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.
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.
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 .
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.” )
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.
(The bread of slavery, they say, is far sweeter than the bread of freedom.)
Children were born, safe from wolves, hunger, or cold
and you grew used to man.
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
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:
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.)
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.)
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.
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,” possibly due to the relative lack of other domesticated animals, like cows.)
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):
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.
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?
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.
The last Imperial eunuch, Sun Yaoting, died in December 1996.
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.
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 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, 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 or early 1435.
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. He adopted the eldest son of his elder brother, who was awarded a hereditary officer rank in the imperial guard.
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:
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 SinhaleseKotte 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.)
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 Hevisited 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 captainsZhou 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.)
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. In contrast, the eunuch establishment stood at the head of the fleet and the expeditions. The civil officials condemned the expeditions as extravagant and wasteful. Traditionally, they were political opponents of the eunuch establishment, but also to the military establishments who crewed the fleet. … 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. The undertaking of these expeditions only remained possible as long as the eunuchs maintained imperial favor. …
The Hongxi Emperor was fiercely against the treasure voyages throughout his reign. 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. …
After 1433, the civil officials succeeded in halting subsequent maritime expeditions. The ships were left to rot, while their lumber was sold for fuel in Nanjing. The mariners were reassigned to load grain on barges of the Grand Canal and to build the emperor’s mausoleum. 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.
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 Dynasty—traveled 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. 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:
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 Norte Chico civilization (also Caral or Caral-Supe civilization) 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.
We 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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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?
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:
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 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 almostno enormous temples, castles, pyramids, or other obviously ceremonial sites.
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:
The 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.”
[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. 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). Furthermore, rates of cranio-facial trauma and infection increased through time, demonstrating that the civilization collapsed amid illness and injury.
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. In India, it has higher frequency among Dravidian castes, but is somewhat rarer in Indo-Aryan castes. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
Why is it all “citation needed”?
A bronze statuette dubbed the “Dancing Girl”, 10.5 centimetres (4.1 in) high and about 4,500 years old, was found in ‘HR area’ of Mohenjo-daro in 1926. … 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.
I think “dancer” is an overly-poetic interpretation of the statue, but it is a striking work.
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. …
One of the unique features of Dholavira is the sophisticated water conservation system of channels and reservoirs, the earliest found anywhere in the world, built completely of stone. The city had massive reservoirs, three of which are exposed. They were used for storing fresh water brought by rains or to store water diverted from two nearby rivulets. 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, 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.…
These hemispherical structures bear similarity to early Buddhist stupas. 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“. …
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 … 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. 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.
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.” …
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,” as well as “fowl for fighting“. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And, typical of the IVC:
The uniform organisation of the town and its institutions give evidence that the Harappans were a very disciplined people. … 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. One of the evidence of trade in Lothal is the discovery of typical Persian gulf seals, a circular button seal
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). 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.
If you construct a pyramid with base side 12 [cubits] and with a seked of 5 palms 1 finger; what is its altitude?
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.)
A “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 21⁄2. Take this 21⁄2 four times.
The result is 10. Then you say to him:
Behold! The beer quantity is found to be correct.
“Behold! The beer quantity is found to be correct,” is one of the most amusing answers to a math problem I’ve seen.
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.” 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.
Sumerian culture seems to have appeared as a fully formed civilization, with no pre-history. …
Uruk, one of Sumer’s largest cities, has been estimated to have had a population of 50,000-80,000 at its height; given the other cities in Sumer, and the large agricultural population, a rough estimate for Sumer’s population might be 0.8 million to 1.5 million. The world population at this time has been estimated at about 27 million.…
The Sumerians developed a complex system of metrology c. 4000 BC. This advanced metrology resulted in the creation of arithmetic, geometry, and algebra. From c. 2600 BC onwards, the Sumerians wrote multiplication tables on clay tablets and dealt with geometrical exercises and division problems. The earliest traces of the Babylonian numerals also date back to this period. The period c. 2700 – 2300 BC saw the first appearance of the abacus, and a table of successive columns which delimited the successive orders of magnitude of their sexagesimal number system. The Sumerians were the first to use a place value numeral system. … They were the first to find the area of a triangle and the volume of a cube. …
* “Babylonian clay tablet YBC 7289 with annotations. The diagonal displays an approximation of the square root of 2 in four sexagesimal figures, 1 24 51 10, which is good to about six decimal digits.
1 + 24/60 + 51/602 + 10/603 = 1.41421296… The tablet also gives an example where one side of the square is 30, and the resulting diagonal is 42 25 35 or 42.4263888…”
Commercial credit and agricultural consumer loans were the main types of loans. The trade credit was usually extended by temples in order to finance trade expeditions and was nominated in silver. The interest rate was set at 1/60 a month (one shekel per mina) some time before 2000 BC and it remained at that level for about two thousand years. Rural loans commonly arose as a result of unpaid obligations due to an institution (such as a temple), in this case the arrears were considered to be lent to the debtor. They were denominated in barley or other crops and the interest rate was typically much higher than for commercial loans and could amount to 1/3 to 1/2 of the loan principal.
