Advanced civilizations on various continents
March 25, 2005 11:29 AM   Subscribe

Pre-industrial age: the Egyptians in Africa, Chinese in Asia, the Aztecs/Incas/Mayans in South America. Why did an equivalently advanced civilization never develop in North America?
posted by event to Society & Culture (37 answers total)
The Aztecs/Mayans were in North America.

Anyways, sounds like you should read Guns, Germs and Steel
posted by vacapinta at 11:33 AM on March 25, 2005

I suspect that the answer lies in the lack of a widespread farming civilization. Without that, there's not enough resources left to devote away from food production to other pursuits. But if you look at the cultural differences between aboriginal tribes on the coasts, opposed to those inland, you'll find that those who 'farmed' the ocean were generally more able to produce non-essential works of art and such. Less time spent merely surviving means more time spent innovating.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 11:40 AM on March 25, 2005

That's a tough question to answer. One possible direction that may not be discussed in Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel (I haven't finished it yet) is population density. The Chinese in particular (and to lesser extents the Inca) had very dense populations for the areas they occupied. Such density, along with the widespread use of agriculture, would have discouraged nomadism and encouraged the development of what we like to think of as advanced civilizations.

This isn't to say that there weren't necessarily areas of dense population or static civilizations in North America before the arrival of Columbus, but these seem to have been the exception rather than the rule.

(with apologies to vacapinta: I'm taking North America to mean anything north of the Rio Grande; I'm aware that there were advanced civilizations in Mexico, but I think event was referring to North America in the sense of the United States and Canada.)
posted by staresbynight at 11:44 AM on March 25, 2005

Dipsomaniac: pretty much right. I'm looking at the previously mentioned Guns, Germs, and Steel (which pretty much exactly answers your question), and here's an overview of what it says:

- no/few appropriate grains/carbohydrate staple crop (corn took too long to devlop into its current state)
- and even if they existed, failiure to domesticate them
- lack of large mammals for food/farming/transport
- the north/south axis which led to very slow movement of new types of food, and knowledge from one civilization to the other (as opposed to Eurasia)

Without the intensive food preparation, none of the other advances of civilization. The few North American societies that developed somewhat pre-industrial civilizations were far behind the Europeans and were overwhelmed by European technology/disease before they had time to really come into their own.
posted by ruwan at 11:47 AM on March 25, 2005

For what it's worth, North American civilizations never invented the wheel. There are a lot of other reasons, and Guns Germs and Steel is a great read, but the wheel thing has just always been my favorite.
posted by pokeydonut at 12:33 PM on March 25, 2005

This is an excellent question, and one that I have considered asking but I didn't know how to frame it without sounding condescending. At the risk of sounding condescending I must ask: how could thousands of years go by without the invention of the wheel by indigenous cultures north of the Rio Grande?! It just doesn't compute.
posted by quadog at 12:54 PM on March 25, 2005

Lack of war. Seriously. War is the basic driving force behind most technological achievements. In areas with little war (because of a low population and large land area) like N. America and Sub-Saharan Africa progress was slow. In places with constant fighting (Europe, which has basically only been war free in the past 50 years, China, Japan) progress went much quicker.
posted by PenDevil at 1:01 PM on March 25, 2005

The wheel might not have been all that useful to hunter gatherers who lacked large domesticatable animals.
posted by goethean at 1:04 PM on March 25, 2005

I've heard that European diseases played an important part in the decimation of (north and south) Native American societies. If you can forgive a slight derail, I'm curious as to why it wasn't the other way around.

Certainly European medicine wasn't advanced enough to account for this. Is it because Americans were significantly less isolated than Europeans, and had developed immunity to a broader range of infections? Was it luck? If so, what if it had gone the other way?
posted by Eamon at 1:05 PM on March 25, 2005

Is it because Americans were significantly more isolated than Europeans, who had developed immunity to a broader range of infections?
posted by Eamon at 1:07 PM on March 25, 2005

For what it's worth, North American civilizations never invented the wheel.

I know this is true for the Maya, but is it for the Aztecs and Incas as well? I do remember be doubleplusextra blown away by the Mayan pyramids when I learned that. Of course, the reason behind that ties, I think, to another reason ruwan pointed out- lack of domesticated animals. The theory I read says that without a work animal to pull a wagon a long distance, the need for the wheel didn't become apparent. Of course, there weren't horses either, so building trade routes was extremely difficult. People had to walk everywhere, pretty much up to Columbus's time.
posted by mkultra at 1:08 PM on March 25, 2005

I think this question might also turn on what it means to be "advanced." I certainly don't have an answer to this, but the question as it's phrased certainly presupposes a particular definition, which I'd guess is only about technological advancecedness. It's unclear to me whether some notion of political or social advancedness would place the mentioned cultures quite so high.

