Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences,
University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
Primary emphasis on Americas, some on Polynesia, Africa; Japan
and China are covered elsewhere.
Technologically "Simple" Cultures
Often have highly ingenious technologies.
- Stone-working (pressure flaking).
- Atlatl or throwing-stick.
- Bow and arrow, blowgun.
- Bomerang (Australia)--an amazingly sophisticated aerodynamic device.
- Toggle-joint harpoon (Inuit).
- Boat making
- Skin or bark over framework
- Fire bow or drill.
Technologically higher cultures
- Animal domestication.
- Metal work.
Some achievements of Native America
- Metal working
- Hammered copper--Great Lakes
- Casting originated in Colombia ca. 100 B.C.
- Lost-wax casting in gold
- Urban centers, mound building.
- Astronomical accomplishments
- Astronomically aligned buildings
- Maya calendar
- Rotary flywheel (Navajo)
- Crops: maize, squash, potato, tobacco
- Inca accomplishments
- Roads, bridges
- Incredibly precise stonework
- Movement of massive stones
- Highly organized state
- Why were the following not developed by native Americans?
- Wheel (used in children's toys)
- Writing (except Maya)
Some achievements of other cultures
- Polynesian seafaring and colonization
- Statues of Easter Island
- Malay fire-piston
- West African discovery of iron smelting
How Did They Do It?
Time, patience and concentration
Western society emphasizes high output in a short time.
Allied POW's in Germany during WW II accomplished surprising feats with little material but lots of time.
- Forged documents by hand.
- Counterfeited uniforms and civilian clothing.
- Made compasses.
- Cast replicas of buttons and medals.
- Dug lengthy tunnels.
Until the advent of mass-production in the early 19th Century, every object was hand-made and unique.
Moral: the great feats of pre-technological cultures become easy
to understand from a standpoint of slow output and great
patience. Pyramid builders from outer space need not apply.
European attitudes toward less-developed parts of world
Concept of "wilderness" as desirable is very recent, for the most
- Biblical descriptions of paradise invariably picture cultivated
landscape; descriptions of wilderness used to portray desolation
- General belief that God's original plan for Earth was smooth,
- Mountains often viewed as ugly deviations from ideal, rather than
- North America extraordinarily benign to human occupation: there
were few large carnivores which generally feared humans, few
- Eurasia was originally more dangerous; recall fairy-tale accounts of dangerous animals.
- Frontiersmen sometimes valued frontier as place to perform feats
of prowess or to conquer or be free from social constraints, but not necessarily as wilderness per se.
- Technology has freed most people from natural dangers of wilderness, hence played leading role in developing wilderness ethic.
Idea that native cultures should be preserved also very recent
- Greco-Roman notions of "barbarians."
- Judeo-Christian concept of "Fall"
- Missionary zeal
- "White man's burden"
- Genuinely abhorrent customs (e.g., human sacrifice by Aztecs) in some
- Differing concepts of land use and ownership.
- Assimilation as means of eliminating resistance.
- European institutions may have satisfied needs of some members of
culture that own institutions did not.
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Created 20 May 1997
Last Update 20 May 1997
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