Table of Contents
Part IV: The Technology of the Hamitic
Achievements of Primitive Societies
the Nev World again, J. Grahame Clark, speaking of the contributions
made by the Indians of North and South America to the Old World,
had this to say: (14)
Baron Nordenskiold, unlike some
European theorizers who found it difficult to credit the aborigines
with the ability to raise their own civilization independently
of the Old World inspiration, had spent many long and arduous
years in tle field of South American archaeology, and his conclusions
carried with them outstanding authority. In addition to many
technical inventions he attributed to the American Indian the
achievement of domesticating the animal and plant life of his
habitat so effectively that during the four centuries since the
Discovery, the White Man haf failed to make a single contribution
of importance. The native fauna gave poor scope, but from it
he domesticated the llama, alpaca, guinea pig. and turkey. Of
plants he domesticated hundreds. . . .
Chief of the American Bureau of Ethnology, spoke of this contribution
from plant life: (15)
Among the plants developed by
these ancient botanists are maize, beans (kidney and lima), potatoes,
and sweet potatoes, now four of the leading foods of the world.
Manioc, extensively cultivated by the natives of tropical America
is now the staff of life for millions of people living in the
equatorial belt. Other important items, such as peanuts, squash,
chocolate, peppers, tomatoes, pineapples and avocados might be
In addition, the Indian was the
discoverer of quinine, cocaine, tobacco and rubber, useful commodities
of modern times. Maize or Indian corn was one of tle most useful
contributions of the American Indian to mankind. Over a considerable
portion of the Americas, it is the staff of life.
added to this list, the custard apple, strawberry, vanilla bean,
chickle, and cascara, besides a number of others less familiar.
(10) His whole
list of important plants made up
14. Clark, J. Grahame, "New World Origins,"
Antiquity, June, 1940, p.118.
1 of 23
15. Stirling, Matthew, "America's First Settlers, the Indians,"
National Geogographic Magazine, Nov., 1937, p.592.
16. Macgowan, Kenneth, Early Man in the New World, Macmillan,
New York, 1950, p.199.
by the Indian's agriculture
is impressive, for it contains 50 items, not one of which is
an Old World species. Every one of them can be cultivated with
a hoe, requiring no draft animals whatever. He also mentions
one other accomplishment which is very difficult to account for.
The Indian devised a method of extracting a deadly poison (cyanide)
from an otherwise useful plant, manioc, without losing the valuable
starch it contained. Macgowan says that Henry J. Bruman called
this "one of the outstanding accomplishments of the American
Indian." The remarkable thing about it is that they should
ever have thought of making use of a plant which, as they found
it, contained a deadly poison.
M. D. C. Crawford gave a list of
vegetables which were cultivated by the American Indians prior
to 1492, which adds the following to the above: (17)
Alligator Pear Chili
fig (Prickly pear)
Star apple Cotton
(gossypium barbadense Linn.)
J. L. Collins
wrote more recently: (18)
The pineapple shares the distinction
accorded to all major food plants of the civilized world, of
having been selected, developed, and domesticated by people of
prehistoric times, and passed on to us through one or more earlier
civilizations. The pineapple, like a number of other contemporary
agricultural crops . . . originated in America and was unknown
to the people of the Old World before its discovery.
Just where the
Indians found tle original plants which they improved upon to
produce modern pineapples, we do not know. None of the existing
varieties compares with the domesticated plant, and Collins observes,
"None of these can be singled out now as the form or forms
which gave rise to the domestic pineapples of today, or even
of those varieties in the possession of the Indians at the time
of the Discovery of America." This was no accident then,
but a deliberate and intelligent breeding process which progressed
so far before we knew anything about
17. Crawford, M. D. C., The Conquest of
Culture, Fairchild, New York, 1948, pp.145, 146.
18. Collins, J. L., "Pineapples in Ancient America,"
Scientific Monthly, Nov., 1948, p.372.
it, that we cannot now
retrace the steps by which it was first accomplished.
Melville Herskovits points out
that the North American Indians increased the fertility of their
land artificially, by putting a fish in each maize hill, and
practiced multi-planting highly successfully. (19) In each hill planted with maize, they placed squash
and bean seeds together, so that the bean plants could climb
the corn stalks and the squash vines run along the ground. The
same practice is apparently found in West Africa, where gourds
take the place of squashes. Their reasoning here, as Herskovits
points out, is different from ours: they held that a plant which
grows erect, one that climbs, and one that hugs the earth, must
each have a different nature and therefore extract a different
food from the earth. They will not compete with each other for
the goodness of the soil.
Considering the Orient, Dr. F.
H. King, who has made a very careful examination of the farming
methods practiced by the Chinese, the Koreans, and the Japanese,
draws special attention to their painstaking care in maintaining
or enhancing the fertility of their soils, using all kinds of
fertilizers and other special means. (20)
Necessity is the mother of invention
(although laziness helps!) and food is a necessity. Primitive
people have shown extraordinary ingenuity in obtaining food.
We have already mentioned one or two devices used by the Eskimo,
the spring bone for killing wolves, for example. In other parts
of the world there is the same remarkable ingenuity, and not
the least remarkable element is the variety.
For example, according to George
P. Murdock, the Ainu of Northern Japan use dogs to do their fishing
for them. (21)
There are shoals of fish in the shallow waters along some of
their coasts, and to catch these they have trained their dogs
to swim straight out to sea in a line until a given signal. The
dogs then wheel around and come back in an arc towards the shore,
barking and making a big splash, thus driving the fish into even
19. Herskovits, Melville, Man and His Works,
Knopf, New York, 1950, p.250.
20. King, F. H., Farmers for 40 Centuries, Rodale Press,
Emmaus (Pennsylvania), reviewed by W. M. Myers, "Those Clever
People," Scientific Monthly, Dec., 1949, p.448.