For example, from this site:

The social organization of the Iroquoian tribes was similar to that of other Indians, but it was much more complex and cohesive, and there was a notable difference in regard to the important position occupied by the women. Among the Iroquois and the Hurons, the women performed essential functions. Every chief was chosen, and every important measure was enacted, with the consent and co-operation of the child-bearing women; and lands and houses belonged solely to the women.
posted by advil at 1:15 PM on March 25, 2005

Diamond mentions that the incas had toys with wheels. They knew about the wheel. But the craggy elevations that they lived at, combined with a lack of pack animals, made the wheel less than valuable to them.

Some of the main points condensed from Guns, Germs, and Steel:

The Americas have a north/south primary axis, meaning that temperature bands will prevent sharing crops-- grains developed at the equator would need generations to change into serviceable crops at higher latitiudes. Eurasians could pretty successfully adopt each others' crops, ensuring that energy for innovation could be spent elsewhere.

The largest domesticable animals are dogs in most of the Americas. Llamas/alpacas are found in the Andes, but they can't do the labor of horses/oxen. So agriculture was further slowed.

This relatively poor agriculture kept population density light, and the aforementioned differences in temperature prevented widescale travel and sharing of innovations when they did develop.

The gist of the book is that eurasians were de facto working as a huge team to advance, while Americans were isolated from each other and therefore working for themselves.
posted by Mayor Curley at 1:18 PM on March 25, 2005

Eamon... I'd suggest you check out Guns, Germs, and Steel. As vacapinta notes, those are just the kind of questions Diamond addresses. His argument regarding germs/diseases: animal husbandry plays a large role in the generation and spread of diseases, as do densely populated areas. Note that even today, most of the "new" diseases seem to cross over from animals [Ebola and AIDS from monkeys, influenza strains from birds and pigs, etc]. In early civilizations, people lived even closer to their animals - sometimes in the same house. A great situation for germs, which had access to a bunch of different species [and their respective preexisting diseases] to mix with. Furthermore, as time went on, more and more people in Europe and Asia lived in large, fairly unsanitary cities. This obviously amplified the problem, and allowed sanitation-related diseases [diseases spread by contact with feces, etc] to become a huge problem as well. On the other hand, in North America, comparatively few animals were domesticated, and the people were widely spread out and often nomadic. As a result, they were less apt to get sanitation-related diseases, and new disease strains were less likely to develop from mixing of animal and human germs. Thus, the native Americans didn't have a large arsenal of nasty diseases to pass on to the Europeans, while diseases that many Europeans were immune to devestated the population of the Americas.

I'm not sure I agree with you, PenDevil. South American societies like the Inca or the Aztec were certainly not pacifist societies, and China was unified enough that it went through fairly long periods of peace, despite sporadic dynastic struggles/Mongol invasions/etc. War often spurs on technological advancement, but pretty much all human societies are warlike to some extent, so I don't think one can argue that it's the defining factor.

Finally, staresbynight - wouldn't population density be, in part, the result of agriculture? I would think that hunter-gatherers need, per person, a larger area to occupy [given that only a small portion of what's on a given piece of land is edible/useful to them.] Farmers, on the other hand, can grow a great deal more food in the same space, and depending on how much the crop depletes the soil and how they fertilize it, they can grow stuff in that same space for years. Farmers produce a surplus of food, and so you end up with people living in towns and cities supported by surrounding agricultural areas. The most dense and static civilizations in the Americas prior to the arrival of the Europeans were societies that practiced agriculture. Seems to me you're putting the effect [dense population and cities full of people who don't have to grow/find their own food] before the cause [farmers who are able to produce a food surplus].

