So one of our readers asked us this question the other day: Native Americans did not experience the same technological advancements as Europe. What has caused this difference?

ANSWER

I apologize in advance because this is going to be a full essay. Before I answer this question directly I need to give a few caveats regarding the current understanding that anthropologists and archaeologists have regarding American Indian technology and how technology works in general (I’ve taken many of the theory of technology points from Hodder 2013):

  • 1: Pre-Columbian American Indian cultures were not as culturally and technologically different from their counterparts in Eurasia as most people seem to think: A lot of people seem to think all American Indians were nomadic hunter-gatherers chasing the buffalo. In fact, there were regions of the Americas that had long traditions of urban civilization and were more densely populated than most areas of Europe and Asia. The Inca empire had a highway system with supply stations at regular intervals that connected most of the major cities in their two-million-square-kilometer empire. The Aztec empire’s capital city of Tenochtitlan had an elaborate system of aqueducts and canals that distributed potable water throughout the city and moved waste products out into the agricultural fields. Yes, there were large swaths of the Americas where only hunter-gatherers lived, but the same was true for Eurasia (i.e., the Central Asian Steppes).
  • 2: In the long view of history, it’s fairly remarkable that two cultures not in contact with each other would share any technology in common: Anatomically modern humans have existed for 200,000 years. Yet, within a few thousand years of each other, American Indians and Eurasians separately invented agriculture, cities, state governments, pottery, writing, bows and arrows, plaster, aqueducts, and a slew of other inventions. In my opinion, the similarities are more remarkable than the differences.
  • 3: Technological change occurs at the margins: This is actually a principle of economics, rather than history or anthropology. When people are looking at investing in some new technology, they’re usually thinking about what immediate benefit that technology can provide. Lots of things are only beneficial in the long run after a technology has been developed for some time. When you buy some new gadget, you’re not going “this technology sucks right now but in 100 years it will be awesome.” Your primary concern is whether it will help you in your daily life right now. This also means that when people have built up a good deal of infrastructure around one particular technology, it’s harder for them to switch to another one.
  • 4: Technologies do not exist in isolation from each other, but are dependent on other technologies: Imagine if you had a time machine and went back and gave a typewriter to Genghis Khan. He might find it interesting, but he would not be able to make use of it. Even if you were able to design a typewriter that used the Mongolian alphabet, typewriters require a paper of standardized shape and size, ink cartridges, and spare parts in case something breaks. These, in turn, require factories to produce those goods, which in turn require additional technologies to make those factories work. In order for a new invention to ‘catch on,’ it requires a complex network of production that involves procurement of raw materials, manufacture, distribution, consumption, maintenance and repair, and finally a means of discard once that object breaks (look at the difficulties of disposing of nuclear waste for an extreme example of issues regarding discard). So the actual process of technological change is really complicated because many technologies are mutually interdependent.
  • 5: A given technology is inseparable from the sociocultural system in which that technology is used: Building off of the last caveat, every piece of technology needs a social system to produce and maintain that technology. When a new technology is invented or introduced from elsewhere, people have to change their daily lives to incorporate that new technology in many different ways. This also means that a piece of technology that is advantageous in one sociocultural system might be disadvantageous in another. Skibo and Schiffer (2008) give the example of organic and inorganic temper in pottery. Inorganic temper gives pots a higher resistance to heat shock, meaning you can heat the pot quickly and it won’t crack from the stress. On the surface, it might look like this makes inorganic temper better than organic temper. However, if you think about temper technology as embedded in a social system that produces it, you quickly see that the issue is more complicated. In the chain of production and use of pottery, there are going to be certain logistical difficulties which are specific to the social system in which the technology is embedded. Let’s say you’re trying to feed an army on the move and you need to cook a lot of food quickly. In this case, your ‘bottleneck’ is on the user end; people need pots that can heat quickly and won’t crack, so inorganic temper is better. However, what if a particular culture doesn’t have as many people involved in pottery manufacture? Now the bottleneck is on the production end; the potters can’t churn out new pots quickly enough to meet the needs of the people using them. In that case, inorganic temper, which is more time consuming to manufacture than organic temper, is going to be disadvantageous.
  • 6: There’s no force pushing technology to “advance” in linear progression: This is really hard for many modern Westerners to wrap their heads around. In our culture, we tend to see technology as something that moves “forward” or “backward” from “primitive” to “advanced”. In fact, this is a cultural value that we’ve placed on technology traceable back to the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, and not an intrinsic property of technology itself. As I hope I’ve explained with the above caveats, technology is actually more of an adaptive process. People create technologies to respond to perceived social and environmental needs, and there’s no “forward” or “backward” motion to it unless a particular society decides that there is. That said, when you look at the course of human history there does appear to be a particular directionality to technological change. (Not many of us today are hunter-gatherers, for example.) But this is not due to some force pushing technology to advance but is rather due to the fact that once people have designed social systems and infrastructure that depend on a particular technology, it’s hard to abandon it. (For example, personal cars are causing problems today re: global warming, but nobody’s going to stop driving because we’ve come to depend on cars and have designed our roads and cities to use them).

