Part I: Technology: the Non-Indo-European
The Conquests of Environments
customary to view Western Man as the most inventive creature
who ever lived, and other peoples as unimaginative and backward
by comparison. For this reason it has never surprised those who
write textbooks of History that our own civilization advanced
so far ahead of all that preceded it.
Obviously we are more inventive and so we
have naturally achieved a higher civilization. At one point in time, the
stage was set for the logical development of Science and the proper extension
of a certain innate superiority in controlling the forces of Nature for
our own benefit. Science thus developed automatically. Very few people,
until quite recently, were aware of the achievements of other ancient,
and modern, Cultures which have not shared our tradition. Their arts and
architecture were remarkable enough; but their mechanics and Technology
were of little account except for an occasional odd device like the compass,
etc. And our own uninventiveness as a whole completely escaped notice.
When it was found that Eskimos could be trained to operate and repair
sewing machines and watches as quickly as (if not more quickly than)
we ourselves, some surprise was expressed.
In time the ingenuity of the Eskimo
became increasingly apparent, and writers began to vie with one
another in their search for superlatives to describe these otherwise
'backward' people. But it soon became evident that the Eskimos
were not alone in this. Their conquest of the wilderness of ice
and snow and inhospitable environment is similarly shared by
other primitive people, whom it now turns out have proved themselves
to be quite as ingenious in making the most of the immediately
available resources of their environment. For example, there
are the Indians of the Sonoran Desert in Southern Arizona. Considering
their environment, it is quite amazing to find what they have
succeeded in extracting out of it.
Throughout this discussion of primitive
Culture, and in much of the treatment of more highly complex
civilizations of non-Western tradition, it is necessary to bear
in mind that the greatest displays of ingenuity frequently appear
in the exploitation of the immediate resources of the
environment rather than the secondary or less immediate resources.
This recognition, given somewhat
belatedly, is now being accorded at high levels. Claude Levi-Strauss,
speaking officially for UNESCO, made the following admission
in attempting to establish who has made
the greatest contribution
to the world's wealth:'
If the criterion chosen
had been the degree of ability to overcome even the most inhospitable
conditions there can be scarcely any doubt that the Eskimo on
the one hand and the Bedouin on the other, would
carry off the palm.
He might equally
well have used the Indians of the Sonoran Desert in place of
the Bedouin. And one could have included another rather rugged
environment, the high altitudes of the Peruvian Andes, where
the Aymara have shown themselves well able to hold their own
with the Eskimo, the Bedouin, and the Indians of Arizona. Let
us examine very briefly some of the achievements of such people.
Ice and snow: the Eskimo
One of the best
modern authorities on this aspect of Eskimo life is Erwin H.
Ackernecht. He writes: 2
is one of the great triumphs of our species. He has succeeded
in adapting himself
to an environment which offers to man but the poorest chances
of survival. . . .
His technical solution of
problems of the Arctic are so excellent that white settlers would
perished had they not adopted many elements of Eskimo technology.
R. Wulsin, an authority on clothing problems for cold climates,
says candidly: "There seems to be no doubt that Eskimo clothing
is the most efficient yet devised for extremely cold weather."3 Of this we have had personal
experience, and can affirm its truth without hesitation. Moreover,
to the Eskimo must probably go the credit for developing the
first 'tailored clothing' and, not unnaturally, the first thimbles.4
a Scientific Defense Research Symposium in Ottawa, in 1955, Dr.
O. Solandt admitted
1. Levi-Strauss, Claude, "Race and History"
in the series The Race Question in Modern Science, UNESCO,
Paris, 1952, p.27.
2. Ackernecht, Erwin H, "The Eskimo's Fight Against Hunger
and Cold," Ciba Symposia, vol.10, July-Aug., 1948,
3. Wulsin, Frederick, R, "Adaptations to Climate Among Non-European
Peoples," in The Physiology of Heat Regulation and
the Science of Clothing, edited by L.H.Newburgh, Saunders,
Philadelphia, PA, 1949, p.26.
4. Jeffreys, Charles, W., A Picture Gallery of Canadian History,
Toronto, ON, Ryerson, 1942, vol.1, p.113.