21. Murdock, George P., Our Primitive Contemporaries,
Macmillan, New York, 1934, p.167.
water where each dog
seizes one in his mouth, runs ashore, and drops it at his master's
feet -- receiving a fish's head as a reward.
Ralph Linton speaks of one device
for catching wild fovl, which he feels should certainly be awarded
top prize for simple ingenuity. (22) A flat stone of about 18 inches in diameter is given
a small raised rim of mud or clay. Then certain nuts are placed
in the enclosure. These nuts are a particular delight of the
local guinea fowl. But the natives of several parts of Africa
where these birds are found take care to ensure that the nuts
are just too large for the fowl to pick up in their beaks. Attracted
to the food, the birds try again and again to get a nut in their
mouth, each time striking the flat rock with their beak instead.
But they are persistent creatures, so they keep it up until their
heads are swollen and they have literally knocked themselves
silly. Each day the owner of the stone calls by and picks up
the stupefied birds from the immediate neighbourhood. Poultry
farmers have found that the same thing can happen to chickens
fed on a concrete floor. But there is no evidence that Indo-Europeans
ever put this observation to any practical use.
We may mention a further example
of native ingenuity, found in certain parts of Oceania, where
there are cuttlefish which have long sucker-tipped arms that
are stretched out to catch fish. The natives attach these cuttlefish
to lines and use them to catch food for themselves instead. (23)
Lord Raglan tells how in some areas of
Oceania, the natives of Java, of the Banda Islands, and the Dobuans,
catch a particular species of fish that is difficult to approach,
by using fishing-kites. (24) The kite is flown on a line of some length, and the
fish hook dangles from the tail of the kite, thus allowing the
fisherman to keep a considerable distance from the fish which
would otherwise evade him.
It is well known that the Japanese
have for years used Cormorants to do their fishing for them.
(25) The birds
seem to be well trained and to enjoy themselves immensely. The
Samoans use a native plant drug which, when poured on the water,
22. Linton, Ralph, The Tree of Culture, Knopf,
New York, 1956, p.83.
23. Cotton, Clare M., "Animals: Old Hands at Angling,"
Science News Letter, Mar. 6, 1954, p.155.
24. Raglan, Lord, How Came Civilization? Methuen, London,
25. Gudger, E. W., "Fishing with the Cormorant in Japan,"
Scientific Monthly, July, 1929, pp.5ff.
the fish dopey and easy
to catch. (26)
According to Carleton Coon, the Australian aborigines poison
the water holes with a mild drug that similarly makes the animals
who drink from them stupified. (27) By such means, they easily catch the swift-footed
emu, for cxample. A paper published by the Smithsonian Institute
lists hundreds of such poisons used by primitive people in all
parts of the world to catch game. (28)
The Tierra del Fuegans have so
many different traps and other devices for catching ducks
and geese, etc., that it would be wearying to detail them. Coon
refers to them as being many and ingenious, and varying according
to the nature of the locality. (29) They are, moreover, characterized by a remarkable
degree of originality, so that it bccomes dlifficult to imagine
any further alternatives. Yet these same Tierra del Fuegans were
considered by Darwin, when he visited them during his voyage
vith the Beagle, to be the very lowest of all humans, hardly
people at all. (30)
Sir John Lubbock shared this opinion. (31)
Yet their inventiveness, where it had
to be exercised, knew almost no limitations. I should like to
draw attention to this point here. Inventiveness was exercised where needs arose, seldom otherwise.
And this inventiveness did not (as ours so often does) display
itself by merely modifying the products of others. The results
were as diverse as they were original, and they are almost alvays
characterized by a grand simplicity that is completely misleading
to the Westerner whose products are so terribly complicated.
Yet simplicity is the hallmark of genius.
Take as an illustration of this,
the bola. Here is a veapon that is effectiveness itself in bringing
down small rapidly moving game. The device is composed of a number
of stones (usually about 2 inches to 3 inches in diameter), around
each of which a cord is fastened in a groove with a free end
about 12 inches to 18 inches long. From 4 to 8 such stones form
the weapon which
26. Murdock, G. P., Our Primitive Contemporaries,
Macmillan, New York, 1934, p.51.
27. Coon, Carleton S., A Reader in General Anthropology,
Henry Holt, New York, 1948, p.220.
28. Heizer, Robert F., ''Aboriginal Fish Poisons," Paper
No.38 in the series Anthropological Papers, Bulletin 151,
Institute, Washington, 1953, pp.225-283. Several secific poisons
29. C.oon, C. S., A Reader In General Anthropolgy, Henry
Holt, New York, 1948, p.220.
30. Darwin, Charles, Journal of Researches, Ward, Lock,
and Co., New York, (preface dated 1845), pp.206ff.
31. Lubbock, Sir John, Prehistoric Times, New Science
Library, Hill, New York,1904, p.201.
is made by tying together
the free ends of the long cords. Holding these cords at their
junction, the native swings the stones around like a windmill
and lets the whole affair fly at the flock of birds, or rabbits
or any such small game. The stones tend to part company in flight,
but only of course to the extent of the cords which tie them
to one another. The weapon is thus widely spread by the time
it reaches the game, and the chance of a hit is greatly increased.
The same effect is, of course, obtained with shot. However, if
any one of the stones or cords make contact, the whole weapon
at once wraps itself around the victim. Down it comes. What could
be more effective? These bolas are found in many parts of the
world and even in prehistoric sites, a testimony to the inventiveness
even of prehistoric man, (32) for its seems hard to believe that they were invented
only once and that all modern instances are derivatives.
Of all primitive people,
perhaps the Australian aborigines have aroused the most interest,
not merely because they are so well known and among the last
to retain a great part of their ancient skills and traditions,
but also because of the extraordinary simplicity of their material
culture. Virtually the whole of a man's worldy wealth can normally
be carried with him, often in one hand! Of added interest, of
course, is the fact that they seem to be negroid, and yet they
have much body hair and bushy beards, which Negroes never have.
Thus their origin is an intriguing mystery still.
