs, initiation rituals, kinship systems, and the political ideals they admired."
In a way The Horse, The Wheel, and Language stops just as things are getting exciting, leaving us wondering about the origins of Greek and Italic and Celtic languages, and how Indo-European speakers reached India. But there are other books on those topics and Anthony sticks to the period and the region he knows so well.
The Horse, The Wheel, and Language contains a lot more archaeological detail than the summary and excerpts above might suggest, some of it likely to be skimmed by most readers.
"Recent excavations have reconfirmed the antiquity of Yamnaya traditions on the lower Volga. Archaic antecedents of both the A1 and A2 types of early Yamnaya pottery have been found in settlements on the lower Volga at Kyzyl Khak and Kara Khuduk (see figure 12.5), dated by radiocarbon between 4000 and 2500 BCE. Graves that seem intermediate between late Khvalynsk and Yamnaya in style and ritual have also been found at Sklyakovskii kurgan, Engels and Tarlyk between Saratov and Volgograd."
This detail is backed up by line drawings showing the variety of artefacts from key sites, sometimes with site maps. There are also several multi-page lists such as "Selected Radiocarbon Dates associated with the Afanasievo Migration and the Yamnaya Horizon", which seemed a little excessive; simpler and more accessible chronologies would have been more useful. There are enough maps to follow the broad geography of cultures and their contacts and movements, but not enough to locate all the sites mentioned.
So The Horse, the Wheel, and Language is a fairly dense read, but a rewarding one. It is a showcase for the integration of archaeological methods with broader linguistics and anthropology, as well as providing prehistoric detail that might have seemed impossible thirty years ago, reconstructing one of the most fascinating periods in human history.
Note: Anthony doesn't draw much on genetics; and The Horse, The Wheel, And Language predates the explosion in paleogenomics that has started to provide resolution on the scales it describes. But I don't think any of its conclusions need drastic revision.