Thoughts on Quantrill

Normally I like to do both the Anthropology Friday excerpts and my own thoughts at the same time, but this time I didn’t want to interrupt the narrative’s flow.

The first thing that struck me in all of this was that Quantrill had a considerable number of followers: he lead 450 men to burn and loot Lawrence, Kansas. Pretty good for a guy who wasn’t even in the army. We can explain Quantrill’s motivation in the burning by arguing that he was trying to earn himself a commission in the Confederate Army by proving to them that he was a good commander, but what about his followers? Surely most of them could have joined the (Confederate) army the regular way, without detouring through Kansas.

Even after the burning, when it was quite clear that Quantrill was not going to get a commission and most of his followers had left, he still had some. So did many of the other men we’ll meet in this series, from outlaw bikers to mob bosses. (And pirates as we’ve already seen.)

And while most people are not very fond of criminals, folks like Quantrill and Jesse James found plenty of “safe” places where the locals were willing to shelter them, help them, or at least look the other way and not report them to the authorities.

What was the difference, really, between Quantrill and a regular army commander? Or the guerrilla soldiers known as the Red Legs and Jayhawkers?

Although I was familiar with the phrase “Burning Kansas” from history class, I hadn’t grasped the conflict’s full depth until reading Dago’s account. I’ve never heard anyone from Kansas or Missouri speak ill of each other–whatever bad blood there was in the Civil War’s immediate aftermath seems to have worn off. In Dago’s telling, the Kansas/Missouri border was a burnt-out, lawless zone where blood feuds brought men down for decades.

And what was the difference between an outlaw like Quantrill and a conqueror like Genghis Khan? ISIS? The chief of a Yanomamo tribe? Queen Medb of the Táin Bó Cúailnge?

(The Tain, if you haven’t heard of it before, is an Irish epic that revolves around the attempts by Queen Medb to steal a particular bull from another Irish king, and the efforts of the Irish hero Cu Chulainn to stop her.)

After all, Quantrill, while officially an “outlaw,” had many followers–as did these other men (and woman.)

I propose a simple answer: Quantrill was an “outlaw” because the official powers-that-were declared him one. Had Quantrill been successful enough to attract enough men to his side to not only burn and loot Lawrence, but keep it, he would have been its ruler, plain and simple. Genghis Khan did little more than burn, loot, massacre, and rape, but in so doing he amassed an empire. But Genghis Khan’s enemies were probably much less well-organized and equipped than Quantrill’s–certainly they didn’t have railroads.

War is a universal feature of human society. Even chimps have wars, bashing each other’s brains out with rocks. Early humans had war; pre-agricultural tribes have war. (The horticultural Yanomamo have some of the highest homicide rates in the world.)

We moderns have this odd notion that “war” is an official thing which is officially declared by official governments (and what makes an official government? We could go in circles all day.) We believe that war has rules (or at least that it ought to): that it should be fought only by official soldiers on official battlefields, using officially approved weapons, and only targeting official targets. Anything not by the book, such as targeting women and children, using chemical weapons, hijacking airplanes and flying them into buildings, or fighting on behalf of a group that doesn’t issue uniforms and pay cheques, just confuses us.

But I guarantee you that Genghis Khan did not conquer one of the biggest empires in history by refusing to slaughter women and children.

Similarly, ISIS is nothing but a bunch of outlaws who’ve conquered some territory, but in their case, they have an ideology that justifies their actions and encourages other people to come join them, boosting their numbers.

While tribal, pre-agricultural life was full of war and homicide, it seems that groups rarely got too much of an advantage over each other. Rather, conflict was nearly constant–every so often a battle would break out and a few people would died. When conflicts were particularly bad, small tribes would band together against larger tribes until they balanced out (or slaughtered their enemies.) When conditions approved, tribes split up and people went their own way (until they got into conflicts with each other and the cycle repeated.) But occasionally one tribe developed (or obtained) a distinct advantage over the others: armies mounted on horseback dominated less mobile units. Armies with guns massacred people who had none. Vikings, Spaniards, and later Englishmen built boats which let them conquer large swathes of the world. Etc.

Our present state of relative peace (compared to our ancestors) is due to the fact that all of this conquering eventually led to the amalgamation of large enough states with large enough armies that we now have few enemies willing to take the risk of attacking us. We have nukes; as a result, few formal states with formal armies are willing to attack us. This state of mutual balance is–for now–holding for the developed world.

This state of peace is not guaranteed to last.

I noticed back in The Walls Tear Themselves Down that borders are ironically places of disorder. As Dago notes, criminals take advantage of borders–and stateless zones–to escape from law enforcement.

On a related note, Saul Montes-Bradley has an interesting post about Islamic terrorist groups raising money via drug trade in Latin America:

The tentacles of Jihad extend further than most people realize. …

In particular in South American countries, long the allies of Middle Eastern Fascism, terrorist organizations find support and, most grievously financing. Indeed, the second largest source of financing for Hezballat[1] is drug trafficking and smuggling between Argentina, Paraguay and Chile, often under the protection of local government officials.

This feature of borders will be showing up a lot in the next few Anthropology Fridays.



So I’ve been doing a long project on crime/criminals. So far I’ve read about pirates, Angola Prison, horseback outlaws, outlaw motorcycle clubs, and currently, the mafia.

The books are good, but this is not light reading. After reading about meth whores abusing their kids for a chapter or two, you find yourself wanting to head over to the nearest church.

And I’ve got two and a half books left to go.

Obviously I don’t like crime. Few people do. I’d like for criminals to go away.

I also don’t want non-criminals accidentally imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. I don’t want petty criminals over-punished for minor crimes that don’t warrant it. I don’t want a system where some people have access to good lawyers and a shot at “justice” and some people don’t.

I wish we could talk about crime, and the police, and the justice system, and how all of that should work, and subjects like “do the police shoot people inappropriately?” without getting dragged into the poison of tribal political bickering. I especially don’t like the idea that as a result of people trying to prevent one form of murder (police shootings), far more people have ended up being murdered by common criminals. (At least, that’s what the data looks like.)

Obviously we live in an imperfect world with imperfect people in which there may in fact be a trade off between level of police / justice system violence and level of criminal violence. If you have 10 suspects and you know 5 are serial killers but you don’t know which 5, imprisoning all 10 will get the killers off the streets but also imprison 5 innocents, while freeing all of them will result in a bunch more murders. It would be nice to be perfect, but we’re not. We’re humans.

I think there are a lot of problems with the way the legal/justice system operates, but I don’t see how we’re going to get anywhere with fixing it. People need to be genuinely motivated to make it better, not just tribally interested in taking a side over BLM. And most people really aren’t interested in fixing it.

And then there’s the criminal side. (Oh, and on a related note: Portland Deletes Its Gang List for Having Too Many Blacks)

I’m often reminded of a passage in Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day (which I read ages ago) in which he expressed frustration at his fellow academics. You see, Venkatesh was doing street-level, real live research in–I think it was Chicago–by actually going into ghetto neighborhoods and making friends with the people, interacting with them, seeing what their lives were really like. At the same time, Venkatesh was a university student studying “poverty” or something like that, and so would frequently attend lectures by academic types talking about ways to address poverty or fight poverty or what have you, and it was obvious to him that many of these lecturers had no idea what they were talking about.

And really, people do this a lot. They propose a bunch of feel-good solutions to problems they don’t actually understand.

This is pretty much all of politics, really.

I remember a conversation with a well-meaning liberal acquaintance that occurred shortly after I finished Phillipe Bourgeois’s In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in el Barrio. She suggested that better public transportation networks would help poor people get to resources like public museums, which would enrich their lives. I thought this was a stupid response. People trying to make ends meet by acting as lookouts for crack gangs or struggling to find a job after getting out of prison do not care about museums. I said something to that effect, and I don’t think she likes me anymore.

Deep down inside, I wish we lived in a kumbaya-world of happy bunnies frolicking in the forest and children holding hands and singing about how happy they are. I wish people were honest, and pure, and well-intentioned. I wish we could go to the museum, experience beauty, and feel connected to each other and history and culture. I wish none of us had to wear suits and that jobs didn’t grind up people’s souls and spit them out. I wish people could see the humanity in each other, because when we stop seeing that, we stop being human.

And to a large degree, we live in a very nice world. We live in a world with medicines and antibiotics. Where child mortality is low and mothers rarely die in childbirth. Where surgery is done with anesthesia. I have a comfortable home, lots of books, and plenty of food. I spend much of my time reading about times and places where these weren’t the norm, which makes me quite grateful for what I have. It also sometimes keeps me up late at night when I should be asleep.

It’s a good world, but it isn’t kumbaya world. It’s a world with criminals and idiots and mal-intentioned people. It’s a world that got to be good because people worked very hard to make it that way (many people died to make it that way) and it’s a world that doesn’t have to stay that way. We can ruin it.