Sorry for going on at such length; interesting questions.
posted by ubersturm at 1:35 PM on March 25, 2005

Not an answer to the question, but I recently read about Cahokia and its Mississippian culture, which is the nearest equivalent North American civilisation.
posted by cillit bang at 1:46 PM on March 25, 2005

Maybe they were just content in their traditional ways.
posted by peacay at 2:00 PM on March 25, 2005

Eamon: In fact North American diseases WERE deadly to new settlers. Except that either the settlers got better or they died. There was no transmittal of the disease back to the population (Europe). Conversely, once a native-North American got sick, there was a very high probability to transmittal to the larger population, which resulted in massive numbers of fatalities.
posted by ruwan at 2:16 PM on March 25, 2005

As noted above, read Guns, Germs and Steel.
posted by orthogonality at 2:28 PM on March 25, 2005

I thought there was a pretty advanced native american confederation along the Mississippi valley. I think this is the Illini, but I could be wrong about the name. They built earthworks and had cities and all that good stuff. Does that not count?
posted by ohio at 2:59 PM on March 25, 2005

I would suggest that you read Guns, Germs, and Steel.
posted by matildaben at 3:31 PM on March 25, 2005

psst, ohio -- scroll back for the link for the Mississippian culture.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:53 PM on March 25, 2005

Lack of war. Seriously.

Jeez, what kind of Jerry Pournelle meets Tom Clancy gas have you been huffin', PenDevil ?

You are so wrong. Seriously.

The Aztecs and Maya warred constantly and warfare led to the destruction of both societies--directly in the case of the Maya and indirectly in the case of the Aztecs, whose pattern of state brutality left them with utterly no allies when Cortez came upon them.

...Other early state-based systems were also heavily dependent on hierarchical religions to legitimate state power, but the Aztec form of tributary accumulation through political/military terror placed extra emphasis on the importance of the state religion. It is notable that complex chiefdoms and primary states engage in human sacrifice to an extent not shared by either less stratified or larger and more complex societies. The psychology of sacrifice is important in all moral orders, and human sacrifice on some scale is known to almost all societies including our own. I am thinking not only of warfare, but of capital punishment. The Aztecs, however, intensified this aspect of Mesoamerican culture to a scale difficult to comprehend. Most scholars accept the estimate of 80,000 war captives sacrificed for a single temple dedication.

This kind of ritual was not simply a reflection of a system out of control, or the rational consumption of human flesh as a source of protein, as Marvin Harris'sinterpretation of sacrifices suggests. Rather such a religious hierarchy is an expanded instance of the symbolic demonstration of the power of the state to appropriate human life (rather than human labor time) in a situation in which the logic of "the perception of power" is based on terror and intimidation...

Review of Ross Hassig, Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion & Political Control

Archaeologists for a long time believed the ancient Maya to be gentle and peaceful people. We now know that Maya warfare was intense, chronic, and unresolvable, because limitations of food supply and transportation made it impossible for any Maya principality to unite the whole region in an empire. The archaeological record shows that wars became more intense and frequent toward the time of the Classic collapse. That evidence comes from discoveries of several types since the Second World War: archaeological excavations of massive fortifications surrounding many Maya sites; vivid depictions of warfare and captives on stone monuments and on the famous painted murals discovered in 1946 at Bonampak; and the decipherment of Maya writing, much of which proved to consist of royal inscriptions boasting of conquests. Maya kings fought to capture and torture one another; an unfortunate loser was a Copan king with the to us unforgettable name of King 18 Rabbit.

Maya warfare involved well-documented types of violence: wars among separate kingdoms; attempts of cities within a kingdom to secede by revolting against the capital; and civil wars resulting from frequent violent attempts by would-be kings to usurp the throne. All of these events were described or depicted on monuments, because they involved kings and nobles. Not considered worthy of description, but probably even more frequent, were fights between commoners over land, as overpopulation became excessive and land became scarce...

Maya warfare, already endemic, peaked just before the collapse. That is not surprising when one reflects that at least 5 million people, most of them farmers, were crammed into an area smaller than the state of Colorado. That's a high population by the standards of ancient farming societies, even if it wouldn't strike modern Manhattan-dwellers as crowded.

The last Americans: environmental collapse and the end of civilization - Jared Diamond
posted by y2karl at 3:53 PM on March 25, 2005

See also:

Scholars don't know how much the constant warfare between city-states may have contributed to the eventual collapse of the Maya civilization by A.D. 900, although most agree that it was probably a significant factor.

Demarest thinks the warfare described in the Dos Pilas inscriptions may reflect a period when the Maya civilization was on the verge of moving to a higher level of organization and consolidating into a single empire. "However, this didn't happen," he said.

"Instead, the giant war went back and forth," he explained. "After Tikal was sacked, it eventually roared back and crushed Calakmul. And then the Maya world broke up into regional powers, setting the stage for a period of intensive, petty warfare that finally led to the collapse of the Maya."

