1491: The Old New World

All of this is speculative, to say the least, and may well be wrong. Next year geologists may decide the ice-free corridor was passable, after all. Or more hunting sites could turn up. What seems unlikely to be undone is the awareness that Native Americans may have been in the Americas for twenty thousand or even thirty thousand years. Given that the Ice Age made Europe north of the Loire Valley uninhabitable until some eighteen thousand years ago, the Western Hemisphere should perhaps no longer be described as the “New World.” Britain, home of my ancestor Billington, was empty until about 12,500 B.C., because it was still covered by glaciers. If Monte Verde is correct, as most believe, people were thriving from Alaska to Chile while much of northern Europe was still empty of mankind and its works.

In college I read a one-volume history of the world by the distinguished historian William H. McNeill. Called, simply enough, A World History, and published in 1967, it began with what McNeill and most other historians then considered the four wellsprings of human civilization: the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, in modern Iraq, home of Sumer, oldest of all complex polities; the Nile Delta, in Egypt; the Indus Valley, in Pakistan; and, in east central China, the valley of the Huang He, more familiar to Westerners as the Yellow River. If McNeill were writing A World History today, discoveries like those at Huaricanga would force him to add two more areas to the book. The first and better known is Mesoamerica, where half a dozen societies, the Olmec first among them, rose in the centuries before Christ. The second is the Peruvian littoral, home of a much older civilization that has come to light only in the twenty-first century.

Mesoamerica would deserve its place in the human pantheon if its inhabitants had only created maize, in terms of harvest weight the world’s most important crop. But the inhabitants of Mexico and northern Central America also developed tomatoes, now basic to Italian cuisine; peppers, essential to Thai and Indian food; all the world’s squashes (except for a few domesticated in the United States); and many of the beans on dinner plates around the world. One writer has estimated that Indians developed three-fifths of the crops now in cultivation, most of them in Mesoamerica. Having secured their food supply, Mesoamerican societies turned to intellectual pursuits. In a millennium or less, a comparatively short time, they invented their own writing, astronomy, and mathematics, including the zero.

A few decades ago, many researchers would have included jump-starting Andean civilization on the honor roll of Mesoamerican accomplishments. The Olmec, it was proposed, visited Peru, and the locals, dutiful students, copied their example. Today we know that technologically sophisticated societies arose in Peru first—the starting date, to archaeologists’ surprise, keeps getting pushed back. Between 3200 and 2500 B.C., large-scale public buildings, the temple at Huaricanga among them, rose up in at least seven settlements on the Peruvian coast—an extraordinary efflorescence for that time and place. When the people of the Norte Chico were building these cities, there was only one other urban complex on earth: Sumer.

—Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

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1491: Filling in the Blanks

Western scholars have written histories of the world since at least the twelfth century. As children of their own societies, these early historians naturally emphasized the culture they knew best, the culture their readership most wanted to hear about. But over time they added the stories of other places in the world: chapters about China, India, Persia, Japan, and other places. Researchers tipped their hats to non-Western accomplishments in the sciences and arts. Sometimes the effort was grudging or minimal, but the vacant reaches in the human tale slowly contracted.

One way to sum up the new scholarship is to say that it has begun, at last, to fill in one of the biggest blanks in history: the Western Hemisphere before 1492. It was, in the current view, a thriving, stunningly diverse place, a tumult of languages, trade, and culture, a region where tens of millions of people loved and hated and worshipped as people do everywhere. Much of this world vanished after Columbus, swept away by disease and subjugation. So thorough was the erasure that within a few generations neither conqueror nor conquered knew that this world had existed. Now, though, it is returning to view. It seems incumbent on us to take a look.

—Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

I’ve only read the first chapter of this book and already I am amazed. Of course I knew about the Aztecs, Maya, and Inca, but apparently they are only the tip of the iceberg. The jungles, plains, and mountains of Central and South America are only just beginning to give up their secrets. Massive urban complexes have recently been discovered in unlikely places, and there are surely more to come. Perhaps we should call this the Age of Rediscovery.

[Techie note: I’m trying a new quotation style. The default style is too difficult to read, don’t you think?]

Derek Price, King of the Autodidacts

[Derek de Solla Price] was born in 1922 to Philip Price, a tailor, and Fanny de Solla, a singer. The couple didn’t have many material possessions, but they had enough money to indulge their young son in his love of Meccano, which was all the rage at the time. With enough ingenuity, the red and green painted girders, pulleys and cogs could be built into pretty much anything a boy could imagine—a bridge, a crane, a car, a spaceship—and Price wasn’t short of either ingenuity or imagination. The toy instilled in him a passion for mechanics and for how things work, which stayed with him for life….

