Friday, June 22, 2012

Shamans and Shepherds

There's a fascinating new book out by Peter Watson called The Great Divide, exploring why the parallel human experiments of the New and Old Worlds turned out the way that they did. He takes up where Jared Diamond left off in Guns, Germs and Steel. As Diamond did, he covers the essential differences in climate, geography, geology, diseases, flora and fauna, etc., between the New World and the Old. Unlike Diamond, however, he puts the role of ideologies front and center. He argues that the above factors shaped differing ideologies in the Old and New Worlds, that the Old World had a greater diversity of ideologies, and that's why history unfolded as it did.

To oversimplify (based on reviews; I have not read the book), he argues that the thinking of the New World was shaped by the unpredictable weather and geological phenomena (monsoons, tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes), and the presence of a large number of hallucinogenic plants. This gave rise to a philosophy of the irregularity and unpredictability of nature, rather than something that could be dominated. Phenomena like human sacrifice were attempts to control the capriciousness of nature through mysticism. And hallucinogens like peyote and ayahuasca led to a more supernatural view of the world, including man's place in it. This view is typified by the shaman.

The Old World, by contrast, was shaped by the regularity of the seasons and of the flooding of the great river valleys. The Old World had many domesticable plant and animal species giving rise to the idea of nature as something that could be controlled and exploited for profit. It's no wonder the idea of money as interest-bearing debt arose here; plant a seed and harvest a hundred; breed a calf and get several in return (until drought and disease set in, that is). Metals are more present here, and the wheel, pastoral nomadism, waterways, and the uniform latitude of the major civilizations gave rise to numerous trading networks and empires. This view is typified by the shepherd.

Of course we know which views won out - it's the reason we use the terms New and Old World as we do. The book looks to be one of the must-reads of this year. Here are some reviews, courtesy of Marginal Revolution:
Ransacking the specialist literature from a collection of disparate fields – cosmology, climatology, geology, palaeontology, mythology, botany, archaeology and volcanology – Watson considers how ecology, broadly construed, shaped the evolution of human civilisation. He owes a considerable debt here to Jared Diamond, whose book Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the last 13,000 years, was an unlikely blockbuster in the late 1990s and started a trend for big picture histories that look at long-term climatic shifts as decisive factors of historical change.

Watson doesn’t have Diamond’s catchy three-word formulation; but he similarly argues that geography, climate and weather are inextricably bound to destiny. “The physical world,” Watson writes, “which early people inhabited – the landscape, the vegetation, the non-human animal life, plus the dominant features of the climate, of latitude and the relation of the land to the sea, determined the ideology of humans, their beliefs, their religious practices, their social structure, their commercial and industrial activities, and that, in turn, ideology. Once it had emerged and cohered, determined the further characteristic interaction between humans and the environment.”

Watson sees broad climatic factors as shaping forces of culture in each hemisphere. The dominant feature of the Old World was the “weakening monsoon”, which brought drying trends to the Eurasian land mass. This, in turn, led to seasonal fluctuations, which provoke the rise of fertility cults.

The Old World gave rise to the cultivation of cereal grasses; domesticable animals were used to plough fields and transport goods. Pastoral nomadism spread language and technology. As Watson notes, Eurasia is geographically orientated on an east-west axis. Climates are less varied there, animals and goods could move around with ease. Watson correlates religious mythology with natural events; the great Biblical flood, for example, might be traced to rising sea levels around 6000BC.

In the Americas, there were few such animals; primary foodstuffs grew year round, in marked distinction to cyclical Old World cereal crops. The land mass of the Americas was orientated on a north-south axis, with its major civilisations – Chavin, Moche, Olmec, Maya, Inca, Aztec – concentrated in the tropics. Violent weather brought about by El NiƱo, which unleashed freakish storms and winds on Mesoamerica. Central America is also at the juncture of several tectonic plates; earthquakes and volcanoes also wrought great damage. Gods were invoked to stave off the devastation, with little success.

Watson argues that the major civilisations of the New World were typified by a “more vivid religion” marked by shamanism and the use of psychoactive drugs to produce visionary hallucinations (the Aztecs used a mushroom called teonanacatl to produce temixoch, the “flowery dream”). and Watson writes “the sheer vividness, and the fearsome nature of some of the transformations experienced in trance, the overwhelming psychological intensity of altered states of consciousness induced by hallucinogens, would, among other things, have made New World religious experiences far more convincing and therefore more resistant to change than those of the Old World.”
The Great Divide: the role of environment in shaping ideologies (The National)
Anthropologists and archaeologists, as Watson points out, have generally preferred to emphasise the similarities between the various human cultures that have developed since the last Ice Age; but Watson himself is altogether more intrigued by the contrasts. Between 15,000BC, when the first humans crossed into Alaska, and 1492, when Columbus arrived in the Caribbean, there were two distinct populations of homo sapiens developing in parallel, each utterly unaware of the other. This constituted, in Watson's words, "the greatest natural experiment the world has seen" – and it is his attempt to trace it, and to draw apposite conclusions from it about "how nature and human nature interact", that constitutes the meat of this fascinating, ambitious and yet ultimately frustrating book.

The broad thrust of his argument, that civilisation in both the New and Old Worlds has been shaped above all by environmental factors, will be familiar to anyone who has read Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel (1997). The "Great Divide", in Watson's pithy summation, was between shepherds and shamans. The plentiful availability in Eurasia of animals just waiting to be domesticated ultimately led to the invention of the plough, the chariot, the wool industry and the pork pie. Meanwhile, what the peoples of the New World might have lacked in terms of horses or cattle was compensated for by a quite prodigious supply of naturally occurring hallucinogens. While the great intellects of Eurasia were busy inventing monotheism and the water-mill, their counterparts in the Americas were off their faces on drugs. This, combined with the fact that the New World is much more prone to extremes of weather and seismic activity than the Old, resulted in gods that were scarily in people's faces. "In the New World," so Watson argues, "the existence of a supernatural world was altogether more convincing."
The Great Divide: History and Human Nature in the Old World and the New by Peter Watson – review (The Guardian)
Watson's technique is to explore the connection between myths and historical and natural events. In the case of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden (onset of farming) and the Flood (probably the sea level rise of around 6000BC) the connection seems well-founded. In South America, he attempts to explain pre-Columbian ritual killing: "Only extraordinary events can explain what is to us the barbarity yet universality of human sacrifice".

Effectively, the book is a history of the world from 15,000 BC to 1500AD, and there is much that is truly illuminating. The more we know about the emergence of agriculture, the more plausible the story of Adam and Eve as an allegory of the change from the hunter-gatherer life to settled farming. A passage from Genesis ("I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; In pain you shall bring forth children") reflects the big changes that came with sedentism. Farming and a settled life allowed women to have babies every two years instead of the four usual in hunter-gatherer societies. There is evidence that the female pelvis is narrower in modern humans than in hunter-gatherers.

Watson's rationale for the different religions that developed in the Middle East and South America does carry conviction. In the Old World, the regularity of the natural cycles meant that supplicative religions could be said to work. If your existence depends on the Nile flooding every year or the arrival of the monsoon, and you engage in rituals to implore these life-giving waters to return, and they do – the ritual is consolidated. But in the New World, the climate was extreme, with terrifying unpredictable events such as volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, earthquakes, violent storms. The gods were unappeasable and human sacrifice became the last resort. A reinforcing factor was the abundance of hallucinogens in South America; thanks to them, "the existence of the supernatural world was... more convincing".
The Great Divide: History and Human Nature in the Old World and the New, By Peter Watson (The Independent)

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