Monday, December 31, 2007

The Americas before Columbus, and the Old World: Some thoughts on history

Ever since I began reading about Native American history a few years ago, I’ve been intrigued by this question: Why did the highly original Pre-Columbian empires of Mexico, Central and South America – the Aztecs and the Incas – perish so abruptly and spectacularly under European conquests, while the ancient traditions, beliefs, books and languages of the Indian subcontinent, even while suffering destructive invasions through the ages, manage to adapt and survive so successfully to the present day? Why, in short, was history so different in these places?

The answer isn't simple. It would take a pretty hefty book to explain, and even then we won’t be able to do justice. But in this short post, let’s look at a couple of key factors – geography and connectedness – that played a pivotal role.

The cultures of the Indian subcontinent have never existed in isolation but have always been part of vast trade networks – if not directly, then by association. The networks spanned such diverse regions as the Middle East, Europe, North Africa (and parts of East Africa), Central, East, and Southeast Asia. Indeed these regions together formed the largest such landmass in the ancient world that was easily navigable by land and sea even though means of transportation weren’t sophisticated. It was a slow process that sometimes took many centuries but cultures belonging to this landmass – the Old World, in the Western historian’s parlance – began to reap the benefits of innovations from far-flung places.

Wheat and barley, for instance, were wild crops native to the Middle East and were first domesticated there about ten thousand years ago, but soon they spread to distant parts Europe and Asia, transformed agriculture and led to increases in population. Most domesticated animals of today – including horses and cows– were also Middle Eastern wild natives before they were tamed there, traded across regions and eventually went on to provide labor that was much needed in agriculture. (Jared Diamond has argued in Guns Germs and Steel that the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East had a head start in agriculture because it was endowed with such easily "domesticable" - my own word - wild crops and animals that other regions of the world lacked. Diamond argues that this is the reason the Middle East produced very early a significant number of organized societies.)

Exchanges were not restricted to crops and animals: philosophy, architecture (think of the Greco-Buddhist architectural tradition), and religious ideas also diffused easily. Europeans learned the use of gunpowder through the Arabs, who got it from the Chinese; the monotheisms of the Middle East reached the frontiers of Europe, Asia and North Africa; Chinese scholars visited India and took back Buddhist ideas. The method of representing numbers using the decimal system, which we all use today, was an Indian innovation; it reached Italian merchants via the treatises of an Uzbek mathematician, Khwarizmi, resident in Baghdad, and eventually replaced the cumbersome Roman numeral system.

Ancient Indian societies, thus, were as enriched by assimilations as others were by them. Contrast this with what went on in the Americas. There too, we find complex societies, two sets in particular: the Mesoamerican ones based in Mexico and Central America including such societies as the Olmec, Mayan and Aztec; and the Peruvian ones, of whom the Incas are the most famous. These were great civilizations too: the Mayans came up with their own writing system, and independently developed the idea of zero; the Incas built some remarkable suspension rope bridges on precarious landscapes; the 14th century Aztec city of Tenochtitlan (today Mexico City) was one of the grandest of the world at its time, with pyramids, causeways, aqueducts and botanical gardens. In the first paragraph of this post, I used the term “highly original” to describe these cultures. That was not an arbitrary choice. The Mesoamerican and Peruvian societies were indeed highly original; they did it all without influences from other parts of the world.

But what were these cultures of the Americas missing? Because of their geographical isolation, they were unaware of the great innovations and weaponry of the Old World. Even more critically they were missing immunity to such diseases as measles and smallpox, diseases of the Old World that had jumped from domesticated animals such as cows, pigs, and horses to humans (in the same way that avian influenza is on the verge of making the transition from birds to us today). The Americas before Columbus had no such mammals to rely on for domestication, and hence did not develop the same set of diseases.* (The actual explanation is, of course, a lot more complex, but we'll have to do with this for the sake of brevity.)

So when Columbus sailed to the Americas in 1492, ending millennia of isolation, the shock – of devastating new diseases especially and superior military technology – was numbing: Native American societies simply crumbled. Millions of Native Americans throughout the continent perished from diseases they had never before known; nearly a fifth of humanity might have been lost this way. And the clash between the Aztecs of Mexico and the conquering Spanish in the early 1500s was probably one of the truly tremendous collisions in history. Because of their geographical solitude and the debilitation that disease brought, the Aztecs, and the Incas shortly after, were destined to lose.

It is true: history often rests on such quirks, and the effects can be devastating.


Jared Diamond synthesized these ideas (which other anthropologists and historians have known for a while) in his superb book Guns Germs and Steel. But let me present the viewpoint of someone more literary and contemplative and who by virtue of his background and travels is uniquely positioned to comment on contrasts in ancient Mexican and Indian history: the Nobel-prize winning Mexican poet, Octavio Paz, who has also written some sterling historical essays.