While researching the previous Cathedral Round-Up, I came across what I think is a professor’s old Myspace page. Suddenly this professor went from “person who wrote really pretentious-sounding dissertation” to “human being.” They were a kid once, trying to figure out their place in this world. They looked sad in some of their pictures. Were they lonely? Outcast? Bullied?

I hate “dissertation language” and hate how simple (sometimes even reasonable) ideas get wrapped up in unnecessarily complex verbiage just to make them sound astonishing. I hate it on principle. I hate how the same people who talk about “privilege” use a writing style that is, itself, accessible to and performed by only an extremely privileged few. Much of it is self-centered drivel, and pretending it has anything to do with uplifting the pure is unadulterated hypocrisy.

All of this internet-driven SJW political signaling is really performative morality. When you are in the context of a real flesh and blood human being in your own community whom you’ll have to interact with repeatedly over the course of years, you’ll try to be faithful, honest, dutiful, loyal, dependable, etc., and you’ll value those some traits in others. Put us on the internet, and we have no need for any of that. We’re not going to cooperate in any meaningful, real-world way with a bunch of people on the internet. Morality on the internet becomes performative, a show you put on for a 3rd-party audience. Here the best thing isn’t to be dependable, but to have the best-sounding opinions. Status isn’t built on your long-term reputation but on your ability to prove that other people are less moral than you.

I noticed years ago that people on the internet often did not debate honestly with each other, but would lie and distort the other person’s argument. Why would they do this? Surely they couldn’t hope to win by lying to someone’s face about their own argument! It only makes sense if you assume the goal of the discussion isn’t to convince the other person, but to convince some other person watching the debate. If you get lots of approval from your adoring Tumblr/Twitter/whatever fans for saying all the right things and accusing your opponents of being all of the wrong, immoral sorts of things, then who cares what the person those remarks are actually directed at thinks of them?

And who cares if you are actually a good, decent, reliable, honest person?

As someone who writes a blog that often discusses other people’s work for the sake of my own audience, I must admit that I, too, am guilty here.

But hey, at least I haven’t put a meathook up anyone’s ass.

So I guess I’ll just end by encouraging everyone to go and be decent people.

Thermodynamics and Urban Sprawl

Termite Mound

Evolution is just a special case of thermodynamics. Molecules spontaneously arrange themselves to optimally dissipate energy.

Society itself is a thermodynamic system for entropy dissipation. Energy goes in–in the form of food and, recently, fuels like oil–and children and buildings come out.

Government is simply the entire power structure of a region–from the President to your dad, from bandits to your boss. But when people say, “government,” they typically mean the official one written down in laws that lives in white buildings in Washington, DC.


When the “government” makes laws that try to change the natural flow of energy or information through society, society responds by routing around the law, just as water flows around a boulder that falls in a stream.

The ban on trade with Britain and France in the early 1800s, for example, did not actually stop people from trading with Britain and France–trade just became re-routed through smuggling operations. It took a great deal of energy–in the form of navies–to suppress piracy and smuggling in the Gulf and Caribbean–chiefly by executing pirates and imprisoning smugglers.


When the government decided that companies couldn’t use IQ tests in hiring anymore (because IQ tests have a “disparate impact” on minorities because black people tend to score worse, on average, than whites,) in Griggs vs. Duke Power, they didn’t start hiring more black folks. They just started using college degrees as a proxy for intelligence, contributing to the soul-crushing debt and degree inflation young people know and love today.

Similarly, when the government tried to stop companies from asking about applicants’ criminal histories–again, because the results were disproportionately bad for minorities–companies didn’t start hiring more blacks. Since not hiring criminals is important to companies, HR departments turned to the next best metric: race. These laws ironically led to fewer blacks being hired, not more.

Where the government has tried to protect the poor by passing tenant’s rights laws, we actually see the opposite: poorer tenants are harmed. By making it harder to evict tenants, the government makes landlords reluctant to take on high-risk (ie, poor) tenants.

The passage of various anti-discrimination and subsidized housing laws (as well as the repeal of various discriminatory laws throughout the mid-20th century) lead to the growth of urban ghettos, which in turn triggered the crime wave of the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Crime and urban decay have made inner cities–some of the most valuable real estate in the country–nigh unlivable, resulting in the “flight” of millions of residents and the collective loss of millions of dollars due to plummeting home values.

Work-arounds are not cheap. They are less efficient–and thus more expensive–than the previous, banned system.

Urban sprawl driven by white flight

Smuggled goods cost more than legally traded goods due to the personal risks smugglers must take. If companies can’t tell who is and isn’t a criminal, the cost of avoiding criminals becomes turning down good employees just because they happen to be black. If companies can’t directly test intelligence, the cost becomes a massive increase in the amount of money being spent on accreditation and devaluation of the signaling power of a degree.

We have dug up literally billions of dollars worth of concentrated sunlight in the form of fossil fuels in order to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure in order to work around the criminal blights in the centers of our cities, condemning workers to hour-long commutes and paying inflated prices for homes in neighborhoods with “good schools.”

Note: this is not an argument against laws. Some laws increase efficiency. Some laws make life better.

This is a reminder that everything is subject to thermodynamics. Nothing is free.

Piracy, Bandits, and Civilization

While reading The Pirates Own Book, I was struck by how much of history has been warfare and banditry:

Piracy has been known from the remotest antiquity; for in the early ages every small maritime state was addicted to piracy, and navigation was perilous. This habit was so general, that it was regarded with indifference, and, whether merchant, traveller, or pirate, the stranger was received with the rights of hospitality. Thus Nestor, having given Mentor and Telemachus a plenteous repast, remarks, that the banquet being finished, it was time to ask his guests to their business. “Are you,” demands the aged prince, “merchants destined to any port, or are you merely adventurers and pirates, who roam the seas without any place of destination, and live by rapine and ruin.”

Where men can make a living through violence and predation, they do. The only thing that stops them is other men strong enough to kill them:

The Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes, from their superior knowledge of navigation, gave into it most; and on whatever coast the winds carried them, they made free with all that came in their way. Canute the Fourth endeavored in vain to repress these lawless disorders among his subjects; but they felt so galled by his restrictions, that they assassinated him. On the king of Sweden being taken by the Danes, permission was given to such of his subjects as chose, to arm themselves against the enemy, pillage his possessions, and sell their prizes at Ribnitz and Golnitz. This proved a fertile nursery of pirates, who became so formidable under the name of “Victalien Broders,” that several princes were obliged to arm against them, and hang some of their chiefs. …

Charles the Bald, not having the power to expel him, engaged the freebooter, for 500 pounds of silver, to dislodge his countrymen, who were harassing the vicinity of Paris. In consequence of this subsidy, Wailand, with a fleet of 260 sail, went up the Seine, and attacked the Normans in the isle of Oiselle: after a long and obstinate resistance, they were obliged to capitulate; and having paid 6000 pounds of gold and silver, by way of ransom, had leave to join their victors. The riches thus acquired rendered a predatory life so popular, that the pirates were continually increasing in number, so that under a “sea-king” called Eric, they made a descent in the Elbe and the Weser, pillaged Hamburg, penetrated far into Germany, and after gaining two battles, retreated with immense booty. The pirates, thus reinforced on all sides, long continued to devastate Germany, France, and England; some penetrated into Andalusia and Hetruria, where they destroyed the flourishing town of Luni; whilst others, descending the Dnieper, penetrated even into Russia.

The text goes on in this manner, and it is just striking how, for so many centuries after the fall of Rome, Europeans lived in constant fear of bandits, with no force strong enough to secure the sea lanes and borders. And even the rulers themselves are, in many cases, ex-bandits themselves: barbarian conquerors .

Genghis Khan

Once a group of bandits becomes strong enough to kill all the other bandits in the area, it settles in and starts taxing instead of stealing.

Even Genghis Khan, once finished conquering, began executing bandits, encouraging trade, and securing the safety of his tax-payers. It is said that a woman carrying a bag of gold could walk, alone, from one end to the other of the Mongol Empire without fear or molestation–an exaggeration, I’m sure, but I know I wouldn’t want to incur the Great Khan’s wrath by robbing one of his subjects.

(In Power and Prosperity, economist Mancur Olson argues that, “under anarchy, a “roving bandit” only has the incentive to steal and destroy, whilst a “stationary bandit”—a tyrant—has an incentive to encourage some degree of economic success as he expects to remain in power long enough to benefit from that success. A stationary bandit thereby begins to take on the governmental function of protecting citizens and their property against roving bandits. In the move from roving to stationary bandits, Olson sees the seeds of civilization, paving the way, eventually for democracy, which by giving power to those who align with the wishes of the population, improves incentives for good government.[5]” )

We can even see this process occurring with ISIS (h/t Will @Evolving_Moloch):

From Brookings: Experts Weigh in: Is ISIS good at Governing?

Humans once hunted goats; today we feed them, give them shelter, and kill their other predators. As a result, there are far more goats than there would be otherwise. We still eat them, of course.