With these caveats in mind, we can now turn our attention to some of the major technologies that were instrumental in the sociocultural contexts of Eurasia but not in the Americas, and begin to answer why. A comprehensive explanation of all technological change in the Americas is beyond the scope of this post, but I can at least hit three of the big ones:

  • Metallurgy: Contrary to popular belief, several American Indian cultures had long traditions of metal working, including gold, silver, copper, and yes, even bronze. Metallurgy was first invented in the Andes c. 2000 BC (Aldenderfer et al 2008). Sometime in the 9th century AD, it spread from the Andes to Mesoamerica most likely through maritime trade along the Pacific Coast (Hosler 1988). Mesoamericans then elaborated on Andean metallurgy by developing new, sophisticated techniques of bronze working. Working of ‘native copper’ was also invented separately in North America as part of the so-called “Old Copper Complex.” However, in all of these cases, metalworking was not used to make utilitarian tools but was instead used for religious or decorative purposes. There are three reasons for this: First, the New World has relatively fewer sources of exploitable tin, which is necessary to develop bronze tools. (See this map). Second, metallurgy has a low marginal benefit compared to sharper cutting implements made from obsidian (recall my third caveat above.) The third reason was best explained by legendary archaeologist Lewis Binford (1962), and it has to do with the fifth caveat I listed above regarding technologies being embedded in sociocultural systems. American Indian cultures saw metal as something sacred and valuable (a prestige good, to use the anthropological term). So using it for utilitarian purposes was seen as wasteful. You could draw an analogy to how Europeans didn’t use silver for anything utilitarian. Why would you? Silver is so valuable (read: expensive) that using it to make a tool seems counter-intuitive.
  • Wheels: Wheels were invented in Mesoamerica sometime during the Early Classic period (c. 200 AD-ish? maybe earlier but there’s no evidence). However, like with metal, they were not used for any utilitarian purpose. In fact, the only evidence for wheels comes from children’s toys found at archaeological sites. (You can see a picture of one here.) The reason why they were never used for utilitarian purposes has to do with caveat #4 above – technologies depend on other technologies. In this case, the earliest use of the wheel in the Old World is directly tied to the rise of draft animals (Sherratt 1983). This is one of the few aspects of Jared Diamond’s argument (from Guns Germs and Steel) with which archaeologists unanimously agree: there were no large draft animals in the New World. What good is a cart without a horse or ox to pull it? Eventually people use wheels for hand-powered carts like wheelbarrows, but in the beginning, early carts depend on draft animals (recall caveat #3: technological change occurs at the margins). The only draft animal in the New World was the llama, domesticated in the Andes. The llama actually has an advantage that Old World draft animals don’t, it can climb relatively steep surfaces like a mountain goat. Andean infrastructure was actually built to reflect this, and if you ever hike one of the old Inca highways in Peru, you’ll see that they often include staircases. If you attach a wheeled cart to a llama, this advantage goes away quickly. A wheeled vehicle would be incompatible with the Andean infrastructure which was designed to work without them, and this is in fact why the Inca highways were abandoned after the Spanish conquest. (This also ties back with caveats 4 and 5; the highways were great for the Inca but became disadvantageous when incorporated into Spanish social and technological systems.)
  • Writing: Writing systems are complicated, and there are different definitions on what constitutes a writing system. The definition favored by many linguists (especially those following Noam Chomsky) is that a writing system is a visual representation of a spoken language. From that definition, there are only two that were invented in the Americas Epi-Olmec and Mayan Hieroglyphics (the former pre-dating and being ancestral to the latter). An alternate definition (advocated by a minority of linguists and epigraphers such as Geoffrey Sampson and a larger number of archaeologists, including myself) expands the definition to include any codified system of symbols used to record information on a physical medium. By this definition, mathematical notation and sheet music would also qualify as writing systems, even though they don’t reflect a spoken language. If you go off of this definition of writing systems, there are actually tons of them in the Americas, including Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, Teotihuacano, the Andean Quipu system, and possibly Lakota pictograms and Puebloan petroglyphs. (I don’t know enough about the latter two to say whether they qualify as a ‘codified system’.) While these examples are radically different from European writing systems, they are able to fulfill many of the same functions including recording history, religious mythology/rituals, tax records, military provisions, and many other functions. This ties back to my first caveat, that pre-Columbian American Indian cultures were way more complex than most people realize.

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Last Update: September 22, 2016

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