. . . . the White Man has not introduced a single item of
environmental protection in the Arctic which was not already
being used by the natives, and his substitute products are not
yet as effective as the native ones. Only in his means of production
has he the edge.
short review of the Eskimo's hunting techniques has already revealed
an extraordinary number of well conceived implements. Eskimos
are described as very "gadget minded" and are able
to use and repair machinery such as motors and sewing machines
with almost no instruction. It is impossible to give here a complete
list of aboriginal Eskimo instruments, the number of which and
quality of which have been emphasized by all observers. . . .
The best known type
of Eskimo house is undoubtedly the dome shaped snow-house with
its ice window. With extraordinary ingenuity, the very products
of the cold are used here as a protection against it.
It might be
thought that once the idea was conceived, the construction of
such a house would be comparatively simple. Actually it is remarkably
difficult to construct a dome without any means of supporting
the arch while in the process of completing it. As the wall rises,
it converges upon itself. Each new block overhangs more and more
until near the top they rest almost in a horizontal plane. The
problem is to hold each block in place until the next one ties
it in, and then to hold that one until it, too, is tied in place.
Given enough hands the problem
is not so difficult, but the Eskimos have overcome the problem
so effectively that a single individual can, if he has to, erect
his own igloo single-handed without too much difficulty.
The solution is to carry
the rising layers of blocks in a spiral instead of in a series
of horizontal levels. This is shown in Fig. 1. Thus as each block
is added it not only rests on the lower level, but against the
last block. One block would simply tend to fall in, and, by experience,
so do two or even three, when a new layer is started if the tiers
are horizontally laid. But the Eskimo method overcomes the problem
|This is a drawing from a photograph
of an Igloo
at Baker Lake, taken by Mr. Lloyd Wilson of
the Defence Research Board. The original
structure measured 17 feet in diameter.
|A schematic drawing to show how
the spiral construction is initiated.
5. Ackemecht, Erwin. H., "The
Eskimo's Fight Against Hunger and Cold", Ciba Symposia,
vol.10, July-Aug., 1948, p. 897.
solution is, of course, amazingly simple -- once it is known.
. . . Most solutions are, when someone has discovered them
for us! The problem is to visualize the solution before it exists.
We tend to assume we would discover the way quite quickly but
experience shows that this is not true. As A. H. Sayce has put
it so well, "one of the most significant lessons of Archaeology
is that man is not essentially creative but destructive"
and among ourselves at least, "constructiveness belongs
to the few." 6
H. M. Davies
reminds us of this fact when he eloquently pointed out:7
drive an automobile because it is nearly foolproof, with little
appreciation of the hidden, beautiful mechanism that powers it,
and with no conception of the creative thought that went into
its development: meanwhile we demand the family airplane. We
listen to a radio receiver whose operation is utter magic to
us and demand the even more complex television. We are a race
of lever-twiddlers, button-pushers, and knob-twisters, enjoying
the prodigious technical labours of a comparatively few men.
put it in the article mentioned above,8
As compared with the mass
of mankind, the number of those upon whom the continuance of
civilization depends is but small; let them be destroyed or rendered
powerless, and the culture they represent will disappear.
return for a moment to the Eskimo again: because his environment
offers him little in the way of raw materials, his solutions
must always seem simple in nature. It is all the more to his
credit that he has achieved so much. Dr. Edward Weyer in an article
rightly titled, "The Ingenious Eskimo," puts the matter
Take the Eskimo's
most annoying enemy, the wolf, which preys on the caribou and
wild reindeer that he needs for food. Because of its sharp eyesight
and keen intelligence, it is extremely difficult to approach
in hunting. Yet the Eskimo kills it with nothing more formidable
than a piece of flexible whalebone.
He sharpens the strip of
whalebone at both ends and doubles it back, tieing it with sinew.
Then he covers it with a lump of fat, allows it to freeze, and
throws it out where the wolf will get it. Swallowed at a gulp
the frozen dainty melts in the wolf's stomach and the sharp whale
bone springs open, piercing the wolf internally and killing it.