But their ingenuity is also undoubted
in so far as they have cared to exercise it. Probably the supreme
example of this is the boomerang. It is also found in other parts
of the world, and even in prehistoric sites. (33) As a weapon, it is remarkable: quite justly been
called the first "guided missile." Of course, all thrown
objects are guided in a sense; but the boomerang can be so controlled
in the hands of an expert that it will do extraordinary things
in the air, and return to the sender if it misses the target,
a great saving of effort and a real advantage in war.
George Farwell recently authored
an official Australian Government paper in which the design of
this weapon was carefully
32. Bolas: see Robert Braidwood, Prehistoric
Men, Natural History Museum, Chicago, 1948, p.56.
33. Boomerangs: these have also been reported from Egypt at Badari
by V. G. Childe, New Light on the Most Ancient East, Kegan
Paul, London, 1935, p.65; and in Europe, by Herbert Wendt, I
Looked for Adam, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1955, p.356.
considered. (34) It is much more complex
than would appear to the casual observer. Its response to controlled
flight is outlined by the author who then explains how this is
possible. Even if its special construction features were purely
accidentally discovered at first, it is still true that the inventor
discovered his discovery; this is not merely a play upon words.
Of the boomerang Farwell wrote:
There are sound reasons for
its design features. The undersides of the arms are flat, the
upper have a slight camber, a factor which provides lift. There
is also a twist from the horizontal at the outer end of each
arm, one upward, the other down, perhaps not more than two degrees
It may seem unreal to discuss a
prehistoric weapon in terms of aerodynamics, but therein lies
the remarkable achievement of the aborigine. His practical mind
and acute observation anticipated certain ideas of the 20th century
Sir Thomas Mitchell, the explorer,
made the characteristic twist of the boomerang the basis for
a new type of ship's propeller, which he patented 100 years ago.
Early in this century G. T. Walker of Cambridge University spent
no less than ten years of research into the boomerang's properties,
evolving certain theories on gyroscopic flight.
elaborates somewhat on the dynamics of its flight and gives some
examples of feats which the natives can achieve with little effort.
He presumes that it was perhaps by observing the flight of falling
leaves with their curled edges that they came to the idea. This
sounds rather weak to me. At any rate, they created a very ingenious
weapon, and we have found no way to improve it yet.
George Sarton used this weapon
as an illustration of "the uncanny ingenuity of 'primitive'
To this he added the elastic plaited cylinder of jacitara palm
bark, called a tipiti, which is used to extract the poison cyanide
from the manioc, to which reference has already been made. As
a third illustration he referred to prehistoric Chinese pottery
vessels which took the form of a tripod, the legs of which were
hollow and formed the containers. It thus anticipated by thousands
of years the modern trisection aluminum wares. The shape, of
course, permitted the cooking of three separate dishes at the
In the Peruvian Andes, living at
an elevation of 14,000 feet
34. Farwell, George, "The First Known
Guided Missile,' reprinted in The Globe and Mail, Toronto,
Sat. Aug. 29, 1953, p.17, as a feature article from the Australian
Government publicaion, South West Pacific.
35. Sarton, George, History of Science, Harvard, 1952,
approximately, are the
Aymara ‹ believed to be the remnants of the creators of the
Inca Empire. They are a rather impatient and ill-tempered people
according to some observers, possibly by reason of the rarified
atmosphere in which they live and possibly on the same account
they do not care to exert themselves much to improve their condition
‹ altllough obviously this was not true in the past. But
they have developed their medical skill quite extensively and
have so organized the profession that there are specialists in
various fields of medicine, who refer patients to one another
as seems necessary. (36) Like most primitive people, they mix magic with their
medicine: but they evidently realize that the magic has mainly
a psychological value. This is also true of other such native
people. A. P. Elkin has written on this point at some length
and is convinced that the witch doctor is often a man, as he
put it, of "High Degree," by which he means, relatively,
of Ph.D. calibre in the context of his own culture. (37) It is, in fact becoming
increasingly apparent that the non-Indo-European far anticipated
us in their medical practices, as well as in the field of psychology.
I think this is particularly true in certain areas, such as in
dealing with fear. Of African medical skill, Grantly Dick Read
has pointed out: (38)
"They had cures for diseases which modern science still
finds difficult to heal ‹ and sometimes the knowledge of
a good witch doctor could be of very good use to modern psychology."
Frequently, of course, they did not reflect much upon the psychology
they used, but it was always very practical in its application,
representing a kind of deep wisdom which modern physicians sometimes
There are often amusing and revealing
illustrations of this. In two areas in particular they explored
widely: in person-to-person relationships, especially with near
relatives; and in dealing with the supernatural. For example,
they insist as a rule that a man go to live with his wife's people.
There are a number of very good reasons for this, not the least
of which is the fact that they recognized that most emotional
tensions revolve around the lady of the house. When a man goes
to his wife's home, the lady
33. Tschopik, H., Jr., "The Aymara,"
in The Handbook of South American Indians, vol.2, Bulletin
143, Bureau of American Ethnology, 1946, pp.501-573.
37. Elkin, A. P., "Aboriginal Men of High Degree,"
1944 Queensland University John Murtagh Macrossan Memorial Lectures,
Australasian Publications, 1946.
38. Read, Grantly Dick, "No Time for Fear," as reviewed
by W. A. Deacon in the Saturday Review of Books, Globe and
Mail, Toronto, Aug. 11, 1956.
of the house "gains"
a son. If, however, the wife goes to the husband's house to live,
the lady of the house "loses" a son! This can be a
serious thing ‹ the root of much jealousy, causing emotional
tensions which they sought to avoid if possible.
