Some countries are rich, and some countries are poor. For some reason, economic historians who live in rich countries like to blame the people who live in poor countries. For example, although the reasons change with the season, it's always been pretty clear why Latin America's economic development lags behind North America's.
It's because the people down there are, well, you know. I'm sorry, you didn't quite catch that? I'll repeat myself: "you know." No, really. You know. Look, if you really need me to spell this out for you, get me drunk down in the quiet corner of the Arbutus Club.
Just maybe make sure that no waitress you actually like is working that shift.
Okay, enough of being arch. I have a late Landes in my collection that shows the persistence of this kind of thinking in some places. David Landes' mind, anyway. The fact that I picked it up off a pile of garbage on the curb the week after the August-moving-to-Toronto-to-go-to-graduate-school-disillusionment-can-wait-for-later festival here in Kitsilano is probably a more accurate reflection of just how widely the view that Third World poverty is down to Third Worlders being [you couldn't quite catch me mutter this word]ly defective in some way. That's not the point.
The point is that in the great expansion of the Age of Reconnaissance, the peoples of the north Atlantic basin expanded in all directions. The received view is that in North America, they encountered virgin forest, recently miraculously depopulated of a people who gardened and hunted in a [cue the third parenthetical culture war in six short paragraphs over choice of adjective here] relationship with nature. In Africa they encountered proto-states in Mali and Congo that, like the would-be colonisation drive itself, failed to thrive until the Nineteenth Century. In East and South Asia they encountered states in crisis that restored themselves before, again, falling partially or completely to a second wave of colonialism much later.
And in Latin America, they encountered vast and populous empires that fell easily and at once under Spanish hegemony and yet which still failed to thrive, and have continued to fair to thrive up to the present, at least compared with the supposed settler states of North America. My point in my snide parentheses is that we're less astonished by this than we should be because we have been too ready to embrace theories about how societies become wealthy that are psychologically satisfying rather than logically defensible.
There's another way to take this, however. Things have changed a lot in the days since people had to genuinely fear famine, and there's not many economic writers I trust to have a finger-tip's feel of the issues at stake in such an economy. Good thing that I have a copy of an incredibly digressive and (for its time learned) book by one such author to type from!
"Even the Peruvians, the more civilised [of the pre-Columbian states encountered by the conquistadors], though they made use of gold and silver as ornaments, had no coined money of any kind. Their whole commerce was carried on by barter, and there was accordingly scarce any division of labour among them. Those who cultivated the ground were obliged to build their own houses, to make their own household furniture, their own clothes, shoes and instruments of agriculture. The few artificers among them are said to have been all maintained by the sovereign, the nobles, and their priests, and were probably their servants or slaves. All of the ancient arts of Mexico and Peru never furnished on single manufacture to Euorpe. The Spanish armies, though they scarce ever exceeded five hundred men, and frequently did not amount to half that number, found almost every-where great difficulty in procuring subsistence. The famines which they are said to have occasioned almost wherever they went, in countries too which at the same time are represented as very populous and well cultivated, sufficiently demonstrate that the story of this populousness and high cultivation is in a great measure fabulous." (Smith, Wealth of Nations, 1: 226).
Adam Smith goes on to tell us that although Spanish institutions are defective, cheapness of land makes up for much. He quotes the Scottish business traveller Frezier and "Ulloa" on the population of Lima in 1713 and 1740: twenty-five thousand have given way to more than 50. The authorities cited are a little slight, but, Smith concludes, the growth rate of Peru is "scarcely less" than that of the English colonies. For Smith, there is no mystery here. Latin America is growing at about the same rate from about the same level as the English colonies. a fuller account would bear down on the "about" and inquire into whether another century of colonialism in the southern continent counts as a "head start" or the reverse, although the last question would opened up an inquiry into the specifics of how North America might have begun its entry into the Atlantic world a century or more before the Mayflower, and wouldn't that be awkward.
But then what about that Inca Empire? (No Aztecs today: I've quite enough to do in this post without going back to Aztlan.) Empires and colonialism go together. You know when the first person ever sneered about how the natives were shiftless and lazy, and let their women do all the work?
|The Uruk Expansion: From the Hacinebi Project at Northwestern.|
Now that's a bold claim. The site-typological, ie site size area evidence is that Iraq/Peru is "more advanced" than Rhineland/Ohio. The towns are bigger. The material culture is more impressive. The "Tech Level" is higher. Rhineland/Ohio better invest in some educational infrastructure, or Iraq/Peru will launch their Alpha Centauri spaceship first!
This is an interesting point, and I think that it goes back to the problem we have in taking the "Uruk Empire" seriously in the first place. We're used to thinking of southern Iraq at a certain point as "Sumeria," a land of competing city states and literature. Especially literature. In part, this is linguistic essentialism, again. People began writing in Sumerian, probably shortly after the proto-cuneiform stage. Therefore, the people who lived in Sumeria were Sumerian, and city states were just the way that the Sumerians did things. No empires for them: that was for the Akkadians of Babylonia and Assyria to the north.
Along the years, people have tried to argue around this, but the most common argument is also the most problematic to me. Sumerian --in cuneiform-- is a very strange language: relentlessly monosyllabic and agglutinative, except when it's not. People, and by people I mean historical linguists, have been looking at the exceptions and trying to detect a "substratum" for years. That is, evidence that thousands of years before 3200BC, or maybe thousands of years after,
Just recently, Gordon Whittaker has pointed out that ethnic homogeneity has never existed in all the later history of southern Iraq. He might have pointed to Richard White's summary of the mixed-ethnicity villages of the Middle Ground of the Ohio in the same breath, although he didn't. The point is that the region was unlikely to have been monolithically Sumerian speaking at any point in its past, and that anomalous words in Sumerian could have been borrowed from other languages.
Then he goes on to posit an Indo-European (of all things) substratum. Sigh. One step forward, two steps back. Here's Whittaker, in an Internet-accessible pdf (what an odd thing for a scholar to do!), and, perhaps because we're talking historical lingustics (get it? talking?) a demolition job that the author felt had to be published in blog comments.
Okay, because I'm a masochist and enjoy having my ignorance exposed: let me propose an alternative. Let's say that Uruk was the capital of an empire that included many population/linguistic groups. Let's say that, at the height of the empire, administrator-priests at the Eanna begin to write administrative documents in a symbolic pseudo-language. Let's say that at some point they begin to enunciate them. Wouldn't they use the most efficient language for enunciating them? The weird thing about Sumerian, compared with, say, Indo-European, is that it is so rigorously agglutinative that the roots don't change. You don't have to have a way of showing inflection change because there is no inflection change. It needs only one sign for one word, whereas "to be," to take an example that me-no-understand-linguistics can understand, requires many.
Long story short: what if "Sumerian civilisation" emerges from the needs of empire?
*The Eanna of Uruk, original photo from ..somewhere, but hosted at a woo-woo blog.