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.


Raj said...

Hari, this is an excellent post. I was introduced to your blog thanks to Amit's link to your previous post.

There is one more question that needs to be answered. The same one that "Yali' had asked Jared Diamond and that prompted him to write the book, " Why did the conquest of the New World by Europe happen and not the other way round?". Jared explains why China or the Fertile Crescent did not conquer the world, but does not get into why the Aztecs or the Mayans did not blaze the trail in the opposite direction.

Hari said...

Thanks, Raj, for your perceptive comments. The question you ask is a great one, and it's been on my mind for a while; I thought of it also while writing this post.

Diamond does a good job putting an insightful anthropological framework on world history, but even that framework cannot explain things entirely. There's clearly some rogue element somewhere that we haven't spotted yet.

Sirensongs said...

I always figured the answer was indeed simple: India was (for the greater part) "fortunate" enough to be colonized by the British, who were more interested in co-optation and trade than proselytizing and conquering. Central and south America were colonized by the Spanish and Portugese, who destroyed everything in the name of the Catholic Church. Goa, the one place in India where the Portugese really held power, suffered the same fate.

Jared Diamond spends a good deal of his first chapter debunking (or so he thinks) various popular theories on Why Things Are They Way They Are. One was the climate theory: the colder climates fostered more activity. He denies this and points to Egypt, India, the Mayans and so on as evidence of great civilizations in very hot climates. What he completely forgets is that all these civilizations employed a great deal of slave labour. That solves the mystery of "how did they get all that work done in the heat" - they didn't have a choice.

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