8. Low Tech: The Absences of Many Old World Inventions in the New World
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8 Low Tech The Absences of Many Old World Inventions in the New World We of­ ten despise what is most useful to us. —Aesop, circa 550 BC From at least the time of the famed Columbia University anthropologist Franz Boas (1858–1942), the absence of a number of key (as well as less notable) Old World culture traits in the New World has been seen as telling. In 1961, George Kubler summed up the dominant point of view of his time (and to a great extent of today) when he wrote, “The diffusionists have never given any explanation of the absence of large-­ wheeled vehicles and of old world beasts of burden in America. Would these powerfully useful instruments not have survived the displacement more readily than Hindu or Buddhist symbols [proposed to have been introduced]? Between equivalent ­ peoples of differing traditions, tools and useful items travel much more quickly than symbolic forms.”1 What’s Missing in America The two missing-­ in-­ America items that Kubler forwarded are very far from being the only presumed pre-­1492 New World material absences. The US National Museum anthropologist Herbert W. Krieger’s list of 1935 included bellows, pottery glazing, the vehicular wheel, the crank handle, the potter’s wheel, stringed instruments, the rudder, kiln-­ baked brick, and the true arch. He added, “The conclusion is obvious, namely that the high cultures of America, like the more humble Amazonian tropical woodland cultures, are products of a long period of development entirely independent of Asiatic or Oceanic influence, not to mention that of the Af­ ri­ can Negro.”2 In addition to many of the above traits, A. L. Kroeber had (in 1923) also listed the following absences: proverbs, divination from viscera, ironworking, and oaths and ordeals. In 1945 he added philosophy, alchemy, writing, monasticism , eunuchism, and games of mental skill.3 With respect to the wheel, the screw, and the plow, he thought that “with no diffusion in these fundamentals, Old World Inventions in the New World / 81 evidence must be unusually complete before one can put faith in the diffusion of isolated items, especially when their occurrence is in parts of America remote from Asia.”4 Draft animals, milking, and coined money have also been mentioned as absences , and a long list of items in the realms of traditional technology and material culture could be added, in­ clud­ ing: true outriggers on canoes, planked and framed watercraft fastened with wood or metal, pottery floats, rowing, rigid shoes, skis, ice skates, the true chimney, gem faceting, glassmaking, porcelain, the sickle, the threshing flail, the threshing sled, risen breadstuffs, both chopsticks and forks, both beam and screw presses, the aboveground oven, pickling, felt making, the crane, the well sweep (shadoof), the bucket chain, the force pump, the vacuum pump, the siphon, the buckle and the belt hook, the safety-­ pin fibula, shoulder straps on burden baskets, the door hinge and the door latch and the door lock, roof slates and ceramic roofing tiles, most kinds of wood joinery (in­ clud­ ing casks and cribbed-­ log buildings) and associated tools such as the carpenter’s saw and the auger, coiled-­ metal springs, metal swords and knives, plate armor and chain mail, the ratchet, the pendulum, the razor, shears, certain weaving devices, soapmaking, the candle, the xylophone, the thumb piano, bagpipes, the pipe organ, multiarmed fig­ ures in art, short-­ term time-­ keeping devices, the ink pen, and acupuncture, among others. Some allegedly absent cultural traits were, in reality, present in the ancient New World, if not always widely or in the areas of highly elaborated culture. In some cases, these have only recently been recognized, after the aforementioned diffusionism skeptics had made their lists. For example, divination from entrails , a widespread but odd Old World practice, was performed in Peru as well. In late prehistoric north­ ern New Mexico and in parts of Mesoamerica, a crude lead glaze was used to decorate some pottery.5 A few jars with screw tops have been found at Mayan sites. Musical bows are used in some areas. Oaths and (rarely) ordeals in connection with criminal accusations were employed by certain groups of North Ameri­ can Indians.6 Hand-­ formed baked brick occurs widely at Maya sites in Tabasco (especially at Comalcalco), and there are a few reports from Oaxaca, Puebla, and México.7 More or less standardized (if not coined) copper-­ ax money was used in north­ ern Peru, south­ ern Ecuador, and Oaxaca.8...