Paz’s knowledge and grasp of Pre-Columbian cultures that comprise his heritage is exceptional. But he is equally adept at interpreting the Spanish and Catholic half of Mexico, which were undeniably more influential in the country's inception. And while serving six years as the Mexican ambassador to India (and earlier as an attaché), Paz seems to have gained a thorough knowledge of Indian history as well. It is no surprise then that we find a rich synthesis of all these different threads in his book In Light of India. I'll close this post with the following paragraphs from the book which summarize beautifully what I’ve been trying to convey:
…the Mesoamerican [or Pre-Columbian Mexican] cultures were born and grew in total isolation until the sixteenth century. India, in contrast, was always in communication with other peoples and cultures of the Old World: first with Mesopotamia, and later with the Persians, Greeks, Kuchans, Romans, Chinese, Afghans, Mongols. The thought, religion and art of India were adopted by many Asian peoples; in turn, the Indians absorbed and transformed the ideas and creations of other cultures. The Mexican cultures did not experience anything like the penetration of Buddhism into Ceylon, China, Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia, or the influence of Greek and Roman sculpture on Indian art, or the mutual borrowings among Christianity, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. The Mexican cultures lived in immense historical solitude; they never knew the essential and common experience of the Old World: the presence of the Other, the intrusion of strange civilizations with their gods, technical skills, visions of this world and next.
Mesoamerica lacked contact with foreign peoples, ideas and institutions. It moved without changing a perpetual return to the point of departure. All civilizations – including China and Japan – have been the result of intersections and clashes with foreign cultures. All, except the pre-Hispanic civilizations of America. The ancient Mexicans saw the Spanish as supernatural beings who had come from another world because they did not have mental categories in which to place them. They lacked the experience and concepts that marked the people of other civilizations.

* Mammals like horses that could potentially have been domesticated did exist in the Americas, but they appear to have perished just around the time that the Native Americans first arrived there via the land bridge that used to connect Alaska with the eastern end of Russia. The reasons for this extinction are still being debated, but it appears that the newly arrived settlers hunted them extensively.

The first picture is of the Aztec God, Quetzalcoatl.

Other related posts: Knitting together seams of Pangaea, Chris and thoughts on Native American History; and some short notes on a couple of excellent books on history I read early this year: The Oregon Trail and 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Ota Benga story

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was quite common in North America and Europe to display recently “discovered” tribal groups at fairs as scientific and anthropological curiosities, and have them beat drums or perform traditional dances. The people chosen for such purposes were typically Native Americans from North America (Geronimo of the Apaches was a famous draw) and - even more exotic and different-looking - people of certain groups from the African interior.

In 1906, the tradition appears to have reached its zenith, when Ota Benga (in picture), a pygmy from the Belgian Congo, found himself sharing a cage with an orangutan at the Bronx Zoo as part of a tableaux intended to illustrate the stages of evolution. Ota Benga’s filed teeth – a tradition of cosmetic dentistry followed by his people – were mistaken as a sign of cannibalism. To further this false impression, zookeepers scattered bones in the cage. On some days, nearly 40,000 visitors are estimated to have visited the zoo to see Benga.

And the New York Times published a poem on Benga, which went like this:

From his native land of darkness
To the country of the free,

In the interest of science
And of broad humanity.

The outrage we feel today about this scarcely believable story from just over a century ago is an indication of just how much sensibilities have changed. But to me the key issue is not what happened to Ota Benga; rather, it is this: What is it that most of us do not condemn today and are complicit with that will in 2107 seem utterly outrageous?

Update: See Amit Varma's excellent response to the question in his weekly Mint column here.


On a related note, James T Campbell, author of Middle Passages: African-American Journeys to Africa – a work of narrative non-fiction and also the book where I first read about Ota Benga – has this to say about how early scientific thinking actually accentuated ideas of race. The end of the 18th century, Campbell writes, coincided with
the birth of race, the idea still prevalent today, that the human species is divided by nature into a small number of distinct groups or races, each identifiable through phenotypic signatures (chiefly skin color and hair texture) and each endowed with distinct capacities and traits. The roots of this perdurable (and deeply misleading) notion are not easily disentangled. Clearly, they reach far back in time, to the earliest European encounters with sub-Saharan Africans in the middle of the fifteenth century. Yet they also reflect a series of specifically eighteenth century intellectual and cultural developments, most notably the rise of natural science, which was fast displacing religion as the primary idiom for describing human nature and variety. In an era in which all the world’s flora and fauna was being sorted into an elaborate classificatory scheme, it was perhaps inevitable that human beings too would be sorted and classified. Whatever the precise sources, the end result was a recognizably modern conception of biological race, complete with an insistence of the innate, ineradicable inferiority of people of African descent. In the nineteenth century, this belief would become the standard justification for slavery, and it remains the institution’s most enduring legacy.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Guha on NRI worship

In an essay in Outlook that is just as hilarious as it is satirical, Ramachandra Guha takes a swipe at Non-Resident Indians who expect to get worshiped in India - and who do get the adulation they crave for.

