Back around the time I was born, anthropologists sometimes talked about some cultures being more advanced than others.  This was before they decided that all cultures are equal,  except that some are more equal than others.

Anyhow, that kind of comparison can be interesting.  In the Old World, civilization arose first in the Middle East, and that heavily influenced later starts such as European and Chinese civilization.  Civilization in the Americas seems to have arisen completely or almost completely independently: there may have been some pre-Columbian contacts, but it looks as if the Amerindians developed agriculture and technology on their own.

I’ve been trying to estimate the gap between  Eurasian and Amerindian civilization.  The Conquistadors were, in a sense, invaders from the future: but just how far in the future?  What point in the history of the Middle East is most similar to the state of the Amerindian civilizations of 1500 AD ?

I would argue that the Amerindian civilizations were less advanced than the Akkadian Empire,  circa 2300 BC.   The Mayans had writing, but were latecomers in metallurgy.  The Inca had tin and arsenical bronze, but didn’t have written records.   The Akkadians had both – as well as draft animals and the wheel. You can maybe push the time as far back as 2600 BC, since Sumerian cuneiform was in pretty full swing by then. So the Amerindians were around four thousand years behind.

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57 Responses to Backwardness

  1. Konkvistador says:

    I think that overall there are striking similarities in the patters of development and indeed you can call some stages more or less advance. A minor quibble however is your mention of draft animals since I do think Jared Diamond is right on available animals making that easier for old world civ (I don’t doubt that given enough time descendants of the Llama might have filled that niche).

    • Matt says:

      Jared Diamond is right on available animals making that easier for old world civ

      They also make being a unsettled pastoral nomad or semi-pastoral nomad easier, which seems as likely to retard civilization (through people living this way being off the path to agrarian civilization and on the path of interacting with it by raiding it). And give rise to an increase in diseases. And the East Asian agricultural systems which went the furthest with eliminating draft animals (Japan is supposedly exemplary here) do not seem to have been retarded by this.

      Admittedly, animals seem to make it easier to move about and trade and spread ideas, but I’m not convinced that they are as important as Diamond makes them out to be, or necessarily a net asset to agrarian civilization.

      • billswift says:

        While Diamond’s books have a lot of fascinating facts, his overall theses are not really very well supported, largely because he started with what he wanted to prove and gathered data he felt supported it. For real science, you need to account for ALL the data, which he didn’t. He just ignored anything that didn’t fit his pre-established beliefs. I still recommend reading them, just for the trove of data they encompass.

      • jb says:

        I haven’t read Diamond’s book, but when it first came out I read an article based on it and was quite impressed with many of the ideas it contained. For example, it had never occurred to me that so much of the success of Eurasian societies could be attributed to the fact that so many native Eurasian animals, such as the horse, just happened to be amenable to domestication, while the Africans had no luck at all, and were stuck with wildlife like the zebra, which is by nature vicious and untameable.

        Shortly afterwards I went to see the Barnum & Bailey/Ringling Brothers Circus, and guess what? They had trained zebras! Their routines were noticeably less sophisticated than those of the horses, but still, there they were, trotting around in the ring alongside the horses, following orders, and not freaking out or biting anybody or anything. So…, maybe those were Eurasian zebras?

      • Nanonymous says:

        Ostrich was domesticated by a single generation of white farmers – something aboriginal Africans failed to ever do. Just like with zebra (original wild horses were probably not super docile either), there is probably no good reason why African elephant cannot be domesticated. Or African buffalo.

      • Konkvistador says:

        I was referring only to the use of draft animals as a measuring stick of advancement! Obviously its harder to get draft animals if fewer wild animals of that size are appropriate for domestication in your region.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      “Captain Horace Hayes, in “Points of the Horse” (circa 1893), compared the usefulness of different zebra species. In 1891, Hayes broke a mature, intact mountain zebra stallion to ride in two days time, and the animal was quiet enough for his wife to ride and be photographed upon. He found the Burchell’s zebra easy to break, and considered it ideal for domestication, as it was immune to the bite of the tsetse fly. He considered the quagga (now extinct) well-suited to domestication due to being easy to train to saddle and harness.”