A government of sedentary bandits is still bandits, but at least they’re bandits who want the community to thrive. (Yes, taxation IS theft, but you should see the alternative.)
As a result, we take for granted a level of peace and safety that most of the world has never experienced.

Chimps fight wars. Neanderthals were cannibals. Homicide in primitive tribes was sky-high. You have twice as many female as male ancestors because the majority of men never reproduced.

Western society didn’t become peaceful by singing kumbaya, but by 1. top-down banning cousin marriage, which ended tribalism,

and 2. Becoming powerful enough to catch and execute the bandits.

We forget this at our own peril.

Existential Caprine


You were



There were predators

The lions could be confusing

But you were free

goat painting, Herculaneum

Then came men

Faster, smarter than lions

They killed the wolves

Brought you food

(The bread of slavery, they say, is far sweeter than the bread of freedom.)

And shelter

Children were born, safe from wolves, hunger, or cold

and you grew used to man.

Centuries passed

And it seemed you outnumbered the stars

Perhaps your sons disappeared

But was it worse than wolves?

You could almost forget you were once wild

Could you return to the mountains, even if you wanted to?

And as they lead you away

You ask

Did I ever have a choice?


To explain: The process of domestication is fascinating. Some animals, like wolves, began associating with humans because they could pick up our scraps. Others, like cats, began living in our cities because they liked eating the vermin we attracted. (You might say the mice, too, are domesticated.) These relationships are obviously mutually beneficial (aside from the mice.)

The animals we eat, though, have a different–more existential–story.

Humans increased the number of wild goats and sheep available for them to eat by eliminating competing predators, like wolves and lions. We brought them food in the winter, built them shelters to keep them warm in the winter, and led them to the best pastures. As a result, their numbers increased.

But, of course, we eat them.

From the goat’s perspective, is it worth it?

There’s a wonderful metaphor in the Bible, enacted every Passover: matzoh.

If you’ve never had it, matzoh tastes like saltines, only worse. It’s the bread of freedom, hastily thrown on the fire, hastily thrown on the fire and carried away.

The bread of slavery tastes delicious. The bread of freedom tastes awful.

1And they took their journey from Elim, and all the congregation of the children of Israel came unto the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departing out of the land of Egypt. 2And the whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness: 3And the children of Israel said unto them, Would to God we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full… Exodus 16

Even if the goats didn’t want to be domesticated, hated it and fought against it, did they have any choice? If the domesticated goats have more surviving children than wild ones, then goats will become domesticated. It’s a simple matter of numbers:

Total Fertility Rate by Country: Purple = 7 children per woman; Blue = 1 child per woman

The future belongs to those who show up.

Which future do you chose?

The big 6 part 6: The Vigesimal Olmecs

Olmec civilization heartland
Olmec civilization heartland

It appears that the Olmecs–our final civilization in this series (1500-400 BC)–had a vigesimal, or base 20, counting system.

Counting is one of those things that you learn to do so young and so thoroughly that you hardly give it a second thought; after a few hiccups around the age of five, when it seems logical that 11=2, the place value system also becomes second nature. So it is a bit disconcerting to realize that numbers do not actually divide naturally into groups of ten, that’s just a random culturally determined thing that we happen to do. (Well, it isn’t totally random–ten was probably chosen because our ancestors were counting on their fingers.)

Stela C, from Tres Zapotes, showing the date September 1, 32 BCE
Stela C, from Tres Zapotes, showing the date September 1, 32 BCE

But plenty of societies throughout history have used other bases. The Yuki of California used base 8 (they counted the spaces between fingers;) the Chumash use(d) base 4; Gumatj uses base 5. There are also reports of bases 12, 15, 25, 32, and 6. (And many hunter-gatherer societies never really developed words for numbers over three or so, though they easily employed phrases like “three threes” to mean “nine.”)

The Yoruba, Olmec, Maya, Aztec, Tlingit, Inuit, Bhutanese, Atong, Santali, Didei, Ainu all use (or used) base 20. Wikipedia suggests that the Mayans may have used their fingers and toes to count; I suggest they used the knuckles+fingertips on one hand, or in a sort of impromptu place-value system, used the fingers of one hand to represent 1-5, and the fingers of the other hand to represent completed groups of five. (eg, 3 fingers on your left hand = 3; 3 fingers on your right hand = 15.)

Mayan Numerals
Mayan Numerals

Everything I have seen of reliable genetics and anthropology suggests that the Olmecs and Mayans were related–for example, one of the first known Mayan calendars/Mayan dates was carved into the Mojarra Stela by the “Epi-Olmec” people who succeeded the Olmecs and lived in the Olmec city of Tres Zapotes. Of course this does not mean that the Olmecs themselves developed the calendar or written numbers, (though they could have,) but it strongly implies that they had the same base-20 counting system.

You can compare for yourself the numbers found on the Tres Zapotes stela (above) and the Mayan numerals (left.)

In base-10, we have special words for multiples of 10, like ten, twenty, ninety, hundred, thousand, etc. In a base-20 system, you have special words for multiples of 20, like twenty, (k‘áal, in Mayan;) forty, (ka’ k’áal, or “two twenties;”) four hundred, (bak😉 8,000, (pic😉 160,000 (calab;) etc.  Picture 13

Wikipedia helpfully provides a base-20 multiplication table, just in case you ever need to multiply in base-20.

The Olmecs, like the Egyptians and Sumerians, produced art (particularly sculptures,) monumental architecture, (pyramids,) and probably had writing and math. They raised corn, chocolate, (unsweetened,) squash, beans, avocados, sweet potatoes, cotton, turkeys, and dogs. (It appears the dogs were also eaten, “Despite the wide range of hunting and fishing available, midden surveys in San Lorenzo have found that the domesticated dog was the single most plentiful source of animal protein,[93]” possibly due to the relative lack of other domesticated animals, like cows.)

Cocoa pods
Cocoa pods

They also appear to have practiced ritual bloodletting (a kind of self-sacrifice in which the individual makes themselves bleed, in this case often by drawing sharp objects through their tongues, ears, or foreskins, or otherwise cutting or piercing these,) and played the Mesoamerican ballgame popular later with the Mayans and Aztecs. Whether these practices spread via cultural diffusion to other Meoamerican cultures or simply indicate some shared cultural ancestry, I don’t know.

Their sculptures are particularly interesting and display a sophisticated level of artistic skill, especially compared to, say, Norte Chico (though in its defense, Norte Chico did come earlier):



Another Olmec head
Another Olmec head
"The Wrestler," Olmec statue
“The Wrestler,” Olmec statue
Mosaic, La Venta
Mosaic, La Venta
Colossal Head of San Lorenzo,, Olmec
Colossal Head of San Lorenzo,, Olmec
Bird-shaped jug
Bird-shaped jug
Olmec baby statue
Olmec baby statue
Olmec mask
Olmec mask
Man holding a were-jaguar baby
Man holding a were-jaguar baby
Indigenous Mexican man and Olmec statue
Indigenous Mexican man and Olmec statue, from Johnson’s Mystery Solved: Olmec and Transoceanic Contact

Frank Johnson, in his post Mystery Solved: Olmecs and Transoceanic Contact

A lot of people think the Olmec stone heads look a lot like Africans (and I can see why,) but–as lots of people have pointed out–they also look a lot like the local Indians who live in the area today, and so far I haven’t run across any genetic studies that indicate African DNA (which is quite distinctive) in any Native American population (aside from the DNA we all share from our common, pre-out-of-Africa ancestors, 70,000-100,000 years ago.) (There is one tiny isolated tribe over in Baja CA, [Mexico,] quite far from where the Olmecs lived, who do have some interesting DNA stuff going on that could indicate contact with Africa or somewhere else, but it could also just indicate random genetic mutation in an extremely isolated, small population. At any rate, they are irrelevant to the Olmecs.)

Frank Johnson, in his post Mystery Solved: Olmecs and Transoceanic Contact, goes through the laundry list of questionable claims about the Olmecs and does a great job of laying out various proofs against them. While I would not totally rule out the possibility of trans-Atlantic (or trans-Pacific) contact between various groups, just because human history is long and full of mysteries, the most sensible explanation of the origins and cultural development of Olmec society is the simplest: the Olmecs were a local indigenous people, probably closely related to most if not all of their neighbors, who happened to start building cities and pyramids.


The big six civilizations (part 5: China, Treasure Ships, and Eunuchs)


I doubt I need to tell you that China was one of the first six major, basically independent civilizations to emerge in world history, but it was surprisingly late compared to the others.

Anyway, this post is going to only briefly look at the Erlitou, as I assume you are already fairly familiar with Chinese culture, and instead focus on the voyages of the Treasure Ships. And eunuchs.

The Erlitou culture appeared on the Li river around 1900 BC. The largest city, also called Erlitou, may have been home to 18,000-30,000 people, before the capital got moved and most of the folks moved away. They may have been the somewhat mythical Xia dynasty, but there isn’t enugh evidence, yet, to prove the association either way.

