JP Mallory: In Search of the IndoEuropeans

I want the hours of my life that I spent reading this book back. I’m actually angry that it’s on the ADF suggested reading list. I also don’t understand how it’s gotten as many good reviews as it has on Amazon. My main theory for that is that people who do not understand the subject matter are pretending to be more erudite than they are after having been impressed by all the Big Words.

In order to be able to read this book with any authority, you have to have a decent grounding in comparative Linguistics, Archaeology and Anthropology. If you haven’t had mid to upper level ANT courses at college, much of this book is going to be beyond your grasp. Plus the writing style is everything that Clifford Geertz was trying to save Social Sciences from sixty years or more ago– pretentious, loaded with specialist jargon, full of passive sentence constructions and ramble ons.

When I first saw this book, I was very excited. It looked great! I wondered why I hadn’t heard of it when I was getting my Anthropology degree. I took  several courses where a book of this sort might have appeared. I checked the copyright date. It would have been very new when I was going to school, but not inaccessibly so. Then I started reading. Ah, rehashes of theories that were old and/or outdated when I was going to school, never mind twenty years later.

There is nothing new here, nothing exciting, nothing cutting edge even for 1989. Mallory uses Linguistics terminology with ease and incaution, discarding any details that don’t fit with his theories. He wrangles his way through a host of prehistoric regional cultures, rarely bothering to explain how they relate to each other in time or space. Then he draws correlations that are hard to verify with his presentation of the evidence.

In the concluding chapters, when he should be synthesizing his theory, he’s taking parenthetical potshots at researchers whose work doesn’t agree with his and repeating himself without adding anything new. I’m a prehistory geek. I love this kind of book, but this one is an utterly repulsive choice for laypeople with no ANT training.

I checked the review on the ADF website, and the reviewer there covers many of the issues that I think make the book unsuitable. This deepens the mystery of why it’s on the Recommended list.

If you can’t get through this, it is not your fault. It’s not because you’re not smart enough or not trying hard enough. It’s a densely written book that presupposes training that few non-Anthropologists or non-Linguists have. To read this book well, you’d need a study group with a college professor or similar instructor explaining what parts of it are reliable, which should be skipped, and which could be argued over. I don’t think I can do a book report on it. I’m going to have to read something else. 😦

I’d kind of like to read The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze Age Riders from the Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David Anthony. It looks like a much more modern, up to date book and promises Soviet research. (Not on Reading List. Sigh.) Case in point why Russian/Soviet research is important– They’ve done digs where women’s graves with sacrificial horses and carts have been found. Mallory claims that women’s graves were never given this sort of attention, only those of men and children. He can be forgiven for not having access to the Soviet materials before the fall of the Soviet Union, but you can see where lacking the data from these digs could give one a totally false impression of what was going on in Baltic/Steppes cultures.



3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. sanil
    Jan 27, 2011 @ 22:42:06

    Oh dear! I’m actually enjoying the book, but I’m not very far into it yet (just started either the second or third chapter). Now I’m worried that’s going to change. Or maybe there are just different styles. I will say that from my perspective, while there may not be anything new or ground-breaking, it was new to me. I don’t have any actual training in those subjects, but I am interested in them and do a lot of reading on them, so maybe I wound up with just enough that I can get what he’s saying but also learn new things I haven’t come across. It’s a decent summary. I don’t think most of the books on the list are meant to be a perfect representation or give a complete picture (since they specifically mention that some aren’t as good or that some are excellent), I assumed they were there to give us a variety to choose what interests us as a minimal introduction to the topic.

    The Horse, the Wheel and Language has caught my interest, too. Don’t we have the option of getting permission for books not on the list? Maybe you could ask to do that one anyway. It’s too bad you had such a bad experience with this one, though. I hope whatever you wind up reading instead is better. Thanks for sharing your criticisms, so I’ll remember not to be too impressed with what I’m reading and take it for granted that he’s right. I do that sometimes.


  2. Emjay
    Feb 11, 2011 @ 03:51:21

    Just a quick question–I was sort of afraid this book would turn out like that when I discovered it was out of print. I got my degree in religious studies and sort of focused on anthropology as my methodology of choice (religious studies is awesome and sort of backwards like that).

    Do you have any recommendations for introductory material that has updated research and solid methodology? I’m not too worried about it being approved for the DP or not, I’m just looking for a good solid base to work from, and I honestly don’t have one (I specialized in the ancient Near East, go figure). Thanks!


    • tlryder
      Mar 10, 2011 @ 10:56:51

      Hi Emjay, sorry for the slow reply. For some reason your comment wasn’t showing up on my dashboard.

      I’m at a loss as to what to recommend in replacement of Mallory’s book, other than that newer “The Horse, The Wheel and Laguage” book which I haven’t read. So I’m more than a little hesitant to recommend it!

      I think the problem is that in anthropological circles at least, the whole notion of an Indo European “culture” or “homeland” has been a fringe sort of notion for the last 50 years or so. It smells of white supremacy and Aryan nation stuff, even though that’s not the main thrust of a lot of the IE studies. Most ANT texts go with a more syncretic view of cultural development, especially in the prehistoric realms.

      The one thing that’s really opened new avenues in studying the idea of an IE culture or proto-culture has been the fall of the Soviets and the subsequent release of a bunch of data that we in the West had no access to previously. So I’d look for anything written in the last 10 years or so that uses that data. And that brings me back round to the “Horse, Wheel, Language” book, though I’m sure it’s not the only one. Hopefully one of us Dedicants will read it soon! 🙂


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