    • Doug1 says:

      There were proto horses in North American when the ancestors of the Amerindians arrived over the Bering Strait, similar to early protohorses on the Eurasian steppe. The Amerindians simply hunted them to extension.

      As well why couldn’t they have domesticated the buffalo into an oxen strain and a more cow like one.

  2. Jason Malloy says:

    Peter Peregrine provided one quantitative estimate (p22: “New World-Old World Differences in Cultural Evolution”). See Figure 2.C.1 in particular. Looks like about 5000 years behind the Old World. Also noteworthy:

    “… while the evolution of overall cultural complexity occurred later in the New World than the Old World, and never attained the same level, the evolutionary process towards greater complexity apparently operated at roughly the same speed in both areas”

    • Matt says:

      That figure seems to indicate that cultural complexity was lower in the Old World in 1000 years before present than at 4100 years before present (that is 2000 BC). And that the gap in cultural complexity between the Old World at 2000 years before present and at 1000 years before present was as large as between the Old World and New World at 1000 AD.

      Does anyone actually think this is the case? Perhaps I’m just out of touch and don’t realize it.

  3. j says:

    The Egyptians started to build large temples and funeral monuments circa 2.600 BC, which agrees with your estimate. So Columbus arrived from four thusands years in the future.

    In the same vein, what about subsaharan Africans? By 1500, the Yoruba and the Ibo had developed stable states and produced bronze figurines. Could we estimate that the Portuguese sailors arrived from 7,000 to 10,000 years in the future?

    Another conclusion may be that all the different branches of humanity are advancing along the same track. Some have advanced faster yet the gap is not so dramatic: I mean, what is 4,000 years in a 70,000 thousand years history? We much focus on the differences, which are important, but from a distance, we are all more or less at the same point of our evolution.

    • Ian says:

      At least some sub-Saharan African societies knew how to make iron, and in Benin were able to raise levees to build very extensive earthwork defenses.

      African throwing knives look more lethal than anything the Amerindians had:

      The Zulus did get the better of the British force at Isandlwana, even though the latter had Martini Henry rifles and a couple of light artillery pieces.

      • j says:

        Ian has a point. May be the time-gap between Africans vis-a-vis Europeans was less than vis-a-vis American Indians. I dont know how to measure it. It is a fact that 500 years after the encounter, Africans are more numerous than ever and they are everywhere.

      • gcochran9 says:

        Excepting the use of iron, sub-Saharan Africa, excepting Ethiopia, was well behind the most advanced Amerindian civilizations circa 1492. I am right now resisting the temptation to get into a hammer-and-tongs discussion of Isandlwana, Rorke’s Drift, Blood River, etc. – and we would all be better off if I continued to do so.

      • Ian says:

        No, there was nothing in sub-Saharan Africa to compare with the architecture of the Mayans and Incas. Great Zimbabwe isn’t very great at all when compared to Machu Picchu or Chichen Itza.

        But it and the Benin earthworks compare favourably to Iron Age British structures like Maiden Castle and the brochs of Orkney.

      • Ian says:

        Nice review of the British Museum’s ‘Kingdom of Ife’ exhibition of historical African sculpture from 2010, written by the art critic Brian Sewell for London’s sole evening newspaper, the Evening Standard. Sewell is not noted for his political correctness:

        “To my sceptical eyes many of the small things in terracotta — a monkey’s head at slightly over two inches and a ram’s head at slightly under — are as much art, or as little, as the wretched pottery figures, crude and primitive, with which Antony Gormley’s myriad assistants make his various Fields, but among the larger heads, in stone and, particularly, in copper and copper alloys, are objects that to a European have great aesthetic beauty. These have the character of portraiture, of distinct racial types, of features scrupulously observed, yet at the same time there is a sense of deliberate style, of facial characteristics filtered by artists who had their peculiar ways of seeing and creating.”

      • Greying Wanderer says:

        The Pitt-Rivers museum is the coolest museum in the world.

  4. Matt says:

    Wasn’t the scale of social organisation larger in the New World than in comparably advanced Old World societies though? I’m thinking mainly of the Inca and the Charles C. Mann estimates of population size.