Maya Hieroglyphs Recount "Giant War"
posted by y2karl at 4:02 PM on March 25, 2005

Note that Egypt generally didn't use animals for transport, didn't make use of the wheel widely until the New Kingdom -- and, even then, it was typically only used on War Chariots.

The commonality between China and Egypt, really, is twofold.

1) Incomplete isolation. Both realms were somewhat, but not totally, shut off from neighbors, mostly by terrain.

2) Incredibly fertile land.

Dipsomanic touches the ring, but doesn't quite grasp it. It's not enough to have a farming culture -- the Incas did, to the extent of massive terraforming projects to increase the amount of arable land. The problem was even the best land could only feed a few per acre, and only by throwing lots of labor at it.

Contrast this to farming rice or wheat on the Yangtse delta, or farming anything in Egypt. Egyptian agriculture was incredibly crude, but it produced huge harvest for very little effort. Even better, both rivers were very silty and flooded annually, thus replacing the soil, so, you didn't even have to deal with soil dilapidation -- ever year, you farmed on fresh soil, that was almost perfect for growing foods.

This gave both China and Egypt enormous labor pools that weren't dedicated to farming, and all else comes from that.

The isolation meant that once you started growing a society, you could keep working on it without the neighbors working you over annualy, but some contact meant trade and knowledge transfer. Both China and Egypt were conquered from the outside during periods of thier history, but both enjoyed long periods of peace, because nobody around could reach them. By the time they really could, both had advanced enough to put up a fight (and the labor advantage translates directly into a "size of sustainable armed forces" advantage.)

This is, of course, a gloss -- no culture with a three century history can be covered in a paragraph.

But, in both cases, it was simple. He who has the most food grows. Starving scientists and priest don't work -- they farm. This stayed true for millennia, until transportation was advanced enough that you could farm over there, but live here, and further multiplied the farmer's labor effectivness.
posted by eriko at 4:09 PM on March 25, 2005

Actually, North American diseases *were* brought back to Europe. There is a very heated debate about whether syphilis is a New World disease brought back to Europe by the crew of C. Columbus. There is actually some rather good evidence that this is the case... though there is also evidence to the contrary.

Personally, I happen to think it true. The oldest definitively documented European syphilis outbreak occured in Naples... in 1494.
posted by Justinian at 4:19 PM on March 25, 2005

I'd read that syphillis was a North American disease that was brought to Europe by the returning sailors. I can't remember where I read it, though. Has anyone else heard this?
posted by luneray at 4:29 PM on March 25, 2005

the Hohokam
were advanced.
posted by recurve at 5:52 PM on March 25, 2005

One of the disturbing facts of history is that so many civilizations collapse. Few people, however, least of all our politicians, realize that a primary cause of the collapse of those societies has been the destruction of the environmental resources on which they depended. Fewer still appreciate that many of those civilizations share a sharp curve of decline. Indeed, a society's demise may begin only a decade or two after it reaches its peak population, wealth, and power. ---Diamond

This and the Peak Oil article are making for some spooky reading.
posted by goethean at 7:48 PM on March 25, 2005

Note that even today, most of the "new" diseases seem to cross over from animals [Ebola and AIDS from monkeys, influenza strains from birds and pigs, etc].

Just to be clear, Ebola doesn't come from monkeys. They also fall ill and die, but they aren't the host species. And despite much research, I don't believe we know what the host species is.
posted by sbutler at 8:17 PM on March 25, 2005

Some of the confusion in this thread comes from the terms “advanced” and “civilization” which are mushy terms and because of that they are not really used by archaeologists in any meaningful way. One term with a better definition is “state” which implies structured hereditary inequality, multiple administrative levels, professional bureaucracy, a professional military and so forth. Using that definition, the Babylonians, Romans, Incans, Mayans, Aztecs, etc. were states and there was no state in North America prior to European contact.

As some have pointed out, the Mississippian culture in southeastern North America flourished between AD 1000 and 1500 and was certainly “advanced” but it was not properly a state. Archaeologists use the term chiefdom, meaning structured hereditary inequality without a professional bureaucracy or multiple levels of administration, to describe most of the Mississippian polities. Cahokia, in the American Bottom where St. Louis is located today, was the largest of the Mississippian chiefdoms. There is an active debate over the exact features of the Cahokia social and political system, but there are some arguments indicating that it may have achieved a few embryonic state-like features briefly, but it was never able to sustain itself into a self-perpetuating system.