Periodically “clean slate” decrees were signed by rulers which cancelled all the rural (but not commercial) debt and allowed bondservants to return to their homes. … The first known ones were made by Enmetena and Urukagina of Lagash in 2400-2350 BC. According to Hudson, the purpose of these decrees was to prevent debts mounting to a degree that they threatened fighting force which could happen if peasants lost the subsistence land or became bondservants due to the inability to repay the debt. …
The first six civilizations–Mesopotamia, Egypt, Indus Valley (Harappa), Andes, China, and Mesoamerica– are supposed to have arisen independently of each other approximately 6,000 to 3,500 years ago.
Of course, we can’t be absolutely sure they arose completely independently of each other–people from the Andes could have traveled to Mesoamerica and influenced people there, or people from Mesopotamia could have been in contact with people from the Indus Valley or Egypt. But these civilizations are thought to have probably arisen fairly independently of each other, as mostly spontaneous responses to local conditions.
I set out to research the big six because I realized that I know approximately nothing about the Indus Valley civilization, despite it actually being significantly older than the Chinese–for that matter, it turns out that Andean civilization is also older than China’s.
(Sorry this map is too small to be really useful, but the next one one is better:)
Interestingly, while Mesoamerica has corn and the Andes have beans, potatoes and peanuts, Egypt and Mesopotamia have… not a lot of locally domesticated crops.
It’s understandable how Chinese civilization, which got started much later, might have originally imported rice from further south. But if Egypt and Mesopotamia are the world’s first centers of agriculture, where did they get their wheat from?
Anyway, I have been reading about Gobekli Tepe, an archaeological site in the Southeastern Anatolia Region of modern-day Turkey, about 7 miles from Şanlıurfa, which radiocarbon dating suggests was constructed by 11,000 years ago:
[The site] includes two phases of ritual use dating back to the 10th – 8th millennium BCE. During the first phase, pre-pottery Neolithic A (PPNA), circles of massive T-shaped stone pillars were erected. More than 200 pillars in about 20 circles are currently known through geophysical surveys. Each pillar has a height of up to 6 m (20 ft) and a weight of up to 20 tons. They are fitted into sockets that were hewn out of the bedrock. …
All statements about the site must be considered preliminary, as less than 5% of the site has been excavated, … While the site formally belongs to the earliest Neolithic (PPNA), up to now no traces of domesticated plants or animals have been found. The inhabitants are assumed to have been hunters and gatherers who nevertheless lived in villages for at least part of the year. …
Hewing enormous monoliths out of the rock and then hauling them uphill to form some sort of mysterious structure that doesn’t even appear to be a house takes a tremendous amount of work:
But the construction of Göbekli Tepe implies organization of an advanced order not hitherto associated with Paleolithic, PPNA, or PPNB societies. Archaeologists estimate that up to 500 persons were required to extract the heavy pillars from local quarries and move them 100–500 meters (330–1,640 ft) to the site. The pillars weigh 10–20 metric tons (10–20 long tons; 11–22 short tons), with one still in the quarry weighing 50 tons. It has been suggested that an elite class of religious leaders supervised the work and later controlled whatever ceremonies took place. If so, this would be the oldest known evidence for a priestly caste—much earlier than such social distinctions developed elsewhere in the Near East.
Eastern Turkey (modern Kurdistan): the first civilization?
There are several other sites in the area, though not as old as Gobekli Tepe, such as Nevalı Çori.
So where did domesticated wheat come from? Einkorn wheat’s closest wild relatives have been found in Karaca Dag, Turkey, about 20 miles away. Wild emmer wheat appears to be a hybrid between a wild Einkorn variety and a not-quite identified species and grows from Israel to Iran, though our first evidence of domestication come from Israel and Syria. (Of course, we may have excavated more archaeological sites in Israel than, say, Iraq or Turkey, for obvious recent geopolitical and religious reasons.)
Regardless, we know that these first Anatolian farmers made a huge impact on the European genetic landscape:
The guys on the left, the ones with “blue” DNA, are European hunter-gatherers who occupied the continent before farmers arrived. The guys in the middle, “orange,” are farmers. The farmers appear to have arrived initially in Europe around Starcevo (in the Balkans) and spread out from there, eventually conquering, overwheliming, or otherwise displacing the hunter-gatherers. (The teal-blue group is “Indo-Europeans” who lived out on the Asian steppe and so did not get conquered by farmers.) From Europedia.com:
Of course, people have been referring to the region from the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates to the Nile valley as the “Fertile Crescent” for a hundred years, though the major differences of Egyptian and Sumerian civilization make it sensible to speak of them separately. But it looks to me that they may both owe their origins (at least their crops) to some highly-organized Turkish hunter-gatherers.