The Erlitou people had pottery, (and potters’ wheels,) could smelt bronze, were making silk, and raising domesticated plants and animals such as wheat, rice, millet, pigs, and goats. (Rice was originally domesticated in south Asia, but had spread by this point to China.) I believe they also had some form of proto-writing.

They weren’t the first folks in the area–they succeeded the Longshan culture, which had small farming villages and probably morphed into the Erlitou–but they appear to be the first large polity.

Now that’s all well and good, but the interesting stuff came later.

The many helpful comments back on my post, the Hikikomori Nations, pointed me to the naval journeys of Zheng He, who commanded the Chinese navy, battled pirates, and sailed to Indonesia, India, and Africa back in 1405-1433.

Then, almost as suddenly as these “Treasure Voyages” had begun, they ended. Wikipedia explains why:

The treasure voyages were commanded and overseen by the eunuch establishment whose political influence was heavily dependent on imperial favor. However, within Ming China’s imperial state system, the civil government were the primary political opponents of the eunuchs and the opposing faction against the expeditions. Around the end of the maritime voyages, the civil government gained the upper hand within the state bureaucracy, while the eunuchs gradually fell out of favor after the death of the Yongle Emperor.

This left me scratching my head. Eunuchs were a political block in early 15th century China?

The Wikipedia page on Eunuchs helpfully explains:

In China, castration included removal of the penis as well as the testicles. …

From ancient times until the Sui Dynasty, castration was both a traditional punishment … and a means of gaining employment in the Imperial service. Certain eunuchs gained immense power that occasionally superseded that of even the Grand Secretaries. Zheng He, who lived during the Ming Dynasty, is an example of such a eunuch. Self-castration was a common practice, although it was not always performed completely, which led to its being made illegal.

It is said that the justification for the employment of eunuchs as high-ranking civil servants was that, since they were incapable of having children, they would not be tempted to seize power and start a dynasty.

*Mind boggles.*

Sun Yaoting, right, and his biographer, left
Sun Yaoting, right, and his biographer, left

The last Imperial eunuch, Sun Yaoting, died in December 1996.

Here’s an Australian article about poor Sun:

For centuries in China, the only men from outside the imperial family who were allowed into the Forbidden City’s private quarters were castrated ones. …

Sun’s impoverished family set him on this painful, risky path in hopes that he might one day be able to crush a bullying village landlord who stole their fields and burnt their house.

His desperate father performed the castration on the bed of their mud-walled home, with no anaesthetic and only oil-soaked paper as a bandage. A goose quill was inserted in Sun’s urethra to prevent it getting blocked as the wound healed.

He was unconscious for three days and could barely move for two months. When he finally rose from his bed, history played the first of a series of cruel tricks on him – he discovered the emperor he hoped to serve had abdicated several weeks earlier.

Sun was eight years old at the time.

The young ex-emperor was eventually allowed to stay in the palace and Sun had risen to become an attendant to the empress when the imperial family were unceremoniously booted out of the Forbidden City, ending centuries of tradition and Sun’s dreams.

“He was castrated, then the emperor abdicated. He made it into the Forbidden City then Pu Yi was evicted. He followed him north and then the puppet regime collapsed. He felt life had played a joke at his expense,” Jia said.

If you’re curious, Yinghua Jia wrote a whole book about Sun’s life, The Last Eunuch of China. (It has 4.5 stars.)

You know, growing up, I heard fairly frequently about Chinese foot-binding (done to women) and harems (in various countries.) There was a fairly frequent intellectual subcurrent of “historical cultures were mean to women.” NO ONE EVER MENTIONED THE EUNUCHS.

Okay, carrying on: so there were apparently enough men whose parents had thought it a good idea to lop of their genitals in order to get them a job that they constituted an opinion-making polity within the Chinese government, and got into conflicts with the Confucian scholars, who I assume hadn’t been horrifically mutilated by their parents.

The Treasure Voyages were thought up by the Eunuchs, and the admiral of the Treasure Fleet, Zheng He, was a eunuch:

Zheng He (1371–1433 or 1435), often spelled Cheng Ho in English, was a Hui court eunuch, mariner, explorer, diplomat, and fleet admiral during China‘s early Ming dynasty. Born Ma He, Zheng commanded expeditionary voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, Western Asia, and East Africa from 1405 to 1433. …

As a favorite of the Yongle Emperor, whose usurpation he assisted, he rose to the top of the imperial hierarchy and served as commander of the southern capital Nanjing (the capital was later moved to Beijing by the Yongle Emperor). …

Zheng He was born into a Muslim family.[7][10][11]

He was a great-great-great-grandson of Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, a Persian who served in the administration of the Mongol Empire and was the governor of Yunnan during the early Yuan dynasty.[14][15] His great-grandfather was named Bayan and may have been stationed at a Mongol garrison in Yunnan.[7] His grandfather carried the title hajji.[1][16] His father had the surname Ma and the title hajji.[1][7][16] The title suggests that they had made the pilgrimage to Mecca.[1][7][16] It also suggests that Zheng He may have had Mongol and Arab ancestry and that he could speak Arabic.[17]

Zheng He had a distinguished career in the army before becoming head of the Chinese navy.

It is generally accepted (based on Ming dynasty records) that Zheng He died in 1433 at Calicut in India during the return leg of the seventh voyage and was buried in Calicut or at sea,[48] although some theories, based on artifacts associated with him and believed to be from later than 1433, posit that he died shortly after that voyage in 1434[48] or early 1435.[49]

A tomb was built for Zheng He in Nanjing. This is usually believed to be a cenotaph containing his clothes and headgear as his body was buried at sea or in Calicut, but other theories exist as to whether Zheng He was buried in Nanjing, and if so, where. In 1985, a Muslim-style tomb was built on the site of the earlier horseshoe-shape grave.[50] He adopted the eldest son of his elder brother, who was awarded a hereditary officer rank in the imperial guard.

The voyages of Zheng He
The voyages of Zheng He

As for the Treasure Fleet itself:

The grand project resulted in seven far-reaching ocean voyages to the coastal territories and islands in and around the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and beyond. … The first three voyages reached up to Calicut on India’s southwestern coast, while the fourth voyage went as far as Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. Afterwards, the fleet made voyages farther away to the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa.

While the voyages did result in better maps, they weren’t exploratory, like Columbus’s–the Chinese were already well aware that India and Africa existed before they set out:

Chinese seafaring merchants and diplomats of the medieval Tang Dynasty (618—907) and Song Dynasty (960—1279) often sailed into the Indian Ocean after visiting ports in South East Asia. Chinese sailors would travel to Malaya, India, Sri Lanka, into the Persian Gulf and up the Euphrates River in modern-day Iraq, to the Arabian peninsula and into the Red Sea, stopping to trade goods in Ethiopia and Egypt (as Chinese porcelain was highly valued in old Fustat, Cairo).[11] Jia Dan wrote Route between Guangzhou and the Barbarian Sea during the late 8th century that documented foreign communications, the book was lost, but the Xin Tangshu retained some of his passages about the three sea-routes linking China to East Africa.[12] Jia Dan also wrote about tall lighthouse minarets in the Persian Gulf, which were confirmed a century later by Ali al-Masudi and al-Muqaddasi.[13] Beyond the initial work of Jia Dan, other Chinese writers accurately described Africa from the 9th century onwards; For example, Duan Chengshi wrote in 863 of the slave trade, ivory trade, and ambergris trade of Berbera, Somalia.[14] Seaports in China such as Guangzhou and Quanzhou – the most cosmopolitan urban centers in the medieval world – hosted thousands of foreign travelers and permanent settlers. Chinese junk ships were even described by the Moroccan geographer Al-Idrisi in his Geography of 1154, along with the usual goods they traded and carried aboard their vessels.[15]

Giraffe brought back on one of Zheng He's voyages, a gift to the Emperor from Somalia
Giraffe brought back on one of Zheng He’s voyages, a gift to the Emperor from Somalia

Nor was trade the main point, because Chinese merchants were already doing plenty of trade. Rather:

The Chinese expeditionary fleet was heavily militarized and carried great amounts of treasures, which served to project Chinese power and wealth to the known world. They brought back many foreign ambassadors whose kings and rulers were willing to declare themselves tributaries of China. During the course of the voyages, they destroyed Chen Zuyi‘s pirate fleet at Palembang, conquered the Sinhalese Kotte kingdom of King Alekeshvara, and defeated the forces of the Semudera pretender Sekandar in northern Sumatra.

There is some debate about exactly how big the Treasure Ships were, but the general consensus appears to be that they were some of (if not the) biggest in the world at the time, and carried about 27,000 people. (Total, not per boat.)