As an illustration of a second
area in which psychology is applied, one may cite a case that
occurred in a Pueblo village after the last war. Many young Hopi
volunteered for service overseas. This often badly confused their
traditional cultural behaviour patterns. One anthropologist noting
this, suggested to a Hopi veteran that he'd still be afraid to
sleep in one of their ancient cemeteries. He laughingly denied
this. So he, and an old villager, agreed to a test. The old man
selected a spot to sleep, performed several little rites, sprinkling
seed around his bed and urinating on the seed. With a brief prayer,
he then lay down and slept like a child. The young man no longer
believed in such things ‹ neither the spirits (so he said)
nor the magic. He tossed and turned, quite unable to sleep pretending
to be unafraid and having no longer any accepted means to offset
the fears he denied. He finally got up and returned to the village.
A. P. Elkin has given many instances of this kind of thing in
Australia, and says that he often spoke to the old men about
their faith in the magic they used and was surprised to find
how clearly they understood its psychological value. Some of
the witch doctors were "Ph.D.'s" in psychology, rather
than medical doctors with an "M.D.," according to Elkin.
But even in the use of drugs that
do actually work chemically the non-Indo-European has often been
far ahead of us. Aldous Huxley has written of the use of such
drugs as tranquilizers and other remedies for anxiety. (39)
Certain chemical compounds produce
certain changes of consciousness and so permit a measure of self-transcendence
and a temporary relief of tension. Thus, the so-called "tranquilizing"
drugs are rnerely the latest addition to a long list of chemicals
which have been used from time immemorial for changing the quality
of consciousness and so making possible some degree of transcendence.
Let us always remember that, while modern pharmacology has given
us a host of new synthetics, it has made no basic discoveries
in the field of the natural drugs; it has merely improved the
methods of extraction, purification, and combination. All the
naturally occurring sedatives, narcotics, euphorics, hallucinogens,
and excitants were discovered thousands
30. Huxley, Aldous, "History of Tension,"
Scientific Monthly, July, 1957, pp.4,5.
of years ago before the dawn of civilization.
This is surely one of the strangest facts in that long catalog
of improbabilities known as human history. Primitive man, it
is evident, experimented with every root, twig, leaf, and flower,
with every seed, nut and berry, and fungus, in his environment.
Pharmacology is older than agriculture. There is good reason
to believe that even in paleolithic times, while he was still
a hunter and a foodgatherer, man killed his animals and human
enemies with poisoned arrows. By the late Stone Age he was systematically
poisoning himself. The preserved heads of poppy in the kitchen
middens of the Swiss Lake Dwellers shows how early in his history
man discovered the techniques of self-transcendence through drugs.
There were dope addicts long before there were farmers.
As an exarnple
of the extent to which some people went, it may be mentioned
that the Jagga even developed a truth serum. (40)
Claude Levi-Strauss has underscored
another aspect of this psycho-medical contribution: (41)
The West, for all its mastery
of machines, exhibits evidence of only the most elementary understanding,
of the use and potential resources of that supermachine, the
human body. In this sphere, on the contrary, the East and Far
East are several thousand years ahead, they have produced the
great theoretical and practical summae represented by Yoga in
India, and Chinese breath-techniques, or the visceral control
of the ancient Maoris. . . .
In all matters touching on the
organization of the family, and the achievement of harmonious
relations between the family group and the social group, the
Australian aborigines, though backward in the economic sphere,
are so far ahead of the rest of mankind that, to understand the
careful and deliberate system of rules they have elaborated,
we have to use all the refinements of modern mathematics. . .
The Australians, with an admirable
grasp of the facts, have converted this machinery into terms
of theory, and listed the main methods by which it may be produced,
with the advantages and the drawbacks attaching to each. They
have gone further than empirical observation to discover the
laws governing the system, so that it is no exaggeration to say
that they are not merely the founders of modern sociology as
a whole, but are the real innovators of measurement in the social
Not all sociologists
would agree with Levi-Strauss, of course, but there is no doubt
that the social aspects of hunan relationships have here been
subjected to unusual scrutiny. It seerns
40. Truth Serum: referred to by Robert Lowie,
Social Organization, Rinehart, New York, 1948, pp.168,
41. Levi-Strauss, C., Race and History: The Race Question
in Modern Science, UNESCO, Paris, 1952, p. 27.
almost a rule, in fact,
that the simpler the culture in its materials, the more elaborate
its formalized social structure is apt to be, including its rituals.
And conversely, the more physically complex the civilization,
the less formal its social patterns are likely to be. Ralph Linton
has written of one occasion in an Australian tribe, where it
happened that the regulations had become so involved that a time
came when it was found nobody could properly get married any
The American Indians also had an
extensive medical knowledge. Their surgical skill was remarkable,
and like non-Indo-Europeans in many other parts of the world,
ancient and modern, they practiced such delicate operations as
trepanation with remarkable success. (43)
Such extremely delicate surgery
implies the use of some kind of anaesthetic. Robert Lowie has
reminded us that we owe this very fundamental discovery to the
South American Indian. He has said, "What is absolutely
certain is that our local anaesthetics go back to the Peruvian
Indian's coca leaves, whence our Cocaine." (44)
Another important invention from
the same source is the enema. Robert Heizer, in an issue of a
well-known publication, which was devoted to the history of this
instrument, stated that: (45)
The medical practices of the
Indians of North and South America prior to the shattering of
their cultures by Caucasian wars and exploitation, were truly
amazing in their magnitude and excellence. Our fractional knowledge
of these attainments derives from early historical records, ethnobotanical
works by botanists and pharmacologists, and from intensive study
of skeletal materials by trained observers. Included in the roster
of medical techniques was the administration of enemas and lavements
by means of a number of instrurnents ‹ bulb and piston type
syringes and clyster tubes.
writing of the American Indian as an inventor, has referred to
such enema syringes, one of which he described
42. Linton, Ralph, Th'e Study of Man,
Student's edition, Appleton Century, New York, 1936, p.90.
43. Popham, Robert, "Trepanation as a Rational Procedure
in Primitive Surgery," University of Toronto Medical
Journal, Feb., 1954, pp.204-211.
44. Lowie, Robert, An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology,
Farrar and Rinehart, 2nd edition., 1940, p.336.
