Saturday, July 23, 2011

Continent orientation, cultural evolution, and the Amerindian exception

Pre-Columbian copper artifacts from Illinois, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Illinois.

In my last post, I criticized Jared Diamond’s theory about continent orientation and cultural evolution. This theory posits that people, and hence ideas, are likelier to circulate along an east-west axis than along a north-south one. This is because people tend to move about in environments that have similar climates and ecosystems. Eurasia has thus reaped the benefits of having a belt of societies—stretching from Spain to Japan—that can borrow new ideas from each other with relative ease.

This is not the case with sub-Saharan Africa, which is oriented north-south. It has a much more limited pool of ideas to draw upon. Diamond argues that this is one big reason why sub-Saharan Africans failed to develop beyond the stage of simple agricultural societies.

But what about the Americas? Aren’t they even more north-south oriented? How, then, did advanced civilizations develop in Mesoamerica and the Andes? And why did they develop even faster than ancient civilizations in Eurasia?

These were the questions I raised in my last post. Here, I’ll argue that this fast pace of cultural evolution was not limited to Mesoamerica and the Andes.

Take the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Around 100 BC, agriculture was still confined to the American southwest. The rest of the present-day United States was home to nomadic hunter-gatherers. By 800 AD, agriculture had spread throughout most of the central and eastern U.S. and into southern Ontario. By 1000, the Mississippi valley had urban centers that were each built around a central plaza with earthen temple mounds. These developments were accompanied by a suite of cultural innovations: skilled metalworking; food storage in pits and cribs; timber palisades and bastions; and formation of intertribal confederacies.

This pace of change was, if anything, faster than comparable change elsewhere in the world. There is little evidence that the availability of new ideas was a significant brake on cultural evolution in the Americas—at least no more so than in Eurasia, where new ideas were supposedly more available. Agriculture, for instance, took more than five thousand years to spread from the Middle East to northern Europe.

Indeed, there is evidence of ancestral Amerindians having access to useful ideas that they nonetheless chose not to use. The wheel, for instance, was known to the Aztecs, who used it for toys. But they never used it for anything else.

Another example is copper working. This metal had been worked in eastern North America since at least 5,000 BC, and the resulting artifacts were “far larger and better shaped than any known native copper objects from the Middle East” (Smith, 1968, p. 242). Yet there was never any melting, smelting, casting, or alloying of copper. In particular, there was no attempt to harden copper by combining it with tin, lead, antimony, or arsenic, although such elements were available in the Americas. Such possibilities were there for the taking, but there was apparently little interest in doing so.

As Ehrhardt (2009) comments, “It is provocative and useful to think about why North American metal working technology did not follow the same developmental paths documented for other New World metal working industries.”

One factor may have been the overwhelming use of copper for status or ritual purposes, i.e., ornamentation that did not require hard metals (Ehrhardt, 2009). While such purposes certainly prevailed in Old World civilizations, the latter also used metalworking to make functional objects like kitchenware and tableware. Perhaps New World civilizations suffered not from a lack of ideas but rather from limits on the use of ideas. Mental innovation was subordinated to the interests of the ruling caste. The needs of ordinary folk came a distant second.

Thus, the availability of new ideas is not the main brake on cultural evolution. What matters more is the perceived usefulness of those ideas, and the people who decide which ones are useful and which are not.

Further thoughts

Why did cultural evolution follow a more fruitful path in the Americas than in sub-Saharan Africa? The latter had more opportunities for east-west exchange, being next to Eurasia and its cultural innovations. According to Diamond’s theory, cultural evolution should have been faster in sub-Saharan Africa than in the Americas. Yet the reverse happened.

How come? The main reason was that Amerindian men and women had to plan over a predictable yearly cycle. The men also had to provide for their mates and children, especially in winter—an obligation that not only integrated father, mother, and children into a single unit of family production but also freed the mother to specialize in other tasks, like garment making, food processing, and home building.

These factors pre-adapted Amerindians for later cultural evolution. The “family workshop” of nomadic hunter-gatherers became a model for the economic and political structures of sedentary farmers.

References

Diamond, J. (1997). Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, New York: W.W. Norton.

Ehrhardt, K.L. (2009). Copper Working Technologies, Contexts of Use, and Social Complexity in the Eastern Woodlands of Native North America, Journal of World Prehistory, 22, 213-235.

Smith, C. S. (1968). Metallographic study of early artifacts made from native copper (pp. 237–252). Warsaw: Actes du XIe Congrès International d’Histoire des Sciences VI.

