9. More on the Whys of Technological Absences
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

9 More on the Whys of Technological Absences Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. —Carl Sagan, late twentieth century As the previous two chapters have highlighted, those skeptical of diffusion tend to make much of cultural absences, especially those involving useful organisms and technologies. For example, the British archaeologists Paul Bahn and John Flenley wrote, “The total absence and ignorance of woven textiles on Easter Island is damning evidence against any link with Peru. . . . A further argument against strong South Ameri­ can influence is the complete absence of the pressure-­ flaking technique on stone tools through­ out Polynesia.”1 Of course, the lack of suitable fiber and, on many islands, of suitable stone, could have something to do with these absences, even if contact did occur. Argumentum ex silentio or argumentum ad ignorantiam is a chancy matter in this context. In considering absences in the New World, it should be recollected that because of the severe depopulation of the post-­ Columbian Americas, many native societies disappeared or were reduced to mere vestiges of their former selves, and there was of­ ten considerable disorganization and cultural loss as a consequence. Thus at least some now-­vanished nonmaterial-­and even material-­ culture traits that had been present may have left no evidence of their previous existences, in which case apparent absences may be deceptive. Still, there is no question that many Old World traits were not present in the New World. What does this really say? A number of prominent diffusionist thinkers have addressed this issue of “missing” traits. Gordon F. Ekholm, for instance, stressed that every contact situation was unique and involved many variables and that, therefore, there can be few general principles governing the process.2 Great differences in degree of cultural elaboration militate against cultural transfer. His­ tori­ cally, material innovation has been largely elite driven, through elite-­employed artisans. Too, many “inventions” remained the exclusive preserve of such an elite—individuals who seldom opted to emigrate or even to travel overseas; as stay-­ at-­ homes, neither they nor their artisans would have spread 96 / Chapter 9 their privileging traits abroad. (Egalitarian societies, lacking the drive for dominance and display and lacking subsidized technicians, did relatively little innovating outside of that involving use of plant-­ derived substances such as drugs, poisons, and rubber.) The Know-­ How Gap: Absent Useful Technologies In making some of the points reprised in chapter 8, the art historian Douglas Fraser argued that useful innovations of­ ten fail to spread even to adjacent­societies. If we judge West Af­ ri­ can culture by the absence of wheeled vehicles, the plow, the true arch, draft animals and milking, then the well-­ documented Islamic penetration of the west­ ern Sahara cannot have taken place. For these traits are all well known in Moslem North Africa. . . . The ancient Greeks also [long] rejected [the true arch] though it was known earlier in Sumer, Babylon, and Egypt. . . . Moreover, such New World traits as the corbel arch, pyramid, and ball court, present in Meso-­ America, were not invariably adopted in adjacent areas to which diffusion is known to have occurred. Logically, then, the gaps in the New World inventory . . . are completely silent on the question [as to] whether or not significant contacts may have occurred in other sectors of human life.3 Many other instances of what to some seem inexplicable absences within the Old World might be forwarded. Despite contacts with those who did, sub-­ Saharan Af­ri­cans did not ride animals or have writing before the arrival of Arabs. Coined money, employed in India, was not adopted in most of the Hinduized areas of South­ east Asia, and most of the same region completely rejected the true arch despite contacts with arch-­ using societies.4 Indonesians did not employ sophisticated fishhooks, in spite of their use in surrounding regions and in spite of Indonesians’ engaging importantly in fishing. Although aspects of China’s technology strongly influenced some other regions , except in bronze metallurgy and military equipment very little effect of foreign technology on China before AD 1500 can be detected. Likewise, despite that country’s relatively influential position, centuries were required for many highly useful Chinese technologies—for example, the wheelbarrow, the crank, the south-­ pointing needle, the stern rudder, the Chinese lugsail (never fully adopted), gunpowder, papermaking, and printed texts, plus other, less useful items such as the kite—to be adopted in the West, despite significant interaction . The Chinese junk spread only very slowly...


pdf