. . .
When the Eskimo gets a walrus
weighing more than a ton on the end of a harpoon line, he is
faced with a major engineering problem: how to get it from the
water on to the ice. Mechanical contrivances belong to a world
in whose development the Eskimo has had no part. No implement
ever devised by him had a wheel in it. Yet this does not prevent
him from improvising a block and tackle that works without a
pulley. He cuts slits in the hide of the walrus,
6. Sayce Archibald, H., "Archaeology
and Its Lessons," in Wonders of the Past, edited
by Sir John Hammerton, Putnam's, London, 1924, vol.1, p.10.
7. Davies, H.M., "Liberal Education and the Physical Sciences,'
Scientific Monthly, vol.66, no.5, May, 1948, p.422.
8. Sayce, A.H., "Archaeology and Its Lessons"
in Wonders of the Past, edited by Sir John Hammerton,
Putnam's, London, 1924, vol.1, p.11.
9. Weyer, Edward, "The Ingenious Eskimo," in Natural
History, published by Natural History Museum, New York, May
1939, p.278, 279.
and a U-shaped hole in the ice some distance
away. Through these he threads a slippery rawhide line, once
over and once again. He does not know the mechanical theory of
the double pulley, but he does know that if he hauls at one end
of the line, he will drag the walrus out of the water onto the
ice. [For illustration see Fig. 2]
thing about his ingenuity is in its very simplicity! He makes
hunting devices of all kinds, that are effective, inexpensive
in time, easily repaired, and uses only raw materials immediately
available. His harpoon lines have floats of blown-up skins attached,
so that the speared animal is forced to come to the surface if
he dives. To prevent such aquatic animals from tearing off at
high speed dragging the hunter and his kayak, he attaches baffles
to the line which are like small parachutes that drag in the
water. A bone hoop and a skin diaphragm stretched over it, and
some thongs, are all that he needs.
To locate the seal's movements
under the ice he has devised a stethoscope which owes nothing
to its modern Western counterpart working on the same principle.10 And recently a native 'telephone'
was discovered in use, made entirely from locally available materials,
linking two igloos with a system of intercommunication the effectiveness
of which was demonstrated on the spot to the Hudson's Bay Agent,
a Mr. D. B. Marsh who discovered it. Marsh adds at the end of
his report, this statement:11
The most amazing thing
of all was that no one in that camp had ever seen a telephone,
though doubtless they had heard of them from their friends who
from time to time visit Churchill.
it is exceedingly unlikely that any such friends who had seen
a telephone, would have seen the kind of arrangement this Eskimo
had developed which of course used no batteries. We used to make
a similar kind of thing as children with string and ordinary
cans, but they were never very much use, and in any case we got
the idea from someone else. In this case the Eskimo had used
fur around the diaphragm to cushion it, and the sound came through
And finally, a word about Eskimo
snow goggles. A plate of illustrations of these protective devices
is given in Fig.3. These are well known to Arctic explorers,
and no one will travel in the Arctic without them -- or something
to replace them -- if he wishes to escape the very unpleasant
ailment of snow blindness.
10. An illustration of such an instrument
is given by Alexander Goldenweiser, Anthropology, Crofts,
New York, 1937, p.85, fig.23.
11. Marsh, D. B., "Inventions Unlimited", The Beaver,
published by The Hudson's Bay Co., Dec., 1943, p.40
Like everything else the Eskimo
makes, they are very effective, and often so designed that he does not
need to turn his head to see to either side of him. This is important,
since the game he usually hunts would catch the movement.