18 comments:

theslittyeye said...

Very good theory in general. Those I was wondering if you could provide a link for this assertion:
"Take the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Around 100 BC, agriculture was still confined to the American southwest. The rest of the present-day United States was home to nomadic hunter-gatherers. By 800 AD, agriculture had spread throughout most of the central and eastern U.S. and into southern Ontario. By 1000, the Mississippi valley had urban centers that were each built around a central plaza with earthen temple mounds. These developments were accompanied by a suite of cultural innovations: skilled metalworking; food storage in pits and cribs; timber palisades and bastions; and formation of intertribal confederacies"
I might be a bit ignorant in Amerindian culture, for I have not never heard of any of this except the "formation of inter-tribal confederacies, which I assume you were referring to the Iroquois in 16th century?
Pardon me if I sound too stupid, but I would really appreciate if you could provide me some additional information on that point. Thanks.

theslittyeye said...

Those = Though*

Anonymous said...

Peter, what do you think about the Solutrean hypothesis?

Anonymous said...

Amerindian men and women had to plan over a predictable yearly cycle

This doesn't seem like it explains why the pace was faster than in the Middle East or Europe though, particularly in Mesoamerica...

UncleTomRuckusInGoodWhiteWorld said...

there were making iron in West Africa in 1,000 BCE, had long ago made cooper.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nok_culture

Why did this not spread? In fact the people and their technology seemed to have disappeared, although some argue there was cultural continuation, the evidence is sketchy.

Once again comparing Meso AMerica and the Andes, which are probably less than 10% of the America's land mass to all of Africa is like me only speaking about Ethiopia and Sudan and excluding the rest of Africa.

Most Americans lived nothing like people in Meso-America or the Andes and their technology, writing systems, and religions did not spread even 1,000 km from where they lived, typically.

One can argue due to barriers of desert and jungle.

I would argue a couple of things to consider about Africa:

1) It is not about the width of the continent but if the environments are similar. Is Coastal Nigeria similar to Ethiopia, which are on the same line of latitude? I would argue not at all. What are the barriers in the way? Dense Jungle and platues.

The technologies and cultures that would develop in Coastal or even inland central Nigeria are not anything like what yo would have in Congo, Central African Republic, Sudan, or Ethiopia. There is more variation.

There is definitely more variation than between the Ukrainian steppe and Northern China/Mongolia.

2) Africa is somewhat unique in the fact it has some very very contagious diseases, which tend to spread harshly in densely populated areas by insect or water.

This is talked about, I believe, here:

http://www.amazon.com/Sex-War-Biology-Explains-Terrorism/dp/1933771577

Good read in general.

Euros tried to live as they did in Europe and died off quite quick, forgot where, I think in the Congo.

Europeans quickly found this out and also had much trouble dealing with this, hence why the "Conquest of Africa" happened mostly in the 18th century, despite hundreds of years of coastal contact. Europeans simply lacked the knowledge to deal with such tropical disease. Yet the British, Portuguese, and Dutch had long been in South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Anonymous said...

Europeans quickly found this out and also had much trouble dealing with this, hence why the "Conquest of Africa" happened mostly in the 18th century, despite hundreds of years of coastal contact. Europeans simply lacked the knowledge to deal with such tropical disease. Yet the British, Portuguese, and Dutch had long been in South Asia and Southeast Asia.

I don't think that's quite historically accurate - check http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scramble_for_Africa. I think the main differential driver is that there simply wasn't anything worth anything inland, and pretty much nothing on the coasts other than slaves and waystations.

Anonymous said...

As this document points out, obtaining reliable evidence for the independent development of metallurgy and iron production in sub-Saharan Africa is fraught with difficulty because of the wishful thinking and poor technique among other things of various researchers:

Iron in sub-Saharan Africa.

Wikipedia is an ideological cesspool in those areas that are not strictly fact based (like the instruction set of the Intel 8080).

sykes.1 said...

@theslittyeye: Google Cahokia and Adena and Hopewell tribes of Ohio.

The Mississippi and Ohio River valleys around 1000 AD were beginning to form advanced neolithic cultures. The Iroquois Federation was an incipient state that unfortunately (for them not us) was found by the Europeans before it could coalesce.