45. Heizer, Robert, "The Use of the Enema by the Aboriginal
American Indians," Ciba Symposia, vol.5, Feb., 1944,
in detail. (46) The accompanying illustration,
Fig. 9, is taken fron his work, and shows hoW little we have
been able to improve upon it. Even the decorative scheme is in
excellent taste, and its rnode of manufacture was copied exactly
when Indo-Europeans first began to exploit the native development
of rubber latex.
The same author also mentions the
invention of tweezers for medical purposes, for which he gives
the credit to the Araucanians, another Peruviari tribe. The Jivaro
Indians use the pincers of living ants for the purpose of suturing
wounds, a most extraordinary procedure that has been observed
in other parts of the world also. (47) The skin is drawn together, the small ant is so applied
that it seizes the suture and holds it tightly closed in its
strong mandible, and then the animal's body is quickly snipped
off. So a series of fine pincers along tle wound hold the skin
lesions together till healing takes place. Erwin Ackerknecht,
in writing of this technique, concludes that it is a witness
to "the great inventive power that the 'savage' develops
in all those fields that he deems worthy of interest." (46)
We have mentioned rubber enena
bulbs. According to Nordenskiold, these appear to have been a
secondary development arising out of the making of hollow rubber
balls for games. (47)
Such balls vere made by forming a core of clay or some such material
and then dipping this repeatedly in a solution of latex allowing
each coating to dry before applying the next one. When the skin
was thick enough, a small round hole was caut through the rubber
to the clay core, and the latter was removed through the hole,
a small amount at a tirne. The hole was then plugged with another
wad of latex, in a serni-hard condition, and the ball redipped
once more in latex thus sealing the air inside the ball. Solid
balls were also made, which weighed as much as 25 pounds. These
vere used in the well-known games played by the Maya in such
open courts as have been found at Chichen Itza, Mexico, and elsewhere.
46. Nordenskiold, E., "Thle Arnerican
Indian as an Inventor," Journal of the American Anthropological
Institute, vol.59, 1929, p.273ff.
47. Ants used for saturing: see a review by Lewis Cutlow of Amazon
Head Hunters by E. A. Underwood, in Nature, Fcb. 19,
48. Ackerknecht, Erwin, in a note under the title, "An Ingenious
Device for Stitching Wounds.'' Ciba Symposia, vol.10,
July-Aug., 1948, p.924, The same author has a paper entitled
"Primitive Surgery," American Anthropologist,
New Series, vol.49, Jan.-Mar., 1947, in which he gives a bibliography
on the subject containing 204 references.
40. Rubber enemas: this is the opinion of E. Nordenskiold, in
his paper, "The Armerican Indian as an Inventor," p.298,
referred to above.
An article in a rubber journal recently pointed out
that these balls are only one exarnple of the use made by tlle
American Indian of this material. (50) He also made watertight shoes, flasks, ponchos, and
dolls. The same article states that "the development and
use of natural rubber by the American Indian is impressive, for
in 300 years his 'civilized' conquerors made little improvement
in the ancient method of rubber manufacture." The natives
used a certain sap of a vine (Iponoca bona-nox) or from
a liana (Catonyction speciosum) to coagulate the latex.
Certain trees have the latex in the form of rubber in suspension
in water. The water can be evaporated and the rubber remains,
without any need for a catalyst.
The story of Charles Goodyear's
effort to take over the development of rubber from the natives
of Brazil and exploit it in America and elsewmere, is wel1 known.
The problem was to treat it so that it would retain its structure
even in hot weather. Their own rubber served the Indians well
enough, especially since they had the secret of curing it by
using local products as catalysts. Goodyear, again and again,
brought himself, his family, and his backers to the point of
ruin and bankruptcy because hie could not cure the stuff out
of wlich he was trying to make raincoats, rnail bags, and overshoes.
As soon as warm weather came, his
products turned into a sticky, useless mess. Of course, he finally
discovered how to cure by vulcanizing, using sulfur as a catalyst.
But it seems probable that many of his heartbreaks never would
have occurred if he had gone back to the originators of rubber
articles and asked them to teach hirn what they knew first. Moreover,
it is very doubtful if Goodyear or anyone else of his cultural
background would have seen in the Brazilian forest what the natives
had seen, i.e., a natural product requiring only mixing it with
another natural product to supply a remarkably versatile and
In Textiles, Indo-Europeans have been
borrowers in almost every detail. G. P. Murdock has said that
tahe Central American Indian excelled here also. (52)
In skill and technique in the
textile arts the ancient Peruvians have had no equals in human
history. They wove plain webs, double faced cloths, gauze and
voile, knitted and crocheted
50. Article in Rubber Age, Nov., 1956,
51. Charles Goodyear. see on this, H. Stafford Hatfield, The
Inventor and His World, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Eng.,
1948, pp.4 I-14.
52. Murdock, G. P., Our Primitive Contermporaries, Macmillan,
New York, 1934, pp.428, 439.
fabrics, feather work, tapestries, fine
cloths interwoven with gold and silver threads, employing in
short, every technique save twilling known to the Old World,
in addition to some peculiar to themselves. . . .
They employed methods identical
with those used in the famous Gobelin and Beauvais tapestries;
they nevertheless in harmony of colours, fastness of dyes, and
perfection of technique, far surpassed the finest products of
C. Langdon White
has said that the best of their fabrics were made from the wool
of the vicuna, softest of all animal fibers, with 270 threads
to the inch as compared with 140 threads, otherwise considered
to be outstanding. (53)
M. D. C. Crawford, (54)
writing in 1948 before certain recent developments, underscores
this achievement of the Indians. He made a particular study of
this aspect of their art and skill, and concludes:
As a matter of fact, Europe
had never produced a single original natural textile fibre or
any dye except perhaps woad. She has not contributed a single
fundamental or original idea to the basic mechanics of textiles,
nor a single original and fundamental process of finishing, dyeing,
or printing. . . .