As many have pointed out, Guns, Germs, and Steel provides the most satisfactory answer to this question (in my opinion). The argument is environmental: historically, every state developed with access to high productivity staple carbohydrates (maize, wheat, barley, rice, potato, etc) or something that shared its features (storability and the ability to increase production linearly with increases in effort). The East-West dimension of Eurasia meant that crops and animals domesticated in the Near East ten thousand years ago could rapidly spread to Europe, China, India, and North Africa and become the fuel for later social changes. In the Americas, the best staple crops took millennia to spread along the north-south axis of the continent because of the time required to adapt the plants to new climates. Therefore, the eastern woodlands of North America did not get maize until the first few centuries AD and did not intensify production until about AD 1000.

My guess is that had European contact not intervened, state systems would have formed in southeastern North America within a few centuries. And likely there would have been a very dynamic circum-Gulf exchange of cultures, goods, and ideas analogous to the circum-Mediterranean region.
posted by Tallguy at 10:06 PM on March 25, 2005

On the question of European disease in N. America, isn't there evidence that Europeans spread their diseases among the native population with intent? As a weapon of genocide even?
posted by Chuckles at 10:23 PM on March 25, 2005

Chuckles: There is, so far as I am aware, actual evidence of a single event where natives were given blankets infected with smallpox. One event.

Besides, the Europeans didn't have to have intent; the germs spread quite nicely all on their own. Once smallpox (and others) got loose it was all over but the shoutin'. Everything points to the great majority of the native population of the Americas already being dead by the time of the great migrations westward. There is some debate as to how great a majority died; I've seen estimates higher than 90%.
posted by Justinian at 11:38 PM on March 25, 2005

y2karl: considering the more advanced levels of civilisation that the Aztec and Maya had compared to their cousins in N. America I think warfare has some part to play. Perhaps you took my comment to mean "total war all the time" as being condusive to technological advancement but that's not something I agree with. You need periods of war/conflict to jump start certain technological advances followed by times of peace where those advances are adapted to more civilian uses.
posted by PenDevil at 1:30 AM on March 26, 2005

Pen - the point being that Mesoamerican societies for certain, and North American societies probably, weren't all that different from anywhere else in this respect. People in the western hemisphere were just as enamoured of killin' as people anywhere else. If you're talking about the major building block for states Tallguy defines them, it really is agriculture. And really, "war" in the sense of "professional military forces clashing" is itself dependant upon agriculture. Think about it this way:

War can, it's true, drive technological innovation.

But it isn't really a driving force behind major changes to the structure of society.

Finally, war is not necessary for rapid technological innovation.
posted by kavasa at 3:43 AM on March 26, 2005

I've heard that European diseases played an important part in the decimation of (north and south) Native American societies. If you can forgive a slight derail, I'm curious as to why it wasn't the other way around.

Domestic animals. Lots, maybe most, human diseases have jumped the species barrier from animals. New World societies had only a handful of domestic animals--dogs, turkeys, llamas, and a few others. Compare that to Europe, where they had--oh hell, how many verses of Old McDonald Had a Farm are there? Plus, the denser and more urbanized populations of the Old World, along with more robust trade routes, helped any new disease spread and become endemic.

isn't there evidence that Europeans spread their diseases among the native population with intent?

The only certain case of this is Lord Geoffrey Amherst distributing blankets and other cloth from a soldier's smallpox ward to some Indians during the Seven Years War (French and Indian War.) The Indians who were targeted did suffer a smallpox out break soon thereafter, but it is not clear that Amherst's actions were actually the cause. You can probably Google up the scholarly pissing match over this.

Two great books on the role of disease in history are Elizabeth Fenn's Pox Americana, about the great North American smallpox epidemic of the late 1700s (here is a great review by Alan Taylor in TNR), and the book that really started historians thinking about this subject, McNeil's Plagues and Peoples, which retells the history of Western Civilization with disease at the center.
posted by LarryC at 8:05 AM on March 26, 2005

Thanks, everyone!

It is a fascinating topic and you've given me some great responses and I'm certainly going to look into obtaining Guns, Germs and Steel.

As quadog mentioned, I do hope that my question did not come across as condescending; it was certainly not intended as such.
posted by event at 6:09 PM on March 26, 2005

I have a personal theory about European civilization. I feel the climate is the major contributor. Not cold enough to freeze us to death but cold enough to provide great motivation. This may apply also to China. This thought occurred to me after I moved to Europe and found out how mild it was in winter (in spite of the tragically short sun time in winter!)
posted by Goofyy at 10:58 AM on March 28, 2005

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