Thursday, September 21, 2006


Why The First Earth Conquered The Second...from Our Kind by Marvin Harris.

On his way to Tenochtitlan after landing in Vera Cruz in 1519, Hernando Cortez traveled through a cultural landscape that was eerily familiar. He passed through cities, towns, and villages that had streets and plazas and houses for the rich and poor; he saw people growing crops in lush, irrigated fields, while others carried baskets of food and craft products such as obsidian knives, well-made pottery, featherwork, and skins and furs. Along the way he met a familiar variety of humble men and women: potentates, aristocratic merchants, bricklayers, stonemasons, judges, priests, soldiers, slaves. Many were dressed in colorful woven garments and were adorned with exquisite jewelry appropriate to their high rank. And he passed palaces, pyramids, and other stone structures whose bulk, height, and symmetry spoke of great architectural and engineering skills. Yet there were certain things that were part of the everyday world of sixteenth century Spain that were strangely absent. The people in the feilds were using sticks and wooden spades. Where were the plows and oxen to pull them? and there was not so much as a single goat or sheep to be seen anywhere. Nor was there any sign of a cart, wagon, or any wheeled vehicle at all. For arms, the soldiers bore darts and spears that had points made out of stone. They knew nothing of steel swords or blunderbusses. And their ignorance of horses was so total that they initially judged animal and rider to be one and the same creature.

Social life on the two earths had evolved along essentially parallel paths, but the pace of change was definitely slower in the Americas. Aggregate human responses tend to be similar when underlying conditions are the similar. But, of course, underlying conditions are seldom exactly alike. The two earths were twins but not identical twins. After the animal extinctions that occured toward the end of the last Ice Age on the second earth, the regions that were well endowed with domesticable plants became poorly endowed with domesticable animals. Nothing like sheep, goats, pigs, cattle, asses, water buffalo, or horses survived to be penned and fed from agricultural surpluses. True, the ancestors of the Inca had llamas and alpacas to domesticate, but they were fragile creatures, adapted to the highest Andean valleys. They could not be milked like sheep, goats, and cows, nor could they carry ehavy loads like asses or horses, nor pull wagons or plows like oxen. Nor were guinea pigs an adequate stand-in for swine. Besides, none of the second-earth animals that were suitable for domestication were native to the highland Mexican region in which the progenitors of maize grew wild. I think this explains why the highland Mexicans retained seminomadic ways of life long after they had begun to domesticate their basic food crops. In the Middle East, sedentary villages could have their plants and their animal fat and protein, too, since both plants and animals were domesticated at the same time. Sedentism increased the productivity of the plant domesticates, which increased the commitment to village life. But in highland Mexico, the need to retain animal food in the diet worked against the abandonment of hunting. Hence, in contrast to the Middle East, the development of villages in Highland Mesoamerica did not precede the first phase of cultvation, but following it after a lapse of several thousand years. This, in turn, delayed the appearance of agricultural chiefdoms in the highlands and the appearance of the first highland states in habitats suitable for imperial growth.

The Mexicans ultimately did domesticate the turkey, the Muskovy duck, the honeybee, and hairless dogs bred for meat, but these species were of no significance in the insipient agricultural phase and never did amount to much in later periods.

Some anthropologists have questioned the idea that the paleoIndians confronted a poor choice of domesticable species and want to know why they did not domesticate tapirs, peccaries, antelope, or deer. Tapir and peccaries are lowland jungle species adapted to moist habitats and could scarcely have benefitted the people who domestcated maize and amaranth in the arid highlands valleys. As for deer and antelope, since no one else has succeeded fully indomesticating them, I do not see why the ancinet Mexicans should be expected to have done so. At any rate, they would have made even worse pack, traction, or milk animals than llamas and alpacas.

Not only did the faunal extinctions retard the onset of sedentary agricultural villages on the second earth, but they deprived the second earth of animal-drawn plow agriculture and the ability to develop the full range of agricultural systems that were developed on the first earth. (The Inca actually did use a kind of plow that peoplep ushed and pulled.) Most importantly, perhaps, the lack of traction animals inhibited the development of wheeled vehicles. The Mexicans had no trouble inventing the wheel, but they used it only to make toys for their children. Without traction animals, they had little incentive to build carts. Harnessing people to wagons is not much of an improvement over having them carry cargo on their heads or backs, especially if one includes the cost of building roads that are level enough and wide enough to accomidate a first-earth oxcart. The Inca did build an extensive network of roads, but only for human and llama foot traffic, saving themselves a lot of expense by using steps rather than switchbacks to master steep slopes.

It is a striking fact that the great cities of the second earth were primarily administrative rather than trading centers. Not that they lacked markets, craft specialists, or merchants, but most trade other than in preciosities consisted of food grown within the city itself. Production for export of food or goods in bulk was strictly limited by absense of carts. Symptomatic of the relative underdevelopment of commercial exchange was the absense of all-purpose money. Except for the limited use of cocao beans by merchant castes in Mexico, the second earth lacked a coin of the realm. The lack of long-distance trade in bulk and the absense of coinage severely inhibited the development of the kinds of commercial classes that played an important role in the development of the classical imperial centres of Eurasia.

Lack of interest in wheels inhibited technological change in many other feilds. Without wheels, there could be no pulleys, gears, or cogs, devices that enabled first-earth people to construct machines that milled flour, spun thread, kept time, and helped raise heavy weights, including the anchors and sails on their oceangoing vessels, and that formed the basis of mechanical engineering in the ages of steam and internal combustion engines.

Would second-earth people eventually have developed wheels, cogs, gears, pulleys, and complex machines and gone on to their own industrial revolution? One good reason for answering the affirmative is that they had taken several crucial steps in the feild of metallurgy. having begun like their first-earth counterparts with cold-hammering of copper sheets, they had gone on to smelting and casting copper, gold, silver, and several alloys, including bronze, which they had just begun to use for knives and maceheads when the first Spaniards arrived with steel weapons and armor. An astonishing achievement of second-earth metalurgists specialists was their independant invention of the casting technique known as the lost-wax method. To make a mold for a desired object, they first made a wax model of it. Then they placed the model in apit, or form, covered it with tightly packed sand, and poured molten metal onto he model through a small opening at the top. The metal instantly vaporized the wax and filled the resulting space with a metal facsimile of the wax model. A people who had gone so far with metalurgical skills must be credited with the likelihood of being able to go still further, perhaps not as rapidly as on the first earth, but in essentially the same direction. Second earth's invention of writing and numerology and its astronomical and mathematical achievements also argue for an eventual convergence of science and technology in the two worlds. Pre-Columbian Mexican calendars were more accurate than their Egyptian counterpart, and the Maya had mastered a crucial step in mathematics that eluded even the Romans and Greeks- a glyph for zero quantity to marl the absense of a base number or its exponents. But none of this changes the fact that the first-earth people had gotten a head start. It was they who possessed oceangoing vessels, gunpowder, muskets, steel swords, and the four-legged equivalent of armored tanks. The Inca and Aztec armies fought bravely, but without a glimmer of hope. Unbeknown to either side, their fates had been sealed long before, when first-earth people had turned away from hunting to domesticate sheep and goats and to settle down in agricultural villages, while second-earth people, bereft of domesticatable species, continued to favor hunting for another 5,000 years.

Cortes 1971, Hassig1988, Fagan1984, Hunn1982,Hosler1988, Sanders and Webster1988.


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The Mexicans ultimately did domesticate the turkey, the Muskovy duck, the honeybee, and hairless dogs bred for meat, but these species were of no significance in the insipient agricultural phase and never did amount to much in later periods.
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