Deserts: Indians of the Sonoran
to the Indians of the Sonoran Desert, Macy H. Lapham has written
illuminatingly of their genius for making much of little. He
stranger, these desert wilderness areas seem to have little to
contribute to the subsistence of the native Indian . . . . Notwithstanding
this forbidding aspect, to the initiated there is a veritable
storehouse of the desert, from the widely scattered resources
of which essentials in food, clothing, shelter, tools, cooking
utensils, fuel, medicine, and articles of adornment or those
sacred in ceremonial rites have contributed for generations and
still are contributing to the needs of the Indian. . . .
many excellent photographs in which various plants are identified
-- and the products which the Indians have extracted from them
are also listed. These lists are impressive! Thus for example
desert ironwood, a small tree, is known for its extremely hard
wood, is prized for the camp fire, and has been used for arrow
heads and implements. . . . The beans of the Mesquite are made
into meal and baked as cakes. The split and shredded inner bark,
along with similar materials from the willow and cotton wood,
furnish the fibres and strands for building and for woven baskets.
Some of these baskets are so finely woven that coated with gum
and resins obtained from the desert plants they may be used for
liquids. . . .
Condiments and seasonings
for food, before the present era of the tin can were obtained
from native mints, pepper grass, sage and other herbs. Ashes
of the salt bush which grows in saline soils, were used as a
substitute for baking powder. Other plant products containing
sugar and mucilaginous substances yielded substitutes for candy
and chewing gum. . . .
Wild cotton was cultivated and
harvested by the Indians before the White Man and his wool-bearing
animals found their way into the desert. In his arts and crafts
the Indian used gums and resins from the Mesquite and the creosote
bush, as adhesives; awls made from the cactus spines and sharpened
bone; and dyes from species of the indigo bush, mesquite, the
fetid marigold, seeds of the sunflower, and from minerals.
In the absence of the family drugstore,
the Indian resorted to a range of desert plants for cures of
various ailments. Some of these were of doubtful value, but others
are to be found on the shelf of the modern druggist. These remedies
included materials for poultices and infusions, and decoctions
of the manzanita, creosote bush catnip, canaigre or wild rhubarb,
verba santa or mountain balm, verba mansa, the inner bark of
the cotton wood, winter fat,
12. Lapham, Macy H., "The Desert
Storehouse," Scientific Monthly, vol.66, no.6, June,
golden aster, goldenrod, yarrow, horsebrush, and
species of the sunflower. They were used for sore throats, coughs, respiratory
diseases, boils, toothaches, fevers, sore eyes, headaches, and as tonics
and emetics. Mullein leaves were smoked and used for medicinal purposes,
while roots of the yucca, winter fat, and four o'clock, and leaves of
the seepweed, were used as laxatives and for burns and stomach ache.
There was even an insecticide -- a sweetened infusion of the leaves
of the Haplophyton or cockroach plant which was used as a poison
for mosquitoes, cockroaches, flies and other pests.
Even such random
excerpts from Lapham's article might be sufficient indication
of the 'inventiveness' of these so-called primitive people. But
there is much more to wonder at.
A photograph of a Mesquite thicket in
a river bed is accompanied by this observation:
Mesquite thickets supply fuel,
poles, timbers for buildings and fences, and fibres and strands
for baskets and binding materials. From the mesquite's bark,
seed pods, and bean-like seeds come food, browse for livestock,
medicine, gums, dyes, and an alcoholic beverage.
The roots of
the Yucca trees supply drugs and a 'soap substitute.' Like the
pioneer farmers, it seems that they use everything but the noise!
Thus, as the Indian made his
rounds of this self-help commissary in an apparently empty wasteland,
be found an impressive stock to be harvested and added to his
market basket. We can only marvel at the wisdom and vast store
of knowledge accumulated by these primitive people as they made
the desert feed, clothe and shelter them.
This is a long
quotation. But it serves to indicate what ingenuity can do with
an otherwise unpromising environment. It is difficult indeed
to conceive of a more complete exploitation of the primary resources
of the desert in which they have been content to live.
One wonders if Lapham's use of
the word 'found' is really just. They seem virtually to have
exhausted their environment, extracting from it wisely, ingeniously,
and effectively all it could possibly afford. Would we have 'found'
much of this I wonder. . . .
point I should like to emphasize particularly here is that such
people, for so long supposedly unimaginative and dull, have demonstrated
a remarkable genius for this kind of thing. Their ingenuity has
overlooked so often because those
who surveyed their work were themselves unaware of the effort required
to invent anything. It all seems so obvious. Their solutions to
mechanical problems in particular are always characterized by a peculiar
simplicity that is completely deceiving.