Due to bad record keeping (more on this later,) there is some debate (or spirited fantasy) about where, exactly, Zheng He (and other Chinese admirals) sailed:

He is best known for his controversial book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, in which he asserts that the fleets of Chinese Admiral Zheng He visited the Americas prior to European explorer Christopher Columbus in 1492, and that the same fleet circumnavigated the globe a century before the expedition of Ferdinand Magellan. …

Menzies states in the introduction that the book is an attempt to answer the question:

On some early European world maps, it appears that someone had charted and surveyed lands supposedly unknown to the Europeans. Who could have charted and surveyed these lands before they were ‘discovered’?

In the book, Menzies concludes that only China had the time, money, manpower and leadership to send such expeditions and then sets out to prove that the Chinese visited lands unknown in either China or Europe. He claims that from 1421 to 1423, during the Ming dynasty of China under the Yongle Emperor, the fleets of Admiral Zheng He, commanded by the captains Zhou Wen, Zhou Man, Yang Qing, and Hong Bao, discovered Australia, New Zealand, the Americas, Antarctica, and the Northeast Passage; circumnavigated Greenland, tried to reach the North and South Poles, and circumnavigated the world before Ferdinand Magellan.

Unfortunately, it looks like Menzies massively over-reached and doesn’t provide much proof, as many of his reviewers point out.

Our original question that started this whole quest was whether the Chinese discovered Australia (or New Zealand) before the Europeans. (And not Taiwanese-descended Polynesians, who obviously got to NZ first.)

According to Mega-Tsunamis, Chinese Junks, and Port Philip Bay (a very speculative article linked in the comments on the original post):

In 1450 AD, the catastrophic comet Mahuika descended upon the coast of New Zealand. Reputed to be twenty-six times as bright as the Sun, it discharged electrically and shattered Admiral Zhou Man’s Chinese fleet of some sixty ships. The fleet supported a thriving Chinese colony of Han, Tang and Song, mining gold, jade and antimony in New Zealand. The comet’s screaming noise blew out the sailors’ eardrums; they received horrific burns. …

These facts are recorded in the meticulous fifteenth century records of Chinese ambassador Zheng He. Historian Gavin Menzies claims that over nine hundred ships failed to return to China from Pacific expeditions in that tragic year.

I don’t know how much of this comes directly from Menzies’ work vs. other peoples’ speculations, but since Zheng He died in 1433 (or maybe 1435, at the latest,) I don’t think he was writing very much about comets in 1450. Further, I find it unlikely that Admiral Zhou Man was commanding a fleet of Chinese ships in 1450, given that the last Treasure Voyages ended in 1433, after which official Chinese sentiment turned against the voyages and the ships were left to rot in their docks. Wikipedia notes:

In the Ming court, the civil officials were the faction who were against the voyages.[143][156][168] In contrast, the eunuch establishment stood at the head of the fleet and the expeditions.[140][141][156][168] The civil officials condemned the expeditions as extravagant and wasteful.[168][169] Traditionally, they were political opponents of the eunuch establishment,[140][156][168] but also to the military establishments who crewed the fleet.[156] … On cultural grounds, the hostility came forth due to the trade and acquisition of strange foreign goods which stood in contrast to their Confucian ideologies.[171][172][168][169] The undertaking of these expeditions only remained possible as long as the eunuchs maintained imperial favor.[141][173]

The Hongxi Emperor was fiercely against the treasure voyages throughout his reign.[80] After the advice of Xia Yuanji, he ordered the cessation of the treasure voyages on 7 September 1424, the day of his accession to the throne.[93]

After 1433, the civil officials succeeded in halting subsequent maritime expeditions.[170] The ships were left to rot, while their lumber was sold for fuel in Nanjing.[170] The mariners were reassigned to load grain on barges of the Grand Canal and to build the emperor’s mausoleum.[170] After the voyages, subsequent Ming emperors would reject the Yongle Emperor’s policy of bringing the maritime trade into the structure of the tributary system.[140]

It also looks like there was some effort to suppress or destroy records of the voyages, (leaving ample room for folks like Menzies to speculate on what might be missing,) so that future leaders wouldn’t get the wrong idea and try to recreate them.


From 1405 to 1433, large fleets commanded by Admiral Zheng He—under the auspices of the Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynastytraveled to the Indian Ocean seven times. This attempt did not lead China to global expansion, as the Confucian bureaucracy under the next emperor reversed the policy of open exploration and by 1500, it became a capital offence to build a seagoing junk with more than two masts.[16] Chinese merchants became content trading with already existing tributary states nearby and abroad. To them, traveling far east into the Pacific Ocean represented entering a broad wasteland of water with uncertain benefits of trade.

While trade continued, official support and imperial navies did not, largely justified by the Haijin doctrine, which banned maritime shipping in 1371 and enforced to varying degrees over the years:

In the second month of the first year (1661) of Kangxi, the Qing court issued an imperial decree: The sea shore inhabitants will be ordered to move inland 50 li, to curb their links with the Taiwan rebels under Koxinga. Soldiers then moved in and set up the boundary: in just three days, all houses were razed to the ground and all inhabitants evacuated. … Warnings were placed on notice boards stating that “Anyone who dares to step over the border line shall be beheaded!” “Persons found a few paces over the border line, shall be beheaded instantly.”

This is, however, well after the time period we are discussing. It looks like the main reason the Treasure Voyages were canceled (aside from eunuchs vs. Confucian conflicts) is that the Mongols became a problem (the Mongols were frequently a problem, after all,) and China had to devote its energies to defending its land borders rather than sailing about the ocean.

Perhaps the best evidence either way would be maps:

Gangnido map
Gangnido map
Selden Map
Selden Map
page from the Mao Kun map, showing the South China Sea with Paracel and Spratly Islands
A page from the Mao Kun map, showing the South China Sea with Paracel and Spratly Islands

These are the maps I’ve found so far, none of which show Australia or New Zealand. The Mao Kun map is supposed to be based of Zheng He’s maps, and is divided into 40 pages, showing the coasts of China, India, east Africa, etc.

The Seldon Map, from the early 1600s, while very good, does not show Australia, and the Gangnido map (and its later, updated copies,) which people think may show the Arabian peninsula, Africa, the Mediterranean, and part of Europe on its left side, (but strangely, the Malay Peninsula and India were smooshed together into the left-hand side of the big China blob, according to the Wikipedia talk page.)

At any rate, it looks like Australia and New Zealand didn’t make it onto the maps until much later–if they were known to the Chinese, they were probably regarded as unimportant due to lack of valuable trade goods or political states to trade ambassadors with.

I find the difference between the official Chinese reaction to the Treasure Voyages and the European reaction to Columbus’s discoveries remarkable.


the big 6 (part 4: Norte Chico, Peru)

4. Norte Chico (Peru):

(Note: I cropped the photo, so the river is no longer visible) Photo from “Real History of the World,” but it also appears on a billboard at the site itself, so photo is legit.

According to Wikipedia,

The Norte Chico civilization (also Caral or Caral-Supe civilization)[1] was a complex pre-Columbian society around 3500BC-1800BC that included as many as 30 major population centers in what is now the Norte Chico region of north-central coastal Peru. Since the early 21st century, it has been established as the oldest known civilization in the Americas.

Picture 4We can debate about whether or not Egypt, Mesopotamia, and even the Indus Valley culture really arose independently of each other, but there’s no doubt that Norte Chico, the first known civilization in the Americas, arose all on its own.

Norte Chico is a pre-ceramic culture of the pre-Columbian Late Archaic; it completely lacked ceramics and apparently had almost no visual art. The most impressive achievement of the civilization was its monumental architecture, including large earthworkplatform mounds and sunken circular plazas. Archaeological evidence suggests use of textile technology and, possibly, the worship of common god symbols, both of which recur in pre-Columbian Andean cultures. Sophisticated government is assumed to have been required to manage the ancient Norte Chico.

From Ritual is Power, an archaeologist’s blog about Norte Chico

Norte Chico is located in a north-central area of the coast, approximately 150 to 200 km north of Lima, … It comprises four coastal valleys: the Huaura, Supe, Pativilca, and Fortaleza; known sites are concentrated in the latter three, which share a common coastal plain.

Unfortunately for me, Wikipedia doesn’t have much on Norte Chico; it looks like a lot of the discoveries are relatively recent and so haven’t yet made it into the article. This means I’ve had to dig through other sources, some more reliable (Peru Reports) than others (“dolphin space aliens built ancient pyramids in Peru!”)

I’m doing my best to get information from the more reliable sites, but forgive me if I mis-remember some speculation as fact.

Caral, Peru
Caral, Peru

Like Egypt and Sumer–but unlike the Indus Valley–the people of Norte Chico built monumental architecture (notably, pyramids, in much the style that you’d expect if you’ve ever seen a picture of a Mesoamerican pyramid, though their great age has rather reduced their grandeur.)

The Norte Chicoans built their pyramids by creating a large square wall of mortared stones, and then filling in the center with rocks transported in woven bags. (Given the state of the Norte Chicoan pyramids, despite the lack of inclement weather in the area, I suspect the Egyptian methods stand up better over the millennia.)


