Why was the New World slower at developing technology?

11 July 2010

Question

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?

Answer

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

Jeff - First, I think it's 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, it's very simplistic to say that the Americas are not as technologically sophisticated in other terms.

Diana - 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 it's 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 doesn't 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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