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.
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.
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.