Question of the Week

Why was the New World slower at developing technology?

Sat, 10th Jul 2010

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Levy, Israel asked:

Why is it when the Spanish came to "the New World" it was in a sort of "bronze age" (in general) as far as technology while Europe had Da-Vinci, the Renaissance, iron, guns etc. was it geography, religion, nutrition?



We put this question to Jeff Oliver, lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Aberdeen...

Jeff -    First, I think itís important to say that the popular perception would have it that the Americas were a backwater to the technological prowess of Europe.  But I think this is actually very simplistic and perhaps an unfair stereotype.  Speaking very broadly, part of this has to do with the development of very complex cultural, economic, and political formations which partly hinge on the development of agriculture.  In fact, in parts of the Americas and Europe we see very similar kinds of development.  Now in terms of things like guns and armour, things like that which perhaps allowed the Europeans an advantage early on, the difference here comes down to a number of factors that separate Europe from America.  Europeans were exposed to gunpowder - invented in China and effectively improved upon through the development of science, but I think once again, itís very simplistic to say that the Americas are not as technologically sophisticated in other terms.

Blunderbuss flintlock dragon pistolDiana -   So sometimes, you just have the sort of events that lead to you discovering how to make iron or how to make guns and this can change your entire technological development, but if agriculture is indirectly an important step in the development of technologies, why might the old world have developed agricultural before the new world?

Jeff -   It is interesting for instance, yes, we see earlier forms of agriculture in the Middle East.  We see it much later in North America.  This has got nothing to do with a unilineal notion of progress whereby all societies should follow on this sort of similar ladder of progress.  It comes down to very specific historical situations.  Probably in the Americas, it has something to do with fewer people.  We see less of a need for the development of agriculture earlier on in the Americas because we have less of a population than in places like Europe.  So itís almost certainly coming down to a situation like that.

Diana -   It may have been a lack of population pressure that meant agriculture came to the Americas much later.  The founding population of humans there is thought to have been very small indeed, at about 15000 years ago, but there could have been a whole load of other factors like geography and climate.

But we can't really say that the Old world was more advanced than the New when some societies there could still forge some rather impressive things out of gold or weave very fine textiles.  We had a few emails this week mentioning the guns, germs and steel advantage of European conquistadors.  And Deogratias said that trying to get the trajectory of new world societies to fit that of old world ones doesnít really work, but if you ask the question the other way around - why were the European invaders not so advanced?  You'd be asking about the differences in morals and values.


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Don't we sort of see the same thing today, in other places around the world?

chris, Tue, 6th Jul 2010

i think i got this-ability to farm,and domestication of animals are 2 things that helped the advancement of a culture-so when it came down to it geography mattered.more current times it comes down to 'guns,germs, and steel'.

yup i saw a documentary.  jazzderry, Wed, 7th Jul 2010

"Necessity is the mother of invention."

The "Old World" had plenty of problems, so people looked for inventive solutions.

The "New World" was quite happy as things stood. There was plenty for everyone. Geezer, Wed, 7th Jul 2010

How do the reasons that held back the new world historically compare with why some countries are behind the times today? chris, Thu, 8th Jul 2010

It might be very difficult to draw any comparisons with the present time. Travel and communications between the old and new worlds were so difficult that they were almost literally different worlds.

Today there really is only one world, so I would think the driving forces are very different. It's hard to imagine why anyone would start to develop technology from scratch when they can simply buy the products they want in the world market. Geezer, Thu, 8th Jul 2010

(I'm going to get lynched for this)
Don't forget that the old world stole the resources from the new world which held them back a bit. Bored chemist, Thu, 8th Jul 2010

But we generously gave them syphilis in return... chris, Thu, 8th Jul 2010

Jared Diamond answered this question exceedingly well in Guns Germs & Steel.
I don't think there is one answer, but ask why did Europeans excel at conquering others?
The age of conquest started when the traditional roads to the Orient were closed due to wars in the near east (nothing new here) and Christopher Columbus convinced the Spanish royalty to take a chance on finding a sea route.
These explorers were equipped with steel weapons, because coal and iron were plentiful in Europe, but not so much in the new world. As well, was there a need to use anything more than bronze in the Americas?
Europeans bred horses and dogs for warfare and were able to nourish the horses from plentiful fields of wheat, which the new world lacked. The Inca and Aztec had never seen an armoured man on horseback and believed them to be monsters when first sighted.
The Inca warriors developed fibrous tunics suitable for resisting sword cuts, but useless against Spanish muskets. Inca fighters had no training in fighting off the war-dogs leaping for their throats, and were frightened by cannon fire and trumpet blasts.
Diamond also noted how the story of the defeat of the Aztecs was written and published, then used as a hand-book by Pizarro in his campaign against the Inca. Had the new world civilizations developed a printing press or other form of distributing knowledge to the rest of the new world, then they may have been able to learn of the Spaniards' intentions and formed a better defense.
I hope I answered this question well enough in a few short paragraphs.
Now I ask a new question: If the Chinese were so smart in technology (inventing gun powder, compass, siege machines, huge naval vessels) why didn't they cross the Pacific to conquer the new world?
diverjohn, Sat, 10th Jul 2010

China was geographically isolated, and they had little reason to go far afield.

China was also a bit unlucky- their major coal deposits are relatively inaccessible, up a river that was not navigable to shipping, so the industrial revolution was very unlikely to start in China. In Britain, everything was fairly close together, Britain is geologically diverse, and fairly flat, and so all the needed materials were quite close together, and could be economically barged along canals. wolfekeeper, Sun, 11th Jul 2010

we are depending on dicoveries made in the 19th century till  2000.there is no change in fundamental inventions or there is no path breaking dicoveries in this 20th the progress is slow . dannypoy, Tue, 13th Jul 2010

Danny.  manned powered flight, nuclear power and weapons, the silicon chip and computing, genetic/bio-engineering?
imatfaal, Wed, 14th Jul 2010

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