In the broader world history of textiles
and cloth, the ingenious English inventions of the 18th century
(led by Kay's fly-shuttle) are but incidental mechanical modifications
and developments of older ideas which grew out of the social
conditions in England, and were directly due to the irmportation
of cotton and silk fabrics from the Far East during the 16th
and 17th centuries. No new basic principles either in spinning,
weaving, or fabric construction, nor new methods of decoration,
dyes, colors, or designs, are involved in the English machines.
The ancient principles of twisting and elongating masses of fibre
into yarn, the principle of interlacing one set of filaments
held in place between parallel bars of a second set of filaments,
remains undisturbed. No new raw materials are involved: flax,
hemp, wool, cotton, and silk, remain the principle fibres. And
for colour the dyes of antiquity were still employed. As a matter
of fact, all the dye raw materials of antiquity, both from Asia
and America, were still mentioned in English dyer's manuals in
the late part of the l9th century, and years after Perkin's experiment
with coal tar derivatives in 1856.
Silk, of course,
came to us from China, felt from Mongolia, (55) materials made from pulps were developed in Polynesia
53. White, C. Langdon, "Storm Clouds
Over the Andes," Scientific Monthly, May, 1950, p.308.
54. Crawford, M. D. C., The Conquest of Culture, Fairchild,
New York, 1948, pp.184, 185.
55. Felt: see M. C. and Fay Cole, The Story of Man, Cuneo
Press, Chicago, 1940, p.374.
cloth, etc.). These
last are coming into their own in our day, the capacity for greater
production being about our only claim for credit. And even here,
the claim may be somewhat premature, because considerable difficulty
has been experienced thus far in the manufacture of such materials
on a large scale. The native products are hand-made, of course.
Moreover, their methods of decoration, by tie-dyeing, batique,
and silk-screen, are simply not applicable to mass production
methods at present. We do not have time for tie-dyeing.
Furthermore, as we shall see when
we come to consider the textile "industries" of ancient
Sumeria, virtually the whole concept of mechanization, of large
mills and hundreds of specialized workers each doing a single
kind of operation, was well developed at least five thousand
years ago in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Egyptians succeeded
in weaving such fine fabrics that they are still equal to our
own best products woven by the very latest mechanical means.
Some of the garments associated with King Tutankhamen's tomb
have 220 threads to the inch, compared with our common handkerchiefs
of today which show only about 60 to 70 threads per inch, or
far less than the Egyptian prototype.
Native pottery has always
been a source of amazement, whether in the New World or the Old.
Chinese pottery has long been prized for its beauty of form,
colour, and texture. Central American pottery is remarkable for
its complete freedom of form, and for its ingenuity. In an environment
where evaporation rates are high, it is desirable to cut down
the size of the opening at the top. But this makes pouring more
difficult. The air rushing in suddenly causes the water to flow
out unevenly and to spill. But in many places water is too precious
to be wasted in this way. The Peruvians and the Maya overcame
this by putting two spouts on the pot so that one became both
a handle and a separate air inlet. The variations of this theme
were both ingenious and aesthetically pleasing. Not content with
this, they even went further and so designed the passages that
when water was poured out, the air rushing in caused a whistle
to blow. In some cases it is difficult to see why this was done
(unless it was to warn the adults when children were robbing
them of a rather precious commodity). Other types seem clearly
to have been whistling kettles, a further effort to conserve
waste by warning the lady of the house that the precious water
was boiling away. (50)
Many vessels are shaped as heads, faces, animals,
56. Whistling Kettles: on this see, T. Athol
Joyce, "Marvels of the Potter's Art in South America,"
in Wonders of the Past, vol.2 edited by Sir John Hammerton,
London, Putnam's Sons, 1924, pp.464, 465.
and even whole people,
so life-like in many cases that they must surely have been actual
portraits. Their artistry and skill seem to have known no limits.
The same is true of Middle East
pottery. In Minoan Crete the wares are of such delicacy that
it seems they must be copies of originals rnade in hammered metal.
Even "rivets" are sometimes indicated. They reveal
that the metal prototypes were sometimes formed by a process
akin to deep drawings as we technically understand it now. Some
of the pottery from the earliest levels at Tell Halaf and Susa
is astonishing in its complete freedom of form and delicacy.
We shall refer to this subsequently.
The fame of the Central American
Indians in road building has been reported. Cement paverments
and other types of surfaced roads, suspension bridges spanning
up to 450 feet, anchored at each end by massive stone pillars
and capable of carrying cattle and pack animals, were built in
sorne of the most rugged country in the world. These bridges
were often 6 to 8 feet wide. The ropes by which these slender
structures were supported are known to have been up to 12 inches
in diameter. (57)
One of the most famous builders was the Inca Mayta Capac who
is generally dated from A.D. 1195 to 1230.
Although these Indians used wheels
on toys, for sorne reason they did not employ wheeled vehicles.
At least there are no remains of them, pictures, or references
in their traditions or literature. Yet they did use road-rollers,
weighing up to 5 tons. (58) Moreover, they had extensive and regular postal systems
along these highways, and an excellent quality of paper in use
for writing letters and keeping records.
Archaeologists have discovered
that the Maya were making true paper approximately 3000 years
ago. (59) Before
these artisans disappeared, the Aztecs had learned the secret.
This sarne process was handed down from generation to generation
and today is used by the Otomi Indians in Mexico. The inner bark
of the fig tree is soaked in running water until the sap jells
and can be
57. Ropes: see Alexander Goldenweiser, Anthropology,
Crofts, New York, 1937, p.402. Also V. W. Von Hagen, Realm
of the Incas, New American Library, New York, 1957, pp.186,
187 for illustrations.
58. Road Rollers: see Marshlall H. Saville, "The Ancient
Maya Causeways of Yucatan, Antiquity, Mar., 1935, p.73.