    I remember reading this post by Peter Frost last year, and I wonder if it is accurate –

    “Did (American civilizations) develop more slowly than Eurasian civilizations? Apparently not. Mesoamerican civilizations reached milestones in cultural development at a faster rate than did civilizations in the Middle East. The Zapotecs developed calendar and writing systems barely 1,000 years after their first permanent farming villages. In the Middle East, the time span was over 5,000 years.”

    That seems like the kind of information that would be lost by thinking of them as 3000 years behind.

    Still, making comparisons along a kind of linear scale of advancement between Old World and New World societies probably loses less information than many modern historians and anthropologists would think. Some information would be lost. Like for example, the fact that during at least the Aztec Empire and likely 1000 years earlier had had a form of macerated bark paper for a long time before the Hispanic conquest, while Old World civilizations which we might rank along the same level of advancement had papyrus or parchment at best (while those Old World societies were doing other things that the pre-Hispanic Old World civilizations didn’t). But probably less than a lot of the current arguments run.

    Comparisons between societies that are doing completely different things, like between Old World pastoralist nomads (and the socities in which this mode of subsistence shades into civilizations) and New World civilizations is where the concept of a general advancement vector in a society starts to break down a lot more and show its limits.

  5. dearieme says:

    When I was at primary school, we British were taught how far our ancestors – head-hunting woad-bedecked cannibals – were behind the civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Imagine my surprise when, as an adult, I was told that we had always held a profound, racist belief in the inferiority of all foreigners at all times. Funny, that.

  6. Don Strong says:

    Am reading Ian Morris’ “Why the West Rules–for Now.” It deals comprehensively and quantitatively with social and material development and their disparity over history. His indices might be useful for your project of measuring Amerindian disparities with Europe circa 1491.

  7. Jim says:

    To Matt – regarding the quote from Peter Frost – The Zapotecs followed the Olmecs who
    had both writing and the calendar so the Zapotecs may not have developed them originally.
    Indeed it is clear that the Zapotecs derived much from the Olmecs and like the Olmecs they
    used the Long Count. All Meso-Americans used the same calendar but only a few primarily
    the Olmecs, Maya and Zapotecs used the Long Count.

    • Matt says:

      Thanks. If true, I don’t know if that changes the relative period between the earliest villages and calenders (and what calenders are being used as a proxy for) but does make both somewhat earlier.

  8. dave chamberlin says:

    It amuses me to read by “serious historians” that the conquest of Mexico by Cortes was a million to one shot or some such language to the effect. The only serious flaw in this reasoning is this million to one shot happened to happen twice in a row. Pizarro conquered the Incan empire six years later and he led fewer men, faced larger armies and was further from Spanish outposts.

  9. Jim says:

    One thing to keep in mind about the Aztecs is that their empire was very recent at the time that Cortez encountered it. they had expanded quite rapidly in the 70-80 years just before Cortez from a very small territory. Nor had they been uniformly successful. The Tarascans had repulsed their invasion. So the Aztec Empire was not a long established well-consolidated state but a very recent and (as Cortez’ success shows) very fragile creation.

  10. bgc says:

    I had always understood that the Amerindians developed the first large scale, socially complex,sedentary ‘gatherer’ settlements – in the Pacific Northwest about 15,000 years ago – before agriculture developed in the Middle East.

    If so the Americas would have had a start on the Middle East in terms of societal complexity.

    Or is this incorrect?.

  11. Dan says:


    What do you make of the Solutrean hypothesis?

    There’s a new book that argues strongly in favor of it:

    • gcochran says:

      I don’t believe it. One skeleton with U5b mtDNA would change my mind.

      • says:

        Haven’t the Indians been covering up a lot of the skeletal remains and preventing researchers from accessing them?

        Isn’t it possible that the Indians invaded and genocided the Whites (Solutreans) who were the original inhabitants of the Americas and native to it way before the Indians invaded?

      • gcochran9 says:

        It’s even more possible that you’re insane.

  12. Steve Sailer says:

    Baker in “Race” (1974) has a 23 point model of cultural advancement. His view, as far as I recall, was that Meso-Americans were more anomalous than other groups — more advanced on some things and more backward on other things than most cultures where there was a higher level of correlation among the 23 points.