To digress for a moment,
we may use as an illustration of this aspect of primitive technology,
a method used by Polynesians to build the plank walls of their
canoes. Anyone who has ever tried to bind two planks together
edgewise, so that they will be tight and rigid -- and will remain
so -- will have quickly discovered how difficult it is. It is,
in fact, almost impossible. Yet the Polynesian canoe builders
do it easily. Figure 4 shows how it was done. In a sense,
it really takes an engineer to see the genius of this. By using
gums and resins in the joint, a perfectly rigid, strong, and
watertight union is effected. The solution seems obvious enough.
Such ingenuity was exercised wherever their comparatively simple
needs were not completely satisfied because of some mechanical
Perhaps one more such 'simple'
solution may be in order here. The Indians of North America used
leather for clothing -- the familiar buckskin. However, one problem
of all such materials is that after a while the edge begins to
curl up or to roll in such a way as to be both unsightly and
ill-fitting, and of course colder in winter. This was overcome
by making a series of cuts into the edge and at right angles
to it, each cut being about two inches long, and spaced about
one-sixteenth of an inch to one-eight of an inch apart. This
imparted to the edges the familiar 'frill' effect, which is both
decorative and fundamentally useful. It required virtually nothing
to do it -- except ingenuity in the first place. It prevents
Deserts: ancient Nabateaens of the Transjordan
Desert areas always seem to hold
so little promise of survival to the sophisticated European.
The very appearance of barrenness seems to hinder the processes
of thought which would otherwise find how to render it more habitable.
But it seems to have been no great problem to non-Indo-European
people, whether ancient or modem.
Recent archaeological exploration
in the desert area of Transjordan has revealed a remarkable triumph
of early irrigation engineering. Michael Evenari and Dov Koller
reported recently on the results of their work in the Negev.13
13. Evenari, Michael, and Dov Koller, "Ancient
Masters of the Desert," Scientific American, April,
Anyone who will try this experiment for themselves
will find that it is impossible to secure two pieces of planking
together securely so that they will not move out of line. This
method is completely effective.
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that anyone could have farmed a desert as arid as this is today,
seemed so incredible that many authorities concluded the climate
of the region must have been more lush in the time of the Nabataeans.
Nelson Glueck went to Palestine in the 1930's and to Transjordan,
to re-explore the Nabataean Culture, and what he found led him
to acclaim the Nabataeans as "one of the most remarkable
people that ever crossed the stage of history." Their cities
did indeed bloom in the midst of a seemingly hopeless desert.
Nowhere in all their houses was there a stick of wood to show
that any trees had ever grown in the region.
then explain how these ancient people achieved a greater mastery
of the desert than any other people since, and they underline
the fact that the Nabataeans "avoided the mistake"
of trying methods which are the universally accepted Indo-European
ones, namely the use of dams. Their method was cheaper, more
effective, more readily controlled, and brought a greater area
of desert land under successful cultivation. They so prospered
in fact, as to be able to build and support the very famous city
of Petra. The authors then describe the method of irrigation
these people employed. And in summing up, they remark -- to quote
their own words:
The more one examines the Nabataeans'
elaborate system, the more impressed one must be with the precision
and scope of their work. Engineers today find it difficult enough
to measure and control the flow of water in a constantly flowing
river, but the Nabataean engineers had to make accurate flow
estimates and devise control measures for torrents which rushed
over the land only briefly for a few hours each year. They anticipated
and solved every problem in a manner which we can hardly improve
upon today. Some of their structures still baffle investigators.
tell that the yield was often seven or eight times the sowing.
As the authors conclude:
The Nabataeans' conquest
of the desert remains a major challenge to our civilization.
With all the technological and scientific advances at our disposal
we must still turn to them for some lessons . . . the best we
can do today is no more than a modification of the astute and
truly scientific methods worked out more than 2000 years ago
by the Nabataean masters of the desert.
Snowy waste, or sandy
desert, bitter cold or stifling heat -- we have little to contribute
in the conquest of such environments.
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Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights