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Peter Watson


History and Human Nature in the Old World and the New

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Watson describes his subject as the greatest natural experiment in history. Humans entered America after the Last Ice Age, about 15000 years ago, crossing by means of a land bridge across what is now the Bering Strait. When sea levels rose following the melting of the ice the New World immigrants were cut off, and civilisation in the two hemispheres subsequently developed very differently. In this book Watson describes how and why these differences occurred and what effects they had on the ways people thought and lived. To some extent this book covers the same ground as Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, though Watson is more concerned than Diamond with the religious differences between America and Eurasia.

Religion in Middle and South America was strongly influenced by two factors. One was the precariousness of life in this region, resulting partly from numerous active volcanoes, which erupted at unpredictable intervals causing destruction and loss of life, and partly from climatic variability due to El Niño, which caused both floods and droughts.

The other important factor influencing religious ideas was the availability of a wide variety of hallucinogens, far more than existed in the Old World. Even maize, it seems, was originally cultivated, not for food but for making beer. The original immigrants into the New World came from Asia and would have had a strong shamanic tradition, which never died out and which was enhanced by the availability of hallucinogens.

The civilisations of Middle and South America are notorious for their addiction to bloody human sacrifice. As Watson makes clear, this feature was on a large scale and even more bloody than is often realised. The reason, he believes, is that the peoples of this region felt it necessary to appease the gods who were responsible for eruptions, floods, and droughts. The only way to do this was human sacrifice, sometimes of children. Wars were fought, not usually for territorial gain, or at least not primarily for that, but to acquire victims for sacrifice. The ball games that were played widely in the region also often ended in sacrifice, usually of the losers but sometimes even of the victors.

The book has three parts. Part 1 describes how the Americas came to be populated at the end of the last Ice Age. Part 2 is about the differences in nature between the two worlds: animals, plants, and especially narcotics. Part 3 is more historical and describes key cultural developments in the two worlds.

In the Old World, a hunter-gatherer existence was replaced by agriculture and the beginnings of urban life. Nomadism and the herding of animals also developed and this eventually led to large-scale warfare between steppes-dwellers and cities. Warfare was facilitated by the use of bronze and subsequently iron to make weapons. Also crucial was the introduction of the chariot, replaced later by even more effective mounted warriors after the invention of the bit and stirrups.

Another effect of the movement to animal herding, Watson suggests, may have been the first recognition of the connection between sex and conception. This, to us, obvious biological fact may not have been apparent before the domestication of animals, especially dogs, with their short gestation period. Intuitively, this seems unlikely, but it is true that it has sometimes been asserted by anthropologists even in relation to isolated modern societies.

In the New World there was no bronze or iron, although of course gold was widely used culturally, as the Spaniards discovered when they arrived. Urban civilisations arose a number of times in Middle and South America— the story is now known to go considerably further back than was recognised until recently. As noted already, they were characterised by persisting human sacrifice, which had largely died out in the Old World by this time.

There was a continuing obsession with jaguars, which were linked with hallucinogens and altered states of consciousness. Rulers claimed to be descended from jaguars and there are images of humans being partly transformed into jaguars, which Watson regards as reflecting continuing shamanistic beliefs. The fixation on skeletons and on flaying sacrifical victims may also have shamanic roots, since shamans believed that they underwent ordeals of this kind in other worlds during their training.

This is a long and rich book—perhaps too long. Watson has read very widely and one gets the feeling that he wants to give us everything he has discovered. At times the parade of facts becomes overwhelming; the reader (this reader, anyway) starts to wilt under the sheer weight of information. Conversely, the summary of Old World history in Part 3, taking in the invention of monotheism, money, Greek democracy and science, and even Chinese history, feels inevitably rather thin.

The main value of this book, for me at any rate, is less in its central thesis than in the sheer strangeness of many of the facts it recounts. It is based on an up-to-date review of recent research on South and Meso-American civilisations and the detailed chapter references provide plenty of suggestions for further reading, some of which I'm already following up.

An appendix contains a rather amusing summary of changing views of the New World that have been expressed by Old World writers since the arrival of Columbus in 1492. It's a pity that there is relatively little information available on the other side— what did the denizens of Middle and South America think about their conquerors?

17 October 2012

%T The Great Divide
%S History and Human Nature in the Old World and the New
%A Watson, Peter
%I Weidenfeld and Nicolson
%C London
%D 2012
%G ISBN-13 9780297845584
%P xxviii+610pp
%K ethnography
%O ten maps

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