  13. Jim says:

    In reading about early civilizations in the Near East versus Meso-America I have been struck by the very different roles played by writing. in Meso-American cultures (including the Maya) writing seems to be largely a matter of monumental inscriptions glorifying the military conquests of the power elite. There is also some poetry and mythical material such as the Popol Vuh. There isn’t much eveidence of widespread knowledge and use of writing in common life.

    In contrast writing first appears in Mesopotamia hundreds of years before the first monumental
    inscriptions. The earliest writing seems to be commercial in nature with no connection to any polictical or relgious institutions of the day. As time goes on writing spreads into all facets of life
    both public and private. There are monumental inscriptions glorifying the power elite as in Meso-
    America however these form only a small amount of the surviving material. In addition to a huge
    mass of diplomatic and bureaucratic correspondence there is an enormous amount of private material – lots of commercial documents but also purely private letters providing a fascinating look into the day to day lives of common (though educated) people who were not at all part of the power
    elite. We have pharmocopoeias, how-to-do manuals on horse-training, graffiti, property labels (“Property of Joe Blow”) etc. We have a series of letters written by an Assyrian lady to her absent
    merchant husband entreating him to send her more money and complaining of her great difficulties
    running the family household without him and we have the Epic of Gilgamesh asking what is the meaning of life. In short a huge range of materials contrasting sharply with the seemingly very limited use of writing in Meso-America.

    Perhaps private use of writing in Meso-America used much more perishable media than the baked
    clay tablets used in the ancient Near East.

    • dave chamberlin says:

      the spanish methodically destroyed all the pre columbian writing they could, which was almost all of it. such a shame.

      • Zimriel says:

        Mainly the Spanish – Bishop Landa in particular – did that to the Maya.

        With the Aztecs, the Spanish methodically transcribed the material there into Romanised Nahuatl. That way they did preserve a lot of Aztec poetry and belles-lettres.

        I’ve heard a claim that Classical Nahuatl is better preserved than Classical Greek, but I don’t know if I’d go that far.

  14. Jim says:

    To Nanonymous – African elephants were domesticated by North Africans such as the Charthaginians. The Indians domesticated the Indian elephant. Domestic dogs are derived from the Eurasian wolf which doesn’t have a reputation for being very tame.

    • isamu says:

      Do you tards realize that taming and domestication are two very different things? No one has ever domestciated zebras, African elephants or ostriches. Only individual members of these species have been tamed.

      • Nanonymous says:

        Please provide your definition of domestication. The conventional meaning, according to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language:

        3.a. To train or adapt (an animal or plant) to live in a human environment and be of use to humans.

      • billswift says:

        If you draw a distinction between domestication as multi-generational and taming as working on a wild-born individual, domestication should be easier since you can breed for characteristics that make taming easier. See the Russian domestication of foxes over the last half of the twentieth century.

  15. Jim says:

    To Dave Chamberlin – The Highland Maya cities were destroyed long before the Spainish arrived and their existence was unknown until the 19th century. i haven’t read of any written material found there except for the standard monumental inscriptions glorifying the power elite.
    If writing was widely known in Meso-American in common life it is hard to believe that the Spainish could have so completely suppressed all knowledge of it. Runic writing continued to be employed in Scandanavia long after Christianization even though the Latin alphabet had a lot more prestige.

    • dave chamberlin says:

      The mayan codices, their written languange, was not completely destroyed, not only did it exist, there is enough remaining that it can now be deciphered. But it was the policy of the spanish to destroy it when they found it (usually written on bark) so very little of it remains.

  16. Jim says:

    Not only was most of the written material destroyed but all knowledge of how to read the written scripts in Meso-America disappeared very quickly. Some new material was written down for a while but then all knowledge of it is gone. I suspect that this was because knowledge of the writing scripts was confined to a very small elite class.
    In Scandanavia new texts written in Runic writing continued to be produced for centuries after the introduction of Christianity and the Latin alphabet and knowledge of how to read Runic writing never completely disappeared even after there was no production of new texts.
    Had writing been as widely known in Meso-America as in the Ancient Near East I don’t think the Spainish could have suppressed it that quickly and completely.

  17. Jim says:

    To Isamu – Semantics aside the important point is that North Africans and Asian Indians were able to get useful work out of elephants even if they couldn’t breed them in captivity.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      Ethiopians too according to the classical author Aelian. He says the Egyptians got their war elephants from Meroe and Axum which is modern Ethiopia iirc.

