It is the eve of Thanksgiving in the United States, and in keeping with my annual tradition, I’d like to remind you that Friday is
Black Friday Buy Nothing Day (and also to let California readers know that our State Parks are offering free passes so you can enjoy some time out in the fresh air instead of shopping). And of course, there is yet more to say about the complex relationship between the land of North America/Turtle Island, the first people who came here over 10,000 years ago, and the more recent immigrants to this continent.
If you have been following the news from Standing Rock, you know that a new generation of indigenous land and water protectors is under attack from some of these more recent immigrants. What this says about our nation, our priorities, and our future ranges from inspiring to alarming.
But rather than focus on current events, I’d like to wander into the past for a bit. About a month ago, my friend Joe asked a question for a class he was teaching. He and his students wanted an anthropologist’s perspective about the first steps toward modern technological society in Europe, and what advantages Europeans might have had in “getting there first.” He was wondering if “Guns, Germs and Steel ” were some of the answers.
If you have not read it, Guns, Germs and Steel is actually well worth the read – good writing and some brilliant insights (though not without its critics, e.g. Tomlinson 1998). The title is a bit misleading: guns and steel are part of the same issue (technological complexification). Guns actually had their origin in China, with the invention of gunpowder over 1000 years ago, and its use in weapons by 1200CE (Haw 2013). Guns made their way into European warfare by 1324CE (DeVries 1998). Steel was produced much earlier, with some evidence from western Asia (in what is now Turkey) as early as 1900BCE (Akanuma 2008).
Germs were SO much more of an issue in the European conquest of the Americas, resulting in a loss of perhaps 95% of the pre-Columbian human population (Montenegro & Stephens 2006). Many indigenous populations were in decline and disarray due to exposure to European diseases before they actually saw any Europeans (Diamond 1997). The reason Europeans had so many contagious diseases was due to the kinds of animals that could be domesticated in the ‘Old World’ (versus the paucity of domesticatable critters in the ‘New World’), and the high human population densities that went along with intensive, livestock-supported agriculture.
And it was that kind of agriculture, and the energy surpluses it yielded (starting with human and animal labor) that made increased technological complexity possible, leading to innovations like steel, guns and internal/infernal combustion. In Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies, Joseph A. Tainter (1996) focuses on how and why complex societies collapse (short answer: diminishing returns on increased social complexity).
So, in essence, the indigenous peoples of the Americas were screwed because Europe’s aurochs could be easily domesticated into cattle, and American bison could not. Also, the first Americans had probably been involved in, and almost certainly were witnesses to, the early Holocene extinction of horses and camels in North America (had those indigenous species survived, it’s possible that North America would have been the first to develop complex civilizations, or at least been closer to on par with Europe, India and China). Despite the domestication disadvantage, several complex civilizations had come and gone in the Americas (Maya, Aztec, Inca). Other North American peoples had a mix of agricultural and hunting/foraging subsistence (Mississipian cultures, Pueblo cultures) or very rich foraging (Pacific Northwest cultures) as a basis for fairly high levels of complexification, including “permanent” settlements (sites occupied year-round, for decades or centuries), social stratification, pottery and metalworking.
Now, the reason it was western Europe, and not Persia or China or India or Egypt, that came to be the dominant culture of the last six or seven centuries is less clear. I suspect it is mostly historical accident: Europe happened to be in a technological upswing as the other ‘Old World’ civilizations were in downswings.
One of the great challenges in looking at all this is (from this very recent perspective of the last several centuries) it seems like increased complexification and technological progress are normal. From a deep-time anthropological perspective this is clearly not the case. About 96% of the time humans have been Homo sapiens (about 190,000 years), and among the vast majority of independent human cultures that were still intact a few hundred years ago, we’ve been low-complexity foragers with “stone-age” technologies and no “permanent” settlements. Those are very successful, old-growth cultures. High-complexity cultures generally adopt a rapid expansion, weedy model of growth and invasion (even our choice of grain-based agriculture reflects this) – but there’s no evidence yet that such things can be built to last more than a millennium or two.
So, one of the things you may be grateful for this holiday season is the opportunity to live at a time of such amazing social and technological complexification that we are able to investigate and consider the differences between old-growth cultures and weedy ones via nigh-instantaneous information access. Or, you know, you could be grateful for other stuff that’s maybe more pleasant (including our lovely California State Parks). Don’t forget Buy Nothing Day, and Happy Thanksgiving!
Akanuma, H. (2008). b, The Significance of Early Bronze Age Iron Objects from Kaman-Kalehöyük, Turkey. Anatolian Archaeological Studies, 313-320.
DeVries, K. (1998). Gunpowder weaponry and the rise of the early modern state. War in History, 5(2), 127-145.
Haw, S. G. (2013). The Mongol Empire–the first ‘gunpowder empire’?. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (Third Series), 23(03), 441-469.
Montenegro, R. A., & Stephens, C. (2006). Indigenous health in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Lancet, 367(9525), 1859-1869.
Tainter, J. A. (1996). Complexity, problem solving, and sustainable societies. Getting down to earth: practical applications of Ecological Economics, 61-76.