The funniest part is early in the article and is about writers of Indian origin: Guha compares the trinity of Salman Rushdie, Amartya Sen and VS Naipaul to Hindu holy trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva:
"Analagous to Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva, we have Salman the Creator, Amartya the Preserver, and Sir Vidia the Destroyer. Just as Brahma gave birth to the world, Rushdie gave birth, through his magnificent novel Midnight's Children, to an innovative and globally influential school of Indian writing in English. Like the god he resembles he appears to have done little since—but, for that first and fundamental act of creation, we worship him still.

Vishnu the Preserver is supposed to have had 10 avatars. His successor probably exceeds him in this regard. Sometimes he comes to us as a Bangladeshi (by virtue of the fact that he was born in Dhaka), at other times as a Bengali, at still other times as a Global Indian. Other roles he has assumed include economist, philosopher, sociologist, historian, and seer. Like the god he resembles he comes to cheer us, to console us, to chastise us.

Siva could set the world ablaze with a mere blink of the eyelids. His modern successor can destroy a reputation by a word or two said (or unsaid). As with Siva, we fear Sir Vidia, we propitiate him, and we worship him. Who knows, if we are diligent and devoted enough, he may grant us some favours in this world (or the next)."
Read the full article! The excellent illustration above is by Sandeep Adhwaryu.

And this is a good time to put up a link to my review of Ramachandra Guha's India after Gandhi, easily one of my favorite books of the year.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

China in Africa

One of the biggest current affairs dynamics of recent times has been China’s burgeoning presence and interest in Africa. Chinese migrants to Africa total about 750000, and these include shopkeepers, business executives, construction workers, and even – surprise – farmers. China needs energy and mineral resources to maintain its spectacular economic growth, and Africa has plenty to offer. Africa also has plenty to gain in return: it gets massive and much needed infrastructure projects from the Chinese, a number of which are currently in progress. One expensive Chinese gift to Africa, worth $150 million, will be a swanky conference center for the African Union in Addis Ababa.

But what are the nuances that go with China’s engagement in the continent? China does not carry – at least not yet – the baggage of an exploitative colonial past, an accompaniment, for better or worse, to any modern day Western initiative in Africa. China also claims not to interfere in the politics of the countries it is involved with. In fact, if you look at this graph, its largest investments are in Sudan, whose government has a terrible record in the Darfur conflict. And because China deliberately looks the other way and is so powerful in Sudan, it has come under intense pressure from activists to alter its dubious stance and put pressure on the Sudanese government.

There's no doubt that African economies are benefiting from Chinese investments. But there are murmurs of protest as well – and this is only to be expected in what is a clearly complex and still unfolding engagement between two regions with very different historical experiences and differently positioned on the ladder to development. In Zambia cheap Chinese manufactured textile goods (in some cases made from cheaply procured Zambian exports) have flooded the market, affecting local Zambian industry adversely. A recent blast in a Chinese owned explosives factory in the town of Chambishi – the worst industrial accident in Zambia’s history – has further fueled resentment. The blast killed nearly 50 people, most of them young men and women in their twenties. Though the causes of the blast are not yet understood, one Zambian employee who lost family members in the accident told the New York Times that he'd had concerns about how Chinese managers ran the factory. According to him, they emphasized productivity but were careless about the safety of the employees.

In other cases – Angola for example – construction workers from China making a living in Africa stay in strictly utilitarian, low-cost, barrack-like settlements, segregated from where the locals live. Cooks brought from China make the food for these workers. And work keeps them so busy that they don’t get to explore the places they are helping rejuvenate. I am not sure how useful such separation will be – a lack of interaction can only increase resentment, and development projects can only be beneficial in the long run if skills are exchanged and pooled. But it would be simplistic to assume that there's no give and take and reaching out going on. In Ethiopian road construction projects some of it does seem to be happening as this article suggests: the supervisor interviewed in it is part of a small group from the China Road and Bridge Corporation, and works closely with Ethiopian engineers and designers despite language difficulties.

The big question is: where will the Chinese African courtship lead the two regions, say 30-40 years from now? I suspect there won’t be a clear answer then either: Africa is way too diverse for there to be any uniformity in results. And the answer is also tied to China’s rise, endlessly trumpeted in the media (along with the parallel rise of India) as the biggest event of this century.

Both the BBC and New York Times have recently had special features and articles focusing on China in Africa. (This piece is based almost entirely on what I've read in these articles and some from - unfortunately, I'll have to rely on them until I actually travel and learn more. Hopefully that will happen in the next few years.) The BBC, true to its style, keeps its articles short and crisp (see 1, 2, 3 and 4) while the NYTimes ones are more elaborate (see 1 and 2). And there are photo features as well with notes on the side; I’ve often found them interesting and informative. Here are a couple: Chinese Businesses in Africa (the pictures are mostly from Malawi); and the rather naughtily titled China’s African road gangs. I pilfered the second picture from the latter feature, while the first picture is from this NYtimes article, and shows Chinese goods on display in a street in Lusaka, Zambia.