I suspect that early civilizations tended to build pyramids not because they were all secretly in contact with each other, but because if you want to add a second, third, or fourth story to a building, everything is less likely to fall down if you move each layer in a step. This results in the famous “step pyramid,” like those of the Mayans, Aztecs, early Egyptians, and Norte Chicoans. (Only the Egyptians, to my knowledge, went on to build real pyramids–ie, pyramids with smooth sides.) In other words, pyramids are just the easiest way to make a big building out of stone.

The Norte Chicoans used irrigation to raise corn, sweet potatoes, and other crops, plus they fished for anchovies. They also raised cotton, which appears to have been domesticated almost simultaneously in both the Indus Valley and Norte Chico.

huanca stones
huanca stones

I have also seen references to these intriguing stones–the huancas?–but not much in the way of explanations. (I don’t think the Wikipedia page mentions them.) If I were to hazard a guess, though, I’d suspect they were a sundial.

Unlike Egypt and Sumer–and only somewhat like the IVC–we’ve uncovered no evidence of Norte Chicoan math or writing, and virtually no art. They did not make pots (no ceramics) so they had no pots to decorate (and their textiles have disintegrated greatly over the years.)

huanca stone
huanca stone

In front of the pyramids of Caral lie large, round, sunken pits–amphitheaters, from the looks of them. Unlike the Aztecs, however, archaeologists have so far uncovered no traces of sacrifice in the pyramids or amphitheaters–nor evidence of defensive walls or any sort of warfare. It could be that Norte Chico just didn’t have the population density to allow for warfare or the execution of captured enemies. However, since the whole excavation was only recently begun and archaeologists often seem to have a bias for proclaiming the civilization they’re studying peaceful until proven otherwise, I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns out to be incorrect.)

decorated flutes
click for the larger view, because the designs are actually quite good–from The Development of Flutes in the Americas

Archaeologists have found a bunch of flutes with engraved decorations, (proving the Norte Chicoans had both a musical tradition and a sense of humor,) and a few pieces of art have turned up, eg, a decorated gourd shell that archaeologists are claiming represents a local deity (the link is to one of the more questionable sites, so I am not 100% certain of its veracity–if someone finds this photo in an archaeological source, I’d be grateful to know about it.)

Archaeologists recently found three small statues, possibly offerings left at the Vichama site. One of the archaeologists claimed:


“…the position in which the statues were found as well as the larger size of the priestess, who has 28 fingers and toes and whose face is covered in red dots, demonstrate the importance women played in the pre-Hispanic cultures of Peru.”

Personally, I think archaeologists are over-confident when they make statements like this. How do we know she doesn’t have 28 fingers because the artist messed up, or that they aren’t toys?

Quipu in use
Quipu in use

Wikipedia also claims that they have found a quipu in the ruins. Quipus are sets of knotted strings used by the Inca empire (among others, probably,) to keep track of numerical matters like “number of soldiers captured in battle” or “bushels of corn owed in taxes.” Think of an abacus made of string; 5 knots on string one = 5 bushels of corn; 5 knots further down on the string = 50 bushels of corn, etc. Different colors of string could represent different items.

Interestingly, the Incas, 5,000 years after the Norte Chicoan society began, still did not have written language. I don’t know how you run an empire without written language, but they managed.

(There is some question of whether quipus could have been used to encode more complicated data, like language, but I have tried this and found the medium limiting. You can make a code in which phonemes correspond to a certain number of knots, [similar to codes where A=1, B=2, c=3, etc.] but this becomes unwieldy very quickly. I count 28 phonemes in the Incan language, [English has, IIRC, 40,] which means that just to encode a simple word like “quipu,” with four phonemes, [kh-i-p-u.] Just giving each phoneme a value based on its order in the chart, kh=15, i=2, p=7 [probably] and u=3, or 27 knots just to make one word.

Using different kinds of knots obviously improves the situation, but it still takes a fair amount of string to encode more than a few words. So while I find it reasonable that words like “corn” or “soldiers” might be spelled out in the knots, I doubt many people bothered to write down entire stories this way.)

Since 4,000 year old quipus look a lot like piles of disintegrated, tangled string, I’m holding off on declaring that the Norte Chicoans definitely had quipus until I at least find a picture of the thing.

(The Incas didn’t really use quipus for math, but they had some interesting abacus-like boxes.)

Some more pictures:

Caral, Peru
Caral, Peru


Caral, Peru
Caral, Peru








To be honest, while it’s a fine start for a people moving from hunter-gathering to agriculture, I’m not all that impressed. Maybe someday we’ll find out more about these people and discover they had something really interesting going on, but right now, they don’t seem all that distinct from a lot of other groups.




The Big 6 Civilizations (Pt. 3: Indus Valley)

3. Indus Valley


Map of the Indus Valley Civilization
Map of the Indus Valley Civilization

The Indus Valley civilization (IVC) has got to be the most obscure of the big six. If you challenged the average person to list the world’s first six relatively independent civilizations, they’d probably guess “Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, China, and, um, Africa? Israel?” Eventually they might hit on “Incas and Aztecs/Mayans,” which are geographically about right. But few would guess that the Indus Valley, located in modern-day Pakistan and India, was one of the world’s first three big civilizations, predating the Chinese by almost a millennium and a half.

This is partially explained by random luck: Egypt and Mesopotamia both feature in the Bible and are relatively easy to get to from Europe, (Egypt moreso than Mesopotamia,) and early archaeology appears to have been driven largely by a desire to uncover the truth behind the Homeric epics and the Bible. (And I have a much easier time accessing archaeological materials written in English.)

China is an enormous, famous country that has the resources to promote its own heritage, and the cultures of the Americas are famous because they’re nearby and because they’re included in the history of the conquering of the Americas, which we learned in school.

Pakistan, by contrast, is hard to get to, not part of the American colonial narrative, doesn’t feature in the Bible, and doesn’t have China’s fame and resources. On top of that, if the Wikipedia talk page on the Indus Valley Culture is correct, Pakistan may not be all that interested in the IVC due to it not being Muslim.

India, by contrast, proudly claims the IVC as part of its history–the IVC page is “part of a series on the history of India,” but not “part of a series on the history of Pakistan.”

Additionally, the IVC, while it left behind plenty of cities, buildings, etc., did not build the kind of monumental structures that draw tourists, like the Great Pyramids of Egypt or Chichen Itza, Mexico. More than a thousand IVC cities or settlements have been discovered, many with granaries, public baths, hydraulic systems, and obvious urban planning (their cities are laid out in grids with excellent-for-the-time sewer systems,) but almost no enormous temples, castles, pyramids, or other obviously ceremonial sites.

Indus Valley seals
Indus Valley seals

Also, we have no knowledge of their language and have yet to decipher any of their written language–if they had a written language at all. (Everything you want to know about the IVC script and why we haven’t deciphered it yet.)

The Egyptians helpfully covered their temples in hieroglyphics and left behind so many written records that we have things like Egyptian math textbooks containing fictional, satirical stories about how to not be a scribe. From Mesopotamia we have the Epic of Gilgamesh.

But from the IVC we have only short inscriptions–if they are inscriptions at all–most on small seals. Most of these inscriptions are only a few characters long, greatly hindering our ability to decipher them. We don’t know what they mean, or even if they are a written language at all.

What we do know:

IVC_MapThe IVC (aka the Harappan, after one of their chief cities,) emerged around 3,300 BC in what is now  Pakistan and India. It lasted for about 2,000 years; then essentially disappeared, its people either merging into other populations or migrating away. Over a thousand Harappan cities or settlements have been identified, most of them in Pakistan but a few in Afghanistan and a contested number in India. (Since India is eager to claim the IVC as its own, there are allegations that Indian archaeologists are inflating the number of significant sites on their side of the border.)

(Afghanistan, of course, does not have the resources for archaeology, but it is also really dry, so there probably weren’t that many sites there to start with.)

The IVC likely descended from the Mehrgarh culture (see map). Mehrgarh was a small farming settlement founded around 6,500 BC:

The earliest farming in the area was developed by semi-nomadic people using plants such as wheat and barley and animals such as sheep, goats and cattle. The settlement was established with simple mud buildings and most of them had four internal subdivisions. Numerous burials have been found, many with elaborate goods such as baskets, stone and bone tools, beads, bangles, pendants and occasionally animal sacrifices, with more goods left with burials of males. Ornaments of sea shell, limestone, turquoise, lapis lazuli and sandstone have been found, along with simple figurines of women and animals. Sea shells from far sea shore and lapis lazuli found as far away as present-day Badakshan, Afghanistan shows good contact with those areas. …

In April 2006, it was announced in the scientific journal Nature that the oldest (and first early Neolithic) evidence for the drilling of human teeth in vivo (i.e. in a living person) was found in Mehrgarh. According to the authors, their discoveries point to a tradition of proto-dentistry in the early farming cultures of that region. “Here we describe eleven drilled molar crowns from nine adults discovered in a Neolithic graveyard in Pakistan that dates from 7,500 to 9,000 years ago.”