@anonymous: The Solutreans, if real, were 14,000 years earlier and did not (if real) contribute to Meso-American and Northern American Indian culture.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion Diamonds theory is not dead. To this end I carried out a point biserial correlation between continental orientation of the respective societies (0 = vertical axis, 1 = horizontal axis) and an index of cultural development (Carneiro`s Index of Cultural Accumulation) for 64 cultural groups, which resulted in a considerable 0.7.
Compared to that the correlation between this index and IQ (after Richard Lynn) reached 0.5. Bearing in mind that IQ is not completely determined by genes and that Lynn`s very low figures for Africa are disputed, one can say that geography beats genes. I beg your pardon for my trashy English, but I am no native Speaker.

Best regards!

Artur said...

Discussing human history in the Americas without mentioning the NBD factor or IQ is like talking about hurricane Katrina without mentioning the bad black behaviour that followed.

A little more honesty in these scientific blogs, please.

- crimesofthetimes.com

Peter Frost said...

Theslittyeye,

The most accessible source would be the Encyclopedia Britannica (under "American Peoples, Native"). I would also recommend:

Trigger, Bruce G. Natives and Newcomers: Canada's "Heroic Age" Reconsidered. Montreal, QC, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1986.

The Iroquois confederacy probably originated before the 16th century:

"Until recently most anthropologists viewed the growth of large tribes and confederacies as well as destructive warfare as responses to indirect European pressure upon the native societies of eastern North America. It now appears that, as a result of believing this and concentrating too heavily upon changes in subsistence patterns, archaeologists may have oversimplified the late prehistory of the Iroquoian peoples and underestimated the dynamism of their cultural pattern and its capacity to generate new forms of creative and destructive behaviour. The Iroquoians now seem to have evolved the essential features of their way of life before the first Europeans appeared along the east coast of Canada."

Natives and Newcomers, p. 108

Anon,

Yes, there are common cultural traits between the Solutreans (southwestern France, c. 20,000) and early Amerindians, but this similarity extends into Sibera and eastern Europe at the same time depth (e.g., beveled-base bone points, use of grave goods with ocher, bifacial basally thinned projectile points, end scrapers, etc.).

In other words, around 20,000 years ago, there was a common cultural tradition in the steppe-tundra belt extending from southwestern France to Beringia.

Anon,

The transition from hunting/gathering/fishing to agriculture was slower in Europe for a number of reasons. (1) The cultivars (developed in the Middle East) were less suitable in northern Europe; (2) In northwestern Europe, fishing provided a very productive alternative to farming; (3) Hunting was already being supplemented with pig farming (and reindeer domestication farther north).

I wasn't trying to argue that Amerindians were more innovative than Eurasians. My argument was that they were no less innovative, despite reduced access to east-west cultural diffusion.

Uncle Tom,

"Once again comparing Meso AMerica and the Andes, which are probably less than 10% of the America's land mass"

10% of the land mass, perhaps. 10% of the New World's population, definitely not.

In any case, this post is not about cultural evolution in Mesoamerica.

"Most Americans lived nothing like people in Meso-America"

Actually, the mound builders of the Mississippi valley were very comparable to Mesoamerican civilizations. The difference was largely one of degree. The main qualitative difference was the absence of a writing system and a calendar (which the Mayans had developed).

Your points about Africa are mostly valid. My main comparison, in this post, was between cultural evolution in pre-Columbian America and cultural evolution in Eurasia.

We know, however, that cultural traits did diffuse from Eurasia into the Horn of Africa and also to the coasts of present-day Tanzania and Kenya. Many cultivars now used throughout sub-Saharan Africa were introduced by Malay traders to East Africa during late antiquity (plantains, bananas, one type of cocoyam and citrus fruits). Clearly, new food plants could and did spread to sub-Saharan Africa from Eurasia. Why did other other cultural innovations fail to take root?

Anon,

Is your correlation based on the pace of cultural evolution or the final end point of cultural evolution? Modern humans have been in Eurasia for a longer time than in the Americas.


Artur,

What's an NBD? (I regularly discuss IQ on this blog, the last time being two weeks ago).

UncleTomRuckusInGoodWhiteWorld said...

"Many cultivars now used throughout sub-Saharan Africa were introduced by Malay traders to East Africa during late antiquity (plantains, bananas, one type of cocoyam and citrus fruits). Clearly, new food plants could and did spread to sub-Saharan Africa from Eurasia. Why did other other cultural innovations fail to take root? '

Please given an example? I believe Ethiopia, Swahili coast, and West Africa got many cultural innovations from the Middle East, including Islam.

Or maybe a comparison? What cultural innovations spread from Central Asia or East Asia into Europe or vice versa?

Peter Frost said...