  18. Peter Frost says:

    Diamond argued that cultural evolution is faster on continents that have a longer east-west orientation. People (and hence ideas) tend to circulate within zones that are ecologically similar, and such zones are latitudinal. So this would explain why cultural evolution was so much faster in Eurasia than in Africa.

    But what about the Americas? North and South America are strongly north-south oriented. And unlike Africa, there was only sporadic contact with Eurasia. Yet when civilization came to the Americas it proceeded at a faster pace than elsewhere.

    This was true not only for Mesoamerica and the Andean civilizations, but also for what is now the eastern U.S. Around 100 BC, agriculture was still confined to the American southwest. The rest of the present-day United States was home to nomadic hunter-gatherers. By 800 AD, agriculture had spread throughout most of the central and eastern U.S. and into southern Ontario. By 1000, the Mississippi valley had urban centers that were each built around a central plaza with earthen temple mounds. These developments were accompanied by a suite of cultural innovations: skilled metalworking; food storage in pits and cribs; timber palisades and bastions; and formation of intertribal confederacies.

    What would have happened if the Europeans hadn’t shown up? It’s difficult to say. The main shortcoming of the Amerindian civilizations was that they had failed to develop a secular scientific culture. They had no sense of self-skepticism. Why do we do this and not that? They were like the Chinese but even more so.

    Some commenters mentioned Diamond’s point that sub-Saharan Africa has a lack of domesticable animals. This is to mistake the cause for the effect. They don’t seem to be domesticable because no one has bothered to domesticate them.

    In sub-Saharan Africa, the transition from hunting-gathering to farming was biased by a high level of female participation in food procurement and a correspondingly low level of male participation. Only one animal was domesticated, the Guinea fowl, and it was apparently domesticated by women. Men were more familiar with larger animals but had little motivation to domesticate them. Why bother? Raising and feeding a family was women’s work.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      “Men were more familiar with larger animals but had little motivation to domesticate them. Why bother? Raising and feeding a family was women’s work.”

      Necessity as the mother of evolution.

    • j says:

      North America is wide enough: it measures 4630.91 km from Eureka, California to West Quoddy Head, Maine. How much more you need to evolve? Does it make a difference if it was 10,000 km like Eurasia? By what mechanism continental width affect human evolution? Cant we think of something more credible?

  19. Jason Malloy says:

    Yet when civilization came to the Americas it proceeded at a faster pace than elsewhere.

    Peter Peregrine explicitly tested this theory using the Atlas of Cultural Evolution data set (see link above), and did not find faster New World development: … while beginning more recently than the Old World, it appears that the evolution of cultural complexity moved at about the same pace in both the New World and the Old.”

    Although given lower population size, N-S axis, etc, this is still impressive.

  20. Jim says:

    A clarifying remark about the Assyrian lady and her wayward husband. We can’t be sure that she wrote the letters to her husband herself. She may have paid a scribe to put her message in writing and possibly her husband paid a scribe to read them. In any case though writing was widely used in the Ancient Near East by non-elite individuals either directly or by paying professional scribes.

  21. Peter Frost says:


    Looking at Figure 2.C.1, I see a longer period of stasis in the New World than in the Old World (i.e., the hunter-gatherer stage), followed by a higher rate of increase in cultural complexity. That pretty well corresponds to my interpretation. I suspect, though, that the Amerindian civilizations would have eventually hit a plateau of cultural complexity.

  22. Ralph Hitchens says:

    These are fascinating questions, and I have a stupid one: the Carthaginians famously domesticated (or tamed) African elephants for use in warfare; were these the same as contemporary sub-Saharan African elephants?

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      The stuff i’ve read in the past called them African forest elephants and said they were smaller and went extinct because of overuse in war and arenas. If so i assume the ones the Egyptians got from Ethiopia would have been the same species – also extinct now i assume. Or it could be yet another small piece in the ongoing boas-lewontin-gould big lie.

      • Greying Wanderer says:

        Getting too cynical – should have googled first. The forest elephant still exists in the Congo so the argument would be the ones the Carthaginians used went extinct in North Africa rather than everywhere.

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