Harappan toys?
Harappan toys?

Major IVC cities include Harappa, Mohenjo-daro, Dholavira, Ganeriwala, and Rakhigarhi.

[Harappa] is believed to have had as many as 23,500 residents and occupied about 150 hectares (370 acres) with clay sculptured houses

… Harappan society was not entirely peaceful, with the human skeletal remains demonstrating some of the highest rates of injury (15.5%) found in South Asian prehistory.[11] Paleopathological analysis demonstrated that leprosy and tuberculosis were present at Harappa, with the highest prevalence of both disease and trauma present in the skeletons from Area G (an ossuary located south-east of the city walls).[12] Furthermore, rates of cranio-facial trauma and infection increased through time, demonstrating that the civilization collapsed amid illness and injury.

Distribution of haplogroup L of Y-cromosome
Modern distribution of haplogroup L-M20

Genetically, Harappan skeletons belong to haplogroup L-M20, which today is found primarily in Pakistan and the west coast of India:

In Pakistan, it has highest frequency in Baluchistan.[2] In India, it has higher frequency among Dravidian castes, but is somewhat rarer in Indo-Aryan castes.[3] They make a case for an indigenous origin of L-M76 in India, by arguing that the spatial distributions of both L-M76 HG frequency and associated microsatellite variance show a pattern of spread emanating from southern India. By linking haplogroup L-M76 to the Dravidian speakers, they simultaneously argue for an Indian origin of Dravidian languages (Sengupta 2006).

There is apparently some controversy over whether the invading Indo-Europeans (who brought the Sanskrit language to India) drove the Harappans out of Pakistan and into India. India’s a big place that can absorb a lot of people, but it looks to me like many of the Harappans stayed put.

Mohenjo-Daro, Pakistan

Meanwhile, in Mohenjo-Daro:

The Citadel – a mud-brick mound around 12 metres (39 ft) high – is known to have supported public baths, a large residential structure designed to house about 5,000 citizens, and two large assembly halls. The city had a central marketplace, with a large central well. Individual households or groups of households obtained their water from smaller wells. … Some houses … include rooms that appear to have been set aside for bathing, and one building had an underground furnace (known as a hypocaust), possibly for heated bathing. Most houses had inner courtyards, with doors that opened onto side-lanes. Some buildings had two stories.[citation needed]

The Great Bath of Mohenjo-daro
The Great Bath of Mohenjo-Daro

In 1950, Sir Mortimer Wheeler identified one large building in Mohenjo-daro as a “Great Granary”. Certain wall-divisions in its massive wooden superstructure appeared to be grain storage-bays, complete with air-ducts to dry the grain. … However, Jonathan Mark Kenoyer noted the complete lack of evidence for grain at the “granary”, which, he argued, might therefore be better termed a “Great Hall” of uncertain function.[13] Close to the “Great Granary” is a large and elaborate public bath, sometimes called the Great Bath. From a colonnaded courtyard, steps lead down to the brick-built pool, which was waterproofed by a lining of bitumen. The pool measures 12 metres (39 ft) long, 7 metres (23 ft) wide and 2.4 metres (7.9 ft) deep. … Other large buildings include a “Pillared Hall”, thought to be an assembly hall of some kind, and the so-called “College Hall”, a complex of buildings comprising 78 rooms, thought to have been a priestly residence.[citation needed]

Mohenjo-daro had no series of city walls, but was fortified with guard towers to the west of the main settlement, and defensive fortifications to the south. … Mohenjo-daro was successively destroyed and rebuilt at least seven times. Each time, the new cities were built directly on top of the old ones. Flooding by the Indus is thought to have been the cause of destruction.[citation needed]

Why is it all “citation needed”?

Dancing Girl of Mohenjo Daro
Dancing Girl of Mohenjo Daro

A bronze statuette dubbed the “Dancing Girl”, 10.5 centimetres (4.1 in) high[20] and about 4,500 years old, was found in ‘HR area’ of Mohenjo-daro in 1926.[20] … The archaeologist Gregory Possehl said of the statuette, “We may not be certain that she was a dancer, but she was good at what she did and she knew it”. The statue led to two important discoveries about the civilization: first, that they knew metal blending, casting and other sophisticated methods of working with ore, and secondly that entertainment, especially dance, was part of the culture.[20]

I think “dancer” is an overly-poetic interpretation of the statue, but it is a striking work.

"priest-king" statue, IVC
“Priest-King” statue, Mohenjo-daro

In 1927, this soapstone figurine, dubbed “The Priest-King,” (though we don’t know if the Mohenjo-daroians had priests or kings,) was found in a wall-niche in a “building with unusually ornamental brickwork.”

The sculpture is 17.5 centimetres (6.9 in) tall and depicts a bearded man with a fillet around his head, an armband, and a cloak decorated with trefoil patterns that were originally filled with red pigment. … Two holes beneath the highly stylized ears suggest that a necklace or other head ornament was attached to the sculpture. … Drill holes in the center of each circle indicate they were made with a specialized drill and then touched up with a chisel. The eyes are deeply incised and may have held inlay. …[22]

Dholavira, located in India:

Dholavira_LayoutOne of the unique features[14] of Dholavira is the sophisticated water conservation system[15] of channels and reservoirs, the earliest found anywhere in the world,[16] built completely of stone. The city had massive reservoirs, three of which are exposed.[17] They were used for storing fresh water brought by rains[15] or to store water diverted from two nearby rivulets.[18] This clearly came in response to the desert climate and conditions of Kutch, where several years may pass without rainfall. A seasonal stream which runs in a north-south direction near the site was dammed at several points to collect water. …

A huge circular structure on the site is believed to be a grave or memorial,[15] although it contained no skeletons or other human remains. The structure consists of ten radial mud-brick walls built in the shape of a spoked wheel.[15] … 

These hemispherical structures bear similarity to early Buddhist stupas.[5] The Archaeological Survey of India, which conducted the excavation, opines that “the kind of design that is of spoked wheel and unspoked wheel also remind one of the Sararata-chakra-citi and sapradhi-rata-chakra-citi mentioned in the Satapatha Brahmana and Sulba-sutras“.[5] …

Glyphs from the Dholavira sign board,
Glyphs from the Dholavira sign board

One of the most significant discoveries at Dholavira was made in one of the side rooms of the northern gateway of the city, and is generally known as the Dholavira Signboard. The Harappans had arranged and set pieces of the mineral gypsum to form ten large symbols or letters on a big wooden board[27] … Each sign is about 37 cm (15 in) high and the board on which letters were inscribed was about 3 m (9.8 ft) long.[28] The inscription is one of the longest in the Indus script, with one symbol appearing four times, and this and its large size and public nature make it a key piece of evidence cited by scholars arguing that the Indus script represents full literacy. A four sign inscription with big size letters on a sand stone is also found at this site, considered first of such inscription on sand stone at any of Harappan sites.[1]

More generally:

Indus Valley civilization was mainly an urban culture sustained by surplus agricultural production and commerce, the latter including trade with Sumer in southern Mesopotamia. Both Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa are generally characterized as having “differentiated living quarters, flat-roofed brick houses, and fortified administrative or religious centers.”[8] …
Distinctive seals were used, among other applications, perhaps for identification of property and shipment of goods. Although copper and bronze were in use, iron was not yet employed. “Cotton was woven and dyed for clothing; wheat, rice, and a variety of vegetables and fruits were cultivated; and a number of animals, including the humped bull, were domesticated,”[8] as well as “fowl for fighting“.[9] Wheel-made pottery—some of it adorned with animal and geometric motifs—has been found in profusion at all the major Indus sites. A centralized administration for each city, though not the whole civilization, has been inferred from the revealed cultural uniformity; however, it remains uncertain whether authority lay with a commercial oligarchy. Harappans had many trade routes along the Indus River that went as far as the Persian Gulf, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. Some of the most valuable things traded were carnelian and lapis lazuli.[10]

Obviously we don’t know much at all about IVC mathematics, but:

Excavations … have uncovered evidence of the use of “practical mathematics”. The people of the IVC manufactured bricks whose dimensions were in the proportion 4:2:1, considered favourable for the stability of a brick structure. They used a standardised system of weights based on the ratios: 1/20, 1/10, 1/5, 1/2, 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 500, with the unit weight equaling approximately 28 grams … They mass-produced weights in regular geometrical shapes, which included hexahedra, barrels, cones, and cylinders, thereby demonstrating knowledge of basic geometry.[18]

The inhabitants of Indus civilisation also tried to standardise measurement of length to a high degree of accuracy. They designed a ruler—the Mohenjo-daro ruler—whose unit of length (approximately 1.32 inches or 3.4 centimetres) was divided into ten equal parts. Bricks manufactured in ancient Mohenjo-daro often had dimensions that were integral multiples of this unit of length.[19][20]

And the rather incomplete Wikipedia page on IVC hydraulics states:

Among other things, they contain the world’s earliest known system of flush toilets. These existed in many homes, and were connected to a common sewerage pipe. Most houses also had private wells. City walls functioned as a barrier against floods.

