Saturday, October 26, 2013

Inca vs. Spaniard

Olduvai Stone Chopping Tool, 2M BC
The oldest technology is food production.   A few million years ago, humans chipped their first stone tools used to cut flesh, break bones, strip trees, and peel roots.  The nutrients our ancestors harvested using such tools set off a virtuous cycle of increased brainpower and better tools.  500,000 years ago, we were making handaxes, and, relatively soon, lasting art

Food production is at the center of any civilization.  Agriculture provides a surplus of calories which leads to population growth and a division of labor.  Soon after plants and animals were domesticated, humans created the first governments that paid craftsmen to create public art, like the statues of Ramses II.  Government bureaucrats needed a way to keep track of food distribution, which led to the invention of writing.  This same pattern can be seen in Sumer, Egypt, the Indus River valley, the Yellow River valley, Mesoamerica, and Peru--the so-called 'cradles of civilization.'

It seems odd to think of food as a technology, but it's hard to imagine an industrialized America powered by taro or sago, the foods domesticated in Papua New Guinea and that barely provide enough protein to live on.  According to Jared Diamond, our ability (or inability) to domesticate plants and animals throughout the world led to the drastically different rates of technological progress which, in turn, led to Europeans colonizing the world.  I recently spent a couple of weeks in Peru and visited a number of Inca sites, including Machu Picchu.  It was hard to understand how 168 Spaniards could defeat 80,000 Incas when the latter were able to produce incredible fortresses and stonework, like at Saksaywaman.  Why didn't the opposite happen?  Why didn't the Incas sail to Spain and defeat Charles V?

Making corn in the Andes ain't easy.
The short answer is: because corn took a long time to domesticate.  It wasn't until 2,500 BC that corn was domesticated and spread through the Americas.  Scientists still argue about how it was done, since modern corn bears no resemblance to probable progenitors, i.e., teosinte.  In contrast, wheat and barley may have been domesticated as early as 20,000 BC and were pretty much ready for the taking in the Fertile Crescent.  Furthermore, all five large domesticated animals (cows, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens) come from the Middle East.  Alpacas and llamas were domesticated in Peru, but they don't provide milk and can't be used as beasts of burden.

These differences in food technology gave Eurasia a long head start over the Americas.  They led to technologies like sailing ships and guns, and the close contact of many humans with many animals led to nasty germs like smallpox, which killed far more people than any Spaniards did (80-90% of local populations, by some estimates).  The Incas didn't even have written language (though they had a system of knots called quipu, which could be easily carried by messengers), so they could not read about Cortes's conquest of the Aztecs/Mexica.  They had no reason to assume that a tiny group of Spaniards could or would capture their king (who was a god, after all) and enslave them.

When I think of technology, I tend not to think about food (unless it's GMOs).  Maybe I'm too immersed in computers and code.  Historically, however, food technology has been a major factor--perhaps the biggest one--in how we live our lives.  I wonder if a similar history could be written about clothing or shelter.  In any event, it's important to put new technologies like Web 2.0 into perspective against long-term historical trends.  Is Facebook really the new corn?

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