59. Paper in South America: see Victor W. Von Hagen, "The
First American Papermakers," The Paper Industry and Paper
World, Dec., 1944, p.1133.
scraped off. The fibrous
residue is then boiled in lime, washed once more, and laid on
a flat wooden surface like a breadboard, where it is pounded
to a pulp. The pulp is left on the board and sun-dried. The ancient
Aztecs went one step beyond the 20th century Otomis. Their process
was identical up to this point, but after the paper was dry they
sized it, and calendered it with hot stones to produce surfaces
readily adaptable for printing. They then printed on it with
a crude kind of movable type!
Although many of these original
developments have long since been lost sight of, there still
remains sufficient on record to suggest that in Central America
a place of remarkable technical excellence, where natural resources
were being widely exploited, mathematics had been developed (including
the use of zero and a place system for numbers), and an extensive
literature (among the Maya, at least) was published to satisfy
the demands of a cultured leisure class.
Gilbert Lewis has written: (60)
Probably the most remarkable
achievements of the American Indians were in the fields of arithmetic,
astronomy, and the Calendar. Two of the greatest inventions of
arithmetic, the zero and the sign of numerical position, were
regularly employed in America long before they were known to
have occurred elsewhere. . . .
It may be noted that a few apparently
unrelated items which I have discovered in literature may, when
put together, suggest the possible use of astronomical instruments
in early America. Both in Mexico and Peru concave mirrors were
found, articles that had not been seen in Europe at the time
of the Conquest. In Peru, these concave mirrors were employed
in a solar rite. Periodically all old fire was extinguished and
a new fire was started by the priests who, with these mirrors
focussed the rays of the setting sun on a wisp of cotton. Among
the Aztecs new fire was produced at night by the fire drill.
However, that they had recollections of a practice akin to the
Peruvian is suggested by the name of one of their chief gods,
Writing of Peruvian
surgery, J. Alden Mason, quoting the well-known paleopathologist
R. L. Moodie, has said: (61)
I believe it to be correct to
state that no primitive or ancient race of people anywhere in
the world had developed such a field of surgical knowledge as
had the pre-Columbian Peruvians.
60. Lewis, Gilbert, "The Beginnings of
Civilization in America," American Anthropologist,
New 8eries, vol.49, Jan.-Mar., 1947, p.8 and footnote.
61. Mason, J. Alden, The Ancient Civilizations of Peru,
Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1957, pp.222, 223.
Their surgical attempts are truly amazing
and include amputations, excisions, trephining, bandaging, bone
transplants (?), cauterizing, and other less evident procedures.
He then speaks
of the use of anaesthetics and possibly hypnotics. He remarks
that some skulls show the result of operations on the frontal
sinus. Their "operating rooms" were first cleared and
purified by the sprinkling and burning of maize cornflour, first
black, and finally white.
Mason has thought that it is literally
impossible to exaggerate the technical achievements of these
Perovian highlanders in the field of textiles. He holds that
this is not the view merely of enthusiastic archaeologists, but
of textile manufacturers themselves. Their skill he terms "incredible."
They even had invisible mending in place of patching. The Aymara
still do. In metallurgy they were not far behind.
Among their textiles, according
to Mason, have been found "twining, plain cloth, repp, twill,
gingham, warp-faced and weft-faced or bobbin pattern weave, brocade,
tapestry, embroidery, tubular weave, pile knot, double cloth,
gauze, lace, needle-knitting, painted and resist-dye decoration,
and several other special processes peculiar to Peru and probably
impossible to produce by mechanical means." It is even possible
that they may have watered some crops with coloured liquids to
produce naturally dyed fibers that were indeed sun-worthy.
Nor is this inventiveness limited
to Central America, although for climatic reasons this may have
been the best environment to encourage high civilizations. The
Iroquois had invented "rifled" arrow-heads long before
they found themselves face to face with or in possession of rifled
fire arms. (62)
It does not seem likely that the spiralling is sufficient to
rotate the arrow rapidly enough that the need for feathers was
eliminated. This, at least, has not proved to be the case with
my own sample. Evidently such was not the objective. What is
clearly achieved is a far more serious wound. Like the outlawed
dumdum bullets of World War I, the form of the head is such that
the arrow does not pass
62. Rifled Arrowheads: I have one of these
in my possession. There are several references to them in the
literature and some examples in Museums in Canada and the United
states. There may have been a family, a kind of Iroquois Krupps,
which supplied friend and foe alike, at a price! E. B. Tylor
refers to them (Anthropology, Hill, New York, 1904, p.155).
Also, Sir William Dawson, Fossil Men and Their Modern Representatives,
Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1883, p.124. There seems to be
no doubt about their intentional design.
right through (where
it could easily be withdrawn) but buries itself in the flesh
and stops there. Tlle energy of the arrow is absorbed as the
head corkscrews into the body.
The Aymara of Peru today build sailing
boats and use them on lakes two and a half miles above sea level.
Yet there is scarcely a tree to be found at this elevation. These
vessels are made entirely of local bulrushes, and even the sails
are mats woven from the same materials. The masts are built up
of small pieces of wood spliced together. Provided these vessels
are permitted to dry out every little while, they will carry
a considerable load. (63)
The pre-Inca Indians were master
architects, building great monuments and immense fortifications
of stones set into each other by being laid and lapped together
right on the spot. How they were erected is still a mystery,
for many of the stones are huge. But this certainly is the only
genuinely earthquake-proof architecture in Middle America.
One of the most surprising things
about the great Ball Court of Chichen Itza is its acoustical
properties. Recently the editor of an American magazine visited
this court and reported on its unexpected characteristics. He
We climbed to the vantage point
of one of the stands for the thrones of the priests at the southern
end, while our guide went to the other. We were five hundred
feet apart. We talked in low tones, no louder than a couple would
use sitting in the living room of an average home. We could hear
each other perfectly. We reduced our voices to a mere murmur:
we could still hear each other perfectly. . . .