Uncletom,

In Eurasia, gunpowder, papermaking, and possibly the printing press were spread from east to west.

On the Swahili coast of East Africa, Malay traders introduced several food plants that quickly spread throughout subSaharan Africa (plantains, bananas, one type of cocoyam and citrus fruits). These cultural innovations were accepted because they could easily fit into simple agricultural societies where women did most of the actual food production.

The Malays could not introduce intensive rice-based food production. Nor could they introduce their religion (Hinduism at the time) with its notions of patriarchy and numerous restraints on behavior. Nor could they introduce their methods of architecture, garment-making, and the like. Such innovations could thrive only in a more complex society with State formation, class differentiation, and patronage by higher-ranking individuals.

UncleTomRuckusInGoodWhiteWorld said...

The Melagasy's ancestors came from present-day Borneo at some undetermined point, possible as early as 200BCE. There is little evidence of state formation or Hinduism, to my knowledge, on Borneo at that date.

The fact the Melagasy have no written record of their migration (on either side of the Indian Ocean)...says enough.

for example, the Chinese have written records of Borneo very early in history, but it does not seem the locals were writing that early, as they were not exposed to South Indian culture that early.

I understand your point, but...to imply there was no patronage network and big man in East African tribal society...well that is hard to believe. Most societies above hunter-gathers have some form of chieftain, elder council, big-man, etc.

Funny in the same location, about 1,000 years later Islam spread quickly among the coastal Bantu and Somali...which is extremely patriarchal.

Rice farming did may not have existed in East Africa, but when was it brought to West Africa? There were plenty of rice farmers taken as slaves to the Americas, for the specific reason they knew how to grow rice already.

Dahinda said...

@theslittyeye:
From Wikipedia

Cahokia was the most important center for the peoples known today as Mississippians. Their settlements ranged across what is now the Midwest, Eastern, and Southeastern United States. Cahokia was located in a strategic position near the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers. It maintained trade links with communities as far away as the Great Lakes to the north and the Gulf Coast to the south, trading in such exotic items as copper, Mill Creek chert,[15] and whelk shells. Mississippian culture pottery and stone tools in the Cahokian style were found at the Silvernale site near Red Wing, Minnesota, and materials and trade goods from Pennsylvania, the Gulf Coast and Lake Superior have been excavated at Cahokia.

At the high point of its development, Cahokia was the largest urban center north of the great Mesoamerican cities in Mexico. Although it was home to only about 1,000 people before c. 1050, its population grew explosively after that date. Archaeologists estimate the city's population at between 8,000 and 40,000 at its peak, with more people living in outlying farming villages that supplied the main urban center. In 1250, its population was about 15,000, comparable to that of London or Paris during the same period.[16]

If the highest population estimates are correct, Cahokia was larger than any subsequent city in the United States until about 1800, when Philadelphia's population grew beyond 40,000.

Anonymous said...

@ Peter Frost
My comparison was more or less synchronic, it does not picture cultural dynamics of single societies. Ideally it should reflect the status of 1500 AD, but that could not be reached with the data at hand.

Peter Frost said...

UncleTom,

The Malagasy language has Sanskrit loanwords, so there must have been some Hindu cultural influence. Most writers place the establishment of Malay-speakers in Madagascar between 600 and 1200 AD.

Class stratification was generally weak throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Exceptions tended to be ephemeral or intrusive.

A big man's power was likewise ephemeral and, thus, incompatible with sponsorship of long-term projects (works of literature, architecture, public works, etc.) He was powerful as long as he could display charisma, verbal bombast, and physical strength. These are all qualities that decline with age.

You're right about patriarchy (which has been introduced by Islam into much of Africa). I should have used the term 'paternal investment.'

African rice (fonio) is indigenous to West Africa.

Anon,

Your model is faulty. It does not adjust for the approximately 30,000 year head start of Eurasians over Amerindians.

mark said...

Thanks for the perspective.
I suspect there are more double-edged bugs in the code than have been illustrated. The Americas and Africa both lacked horses, which gave Eurasia a real force multiplier for constructive and destructive expressions. Also, there is no certainty in the assumption that the Iroquois would have continued to accelerate their rate of civilizing without imploding or being overthrown. Let's not forget the stone-building, urban, Mayans. Their descendants walk among us, their civilization does not.
The imagination that a people encourages and allows its children to explore is a powerful indicator of that people's fate, in my opinion.
Let's see what the next 1000 years bring, since this experiment is still running. Perhaps Cahokia will be the capital again?