Despite his talent, Price didn’t have the money or the background to go to university, so he followed a less conventional route to pursuing the subjects that he loved. He got a job as a lab assistant at the newly opened South West Essex Technical College, which enabled him to study part-time for a degree at the University of London. The physics equipment there was one glorious step up from Meccano. Square and black with clunky dials and flickering green screens, the oscilloscopes, voltmeters and spectrometers were as heavy as stones, and packed full to bursting with valves and wiring. With such instruments you could make sense of things; you could measure the whole world! Price spend hours taking these devices apart, tinkering with them and putting them back together, until his fingers and his heart were intimately familiar with their workings.

He got his degree in physics and maths in 1942 and the college—seriously short-staffed because of the war—instantly promoted him to lecturer. He worked in one classroom often for eight hours straight, learning the curriculum as he taught it. He also carried out research for the military on the optics of molten metals, and the University of London awarded him a PhD for it in 1946. Once the war ended, however, there was no job for him in London… He accepted a teaching position at the young Raffles College in Singapore….

Singapore was wonderful and exotic and it inspired in Price a new love for oriental culture and its history. It also introduced him to the history of science. Raffles College acquired a full set of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society—the journal of Britain’s foremost scientific body, with such worthy members over the centuries as Humphry Davy, Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke. The college library was still being built, so Price seized his chance and took the beautiful calf-bound volumes home with him—into ‘protective custody’, he joked. Accustomed by now to teaching himself everything, he used them as bedtime reading, starting with the first volume from 1665 and working his way through.

—Jo Marchant, Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer—and the Century-Long Search to Discover its Secrets

Price’s reading of the Royal Society papers aroused an interest in the history of science, particularly the history of scientific instruments, especially clockwork and astronomical instruments. When he found out about the Antikythera Mechanism there was only one thing to do: go to Athens!

The Antikythera Wreck and Archaeological Oopses

I’ve posted before about the Antikythera mechanism, an ancient Greek clockwork device that could predict the positions of the moon, the sun, and the known planets. It was found in the first shipwreck ever to be explored by archaeologists, located on a thirty metre-deep shelf off the island of Antikythera in the Ionian Sea. For a long time the corroded lump of bronze was overlooked because of the other astonishing treasures found at the site, including large bronze and marble statues that have been displayed in Athens with much pride since their recovery in 1901.

As it was the first ever underwater archaeological expedition, pushing the limits of the diving technology of the time, things weren’t done in as scientific a manner as they would be today. The archaeologists themselves were not divers, so they never saw the artefacts in situ. Not only did they lose all of the contextual information associated with the objects, there were other unfortunate consequences:

Then the divers announced a further problem: part of the wreck, they said, was obscured by enormous boulders. After some discussion the archaeologists worked out that these must be rocks from the cliff above, dislodged at some time by an earthquake, and soon devised a strategy for shifting them.

The instructed the divers to dig tunnels underneath the boulders, then twine strong ropes around them several times, an arduous task that took more than 20 dives for each boulder. The other end of the rope was attached to the sturdy Mykale (brought out again from Athens for the task) which then steamed at full power towards the open sea. Once dislodged from the wreck, the boulders were to be released from the ropes, rolled down the slope and into the depths below.

But then the minister Staïs, who was visiting, had a startling thought. What if the ‘boulders’ were actually colossal statues, so overgrown and corroded that the [nitrogen narcosis-]befuddled divers, working in the dim light of the wreck site, had failed to recognize them? He ordered the next bolder to be brought to the surface—at considerable further risk to the ship. After some tense moments there was a cheering from the decks as it heaved into view through the clear water. It was a huge, muscular Hercules, complete with club and lionskin—eroded but still recognizable as similar in style to the world-famous Farnese Hercules, kept in the Naples Museum. Presumably, they preferred not to dwell on the statues that had already been rolled forever out of reach.

—Jo Marchant, Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer—and the Century-Long Search to Discover its Secrets

Oops. The statues were obviously seriously eroded—marble melts in seawater—but it is painful to think of what might have been lost. Though the shipwreck has been revisited since its original discovery, I haven’t found any sign of an attempt to retrieve those lost statues. For now, along with countless other ancient treasures, they remain the property of the sea.