The General Electric Company, we
were told, brought a large group of engineers to Chichen Itza
to carry on acoustical experiments in the big ball court. They
attempted to duplicate the court elsewhere but did not get the
same acoustical effect because they had not built of limestone.
The tools of
the pre-Columbian builders were no less remarkable than their
buildings. It is believed now that they may have used glass cutting
edges for saws, etc., in place of steel, the glass being a natural
volcanic residue. Recent experiments demonstrate that such tools
can be most effective. The idea is suggested by the form of certain
fighting weapons. (65)
63. Aymara boats: see Stewart E. McMillin, "The Heart
of Aymara Land," National Geographic Magazine, Feb.
1927, pp.213-256. 64. Barnhouse, Donald G., "The Editor
Visits Mexico's Mayan Ruins," Eternity Magazine,
May, 1956, p.35.
65. Glass saws: under the title, "Glass-toothed Saw Cuts
Wood: and Ingenious Hand-made Tool May Provide a Solution for
an Ancient Scientific Puzzle," Science News Letter,
July 13, 1957.
They had even developed a specialized form of dental
repair, using a kind of Portland Cement filling which has remained
firm and intact in tooth cavities for1500 years. Of this discovery
Sigvad Linne remarks: (66)
The findings of archaeologists
have revealedl to us some of the inventiveness and technical
skill possessed by the Indians. The practical aids of these unknown
technicians may have been primitive yet it could scarcely have
been "primitive peoples of nature" thlat witlh such
simple means achieved results before which their later-born Swedish
colleagues sometimes stand in dumb amazement.
One might mention
that a recent report from Washington states that there is now
evidence of the habitual use of some kind of cleaning agents
on thle teeth of prehistoric skulls. (67) Since the Chinese had by at least A.D. 1500 developed
a toothbrush that looks remarkably like its modern counterpart,
there is surely nothing new under the sun. (68) For a picture of this tootllbrush see Fig. 8.
Nordenskiold adds to thle credit
of the American Indians the invention of the hammock (New Guinea),
go-carts (Northwestern Brazil), (70) cigar holders, (71) the chain, (72) and an ingenious self-acting water-pump (Colombia),
which the Spaniards adopted and converted into a bilge purnp.
(73) We might create
a tiresome catalogue if we were to go on listing isolated instances
of native ingenuity such as the use of the skin of the ray-fish
by the Polynesians as a "sand-paper"; (74) the use of giant
66. Tooth filling: see Sigvad Linne, ''Technical
Secrets of American Indians," Journal of the Royal Anthropological
Institute, vol.87, July-Dec., 1957, p.152, 153, and 163.
67. Toothpaste: Science News Letter, Dec. 23, 1956, in
a series of brief notes written anonymously under the heading,
68. T'oothbrush: see Curt Proskauer, "Oral Hygiene in the
Medieval Occident," Ciba Symposia, vol.8, Nov., 1946,
p.468. The illustration is from a woodcut in the Lei Shu Ts'ai
Hiu, a Chinese Encyclopedia.
69. Nordenskiold, E., " I'he American Indian as an Inventor,"
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol.59. 1929,
70. Ibid., p.302, from Northwestern Brazil.
72. Ibid., used by a small tribe, the Hurari, in Matto
Grasso, and found nowhere else in South America.
73. Ibid., p.300.
74. Sand paper: see Leonard Adam, Primitive Art, Penguin,
Harmondsworth, 1949, p.162.
fireflies, (75) called Cucuyo, tied to
the feet by the natives in the West Indies to light their way
along the jungle paths at night, and so forth.
So much importance is attached
to inventors and their inventions that they were held in great
veneration and quite often ultimately deified. The only encyclopedias
that the Chinese had originally dealt with the heroic figures
who were famous because they invented something. (97) Indeed in some cultures
this kind of talent is so generally expected of the males that
the would-be son-in-law must win his bride by perforrning some
almost impossible task set by the family calling for nothing
short of inventive genius. (77)
It may well be asked then, Why
did these people never progress beyond a certain level of civilization
which we tend to think of as essentially "primitive"?
Why did they stop where they did? Were the causes circumstantial
ones, or did they arise because of wars, forced migrations, and
so forth? In other words, do we have any grounds for suspecting
the limitations to have been inherent in something which may
perhaps be termed a "Hamitic trait," or was it simply
that they had no leisure, no security, little accumulated wealth,
and very limited natural resources?
Such limitations can scarcely be applied
to the higher cultures of China, India, Sumeria, Egypt, Crete,
or Anatolia, yet these also halted apparently on the very threshold
of a scientific revolution, achieving an extraordinarily high
degree of technical skill and "know-how" which nevertheless
seemed also to lead into a blind alley. Stagnation was followed
by decay; and decay led to eclipse. Climate was right, records
were extensive, natural
75. Fireflies: see Donald C. Peattie, "The Miracle of
the Firefly," The Reader's Digest, Oct., 1949, p.102.
76. Needham, J., Science and Civilization in China, vol.1,
Cambridge University Press 1954, p.54.
77. Prof. T. F. McIlwraith, Head of the Dept. of Anthropology
in the University of Toronto, gave a lecture on the various means
adopted by different people to test aspiring husbands. The Arawak
of Central Africa adopt this method, as do other widely scattered
tribes. An early chapter of Genesis (Genesis 4:17‹21) gives
prominence to the first city-builder, the first agriculturalist,
the first tent-dweller, the first musician, and the first metal
worker. The latter is referred to as Tubal-Cain, which some authorities
feel may be the original form of the word Vulcan, who
was (like many Chinese inventors) subsequently deified.
resources abundant enough,
had they cared to exploit them. For some reason, they stopped
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
Previous Chapter Next
It is, of course, very possible that our
own age of far greater technical knowledge will in time pass away and
be forgotten, as theirs. But I do not believe that such will happen this
time for reasons which are considered in Part
V. But let us here examine some of the achievements of these "higher"