The urban areas of the Indus Valley civilization provided public and private baths, sewage was disposed through underground drains built with precisely laid bricks, and a sophisticated water management system with numerous reservoirs was established. In the drainage systems, drains from houses were connected to wider public drains.[1]

Lothal, a port city located in India, contains the world’s earliest known docks, and may have been a Harappan colony, far from the heartland of the IVC:

Before the arrival of Harappan people (c. 3000 BCE), Lothal was a small village next to the river providing access to the mainland from the Gulf of Khambhat. The indigenous people maintained a prosperous economy, attested by the discovery of copper objects, beads and semi-precious stones. … Harappans were attracted to Lothal for its sheltered harbour, rich cotton and rice-growing environment and bead-making industry. The beads and gems of Lothal were in great demand in the west. The settlers lived peacefully with the Red Ware people, who adopted their lifestyle, evidenced from the flourishing trade and changing working techniques. Harappans began producing the indigenous ceramic goods, adopting the manner from the natives.[8]

And, typical of the IVC:

The uniform organisation of the town and its institutions give evidence that the Harappans were a very disciplined people.[12] … Municipal administration was strict – the width of most streets remained the same over a long time, and no encroached structures were built. Householders possessed a sump, or collection chamber to deposit solid waste in order to prevent the clogging of city drains. Drains, manholes and cesspools kept the city clean and deposited the waste in the river, which was washed out during high tide. A new provincial style of Harappan art and painting was pioneered. The new approaches included realistic portrayals of animals in their natural surroundings. Metalware, gold and jewellery and tastefully decorated ornaments attest to the culture and prosperity of the people of Lothal.

Most of their equipment: metal tools, weights, measures, seals, earthenware and ornaments were of the uniform standard and quality found across the Indus civilization. Lothal was a major trade centre, importing en masse raw materials like copper, chert and semi-precious stones from Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, and mass distributing to inner villages and towns. It also produced large quantities of bronze celts, fish-hooks, chisels, spears and ornaments. Lothal exported its beads, gemstones, ivory and shells. The stone blade industry catered to domestic needs—fine chert was imported from the Larkana valley or from Bijapur in modern Karnataka. Bhagatrav supplied semi-precious stones while chank shell came from Dholavira and Bet Dwarka. An intensive trade network gave the inhabitants great prosperity. The network stretched across the frontiers to Egypt, Bahrain and Sumer.[11] One of the evidence of trade in Lothal is the discovery of typical Persian gulf seals, a circular button seal[13]

I love these descriptions, but given the politics involved, I remain wary that the case may be overstated.

So what happened to the IVC? There are many theories, ranging from the far-fetched (“aliens nuked it”) to the perfectly reasonable (“shifting weather patterns made the area too dry.”) Invasion by the Indo-Aryan people could also have destroyed many cities. A massive flood hit Lothal in 1900 BC, which destroyed much of the city. Wikipedia’s description of the aftermath reminds me of the post-apocalyptic nature of the collapse of Rome:

Archaeological evidence shows that the site continued to be inhabited, albeit by a much smaller population devoid of urban influences. The few people who returned to Lothal could not reconstruct and repair their city, but surprisingly continued to stay and preserved religious traditions, living in poorly built houses and reed huts. That they were the Harappan peoples is evidenced by the analyses of their remains in the cemetery. While the trade and resources of the city were almost entirely gone, the people retained several Harappan ways in writing, pottery and utensils. About this time ASI archaeologists record a mass movement of refugees from Punjab and Sindh into Saurashtra and to the valley of Sarasvati (1900–1700 BCE).[17] Hundreds of ill-equipped settlements have been attributed to this people as Late Harappans a completely de-urbanised culture characterised by rising illiteracy, less complex economy, unsophisticated administration and poverty.

The Big 6 Civilizations (pt 2: Egypt)


2. Egypt

I know I don’t have to tell you about Egyptian civilization, but did you know the Egyptians had maths?

Problem number 56 from the Rhind Mathematics Papyrus (dated to around 1650 BC):

Egyptian seked
Seked of the Great Pyramid

If you construct a pyramid with base side 12 [cubits] and with a seked of 5 palms 1 finger; what is its altitude?[1]

Most Egyptian geometry questions appear to deal with more mundane matters, like the dimensions of rectangular fields and round granaries, rather than pyramids. (The Egyptians had not yet worked out an exact formula for the area of a circle, but used octagons to approximate it.)


Picture 4A “pefsu” problem involves a measure of the strength of the beer made from a heqat of grain, called a pefsu.

pefsu = (the number of  loaves of bread [or jugs of beer]) / (number of heqats of grain used to make them.)

For example, problem number 8 from the Moscow Mathematical Papyrus (most likely written between 1803 BC and 1649 BC, but based on an earlier manuscript thought to have been written around 1850 BC):

Example of calculating 100 loaves of bread of pefsu 20:
If someone says to you: “You have 100 loaves of bread of pefsu 20 to be exchanged for beer of pefsu 4, like 1/2 1/4 malt-date beer,”
First calculate the grain required for the 100 loaves of the bread of pefsu 20. The result is 5 heqat. Then reckon what you need for a des-jug of beer like the beer called 1/2 1/4 malt-date beer. The result is 1/2 of the heqat measure needed for des-jug of beer made from Upper-Egyptian grain.
Calculate 1/2 of 5 heqat, the result will be 212. Take this 212 four times.
The result is 10. Then you say to him:
Behold! The beer quantity is found to be correct.[1]

“Behold! The beer quantity is found to be correct,” is one of the most amusing answers to a math problem I’ve seen.

Picture 5The Egyptians also used fractions and solved algebraic equations that we would write as linear equations, eg, 3/2 * x + 4 = 10.

But their multiplication and division was really weird, probably as a side effect of not yet having invented a place value system.

A. Let’s suppose you wished to multiply 9 * 19.

B. First we want to turn 9 into powers of 2.

C. The powers of 2 = 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, etc.

D. The closest of these to 9 is 8, and 9-8=1, so we turn 9 into 8 and 1.

E. Now we’re going to make a table using 1, 8, and 19 (from line A), like so:

1        19
2        ?
4         ?
8         ?

F. We fill in our table by doubling 19 each time:

1        19
2        38
4         76
8         152

E. Since we turned 9 into 1 and 8 (step D), we add together the numbers in our table that correspond to 1 and 8: 19 + 152 = 171.

Or to put it more simply, using more familiar methods:

9 * 19 = (1 +8) * 19 = (19 * 1) +(19 * 8) = (19 * 1) + (19 * 2 * 2 * 2) = 171

Slab stela of Old Kingdom princess Neferetiabet (dated 2590–2565 BC), with number hieroglyphs
Slab stela of Old Kingdom princess Neferetiabet (dated 2590–2565 BC), with number hieroglyphs

Now let’s do 247 * 250:

The closest power of 2 (without going over) is 128. 247 -128 = 119. 119 – 64 = 55. 55 – 32 = 23. 23 – 16 = 7. 7 – 4 = 3. 3 – 2 = 1. Whew! So we’re going to need 128, 64, 32, 16, 4, 2, and 1, and 250.

Let’s arrange our table, with the important numbers in bold (in this case, it’s :

1       250
2        ?
4         ?
8         ?
16       ?
32       ?
64       ?
128      ?

So, doubling 250 each time, we get:

1       250
2       500
4       1000
8        2000
16     4000
32     8000
64     16,000
128    32,000

Adding together the bold numbers in the second column gets us 61,750–and I probably don’t need to tell you that plugging 247 * 250 into your calculator (or doing it longhand) also gives you 61,750.

The advantage of this system is that the Egyptians only had to memorize their 2s table. The disadvantages are pretty obvious.

Berlin Papyrus
Berlin Papyrus

See also the Lahun Mathematical Papyri, the Egyptian Mathematical Leather Roll, the Akhmim wooden tablets, the Reisner Papyrus, and finally the Papyrus Anastasi I, which is believed to be a fictional, satirical tale for teaching scribes–basically, a funny textbook, and the Berlin Papyrus 6619:

The Berlin Papyrus contains two problems, the first stated as “the area of a square of 100 is equal to that of two smaller squares. The side of one is ½ + ¼ the side of the other.”[6] The interest in the question may suggest some knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem, though the papyrus only shows a straightforward solution to a single second degree equation in one unknown. In modern terms, the simultaneous equations x2 + y2 = 100 and x = (3/4)y reduce to the single equation in y: ((3/4)y)2 + y2 = 100, giving the solution y = 8 and x = 6.