The November issue of The Atlantic contains a feature article with the results of a survey designed to suggest on the fifty greatest inventions. I read the list before I read the article, and it struck me immediately that there was a large “something” missing from the list.  It took me a few minutes to realize what I thought it was – the domestication of animals. Now it turned out that since I didn’t read the article until after reading the list, I missed the fine print, which specified that the inventions had to have been made after the use and discovery of the wheel.

Even so, I remain convinced that human beings would not have civilization as we know it today without the development of domesticated animals, particularly large beasts of burden. As a practical matter, there has not been a technologically advanced human society that did not have beasts of burden.  Even the handicapped Incas had lamas, but for all their wizardry with stone, they never reached the level of wide-scale iron-working, for example [admittedly, the lack of trees and easily reached iron didn’t help either], but the North American native cultures had plenty of trees to work with, but no domesticated beasts of burden, except dogs, and they couldn’t make the technological leap into the iron age, either.

Why not?  Because the development of technology requires an agricultural surplus, and creating such a surplus appears to be close to impossible without organized and productive agriculture, and that has never developed anywhere on the planet without some form of large beast of burden.  A hunter/gatherer or an early planting culture has never made that leap without beasts of burden.

All of which points out to me, at least, that the vaunted human ingenuity needed some help, that we couldn’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, so to speak, without the horse, the ox, the water buffalo, the donkey, perhaps the elephant.  In turn, that suggests that there are indeed limits to human capabilities… something that we, as a species, really don’t like to consider.

Just a thought.

6 thoughts on “Overlooked”

  1. Elizabeth A. Mancz says:

    What about the Aztecs? Certainly they produced a fair surplus with their location in the Valley of Mexico, but had no beasts of burden. I don’t know enough about that part of Mexico to say if there was iron available to them at their level of technology. Certainly they worked gold and silver. As to the Inca, llama and alpaca are of limited use- llama can carry burdens, but they don’t seem to pull vehicles the way that other animals will. I’m not sure why. I am told that in the Andes today, there is a very active and widely used set of charms, etc. designed to make one’s llama behave itself.

    1. Lamas won’t pull wagons or anything else. The Incas also worked other metals, as well as meteoric iron, but without large beasts of burden, it would appear that it is close to impossible for a culture to work iron on a large scale.

  2. Grey says:

    The availability of megafauna was shown to be a significant inflection point in the development of a human civilization in Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel,” if I recall it correctly.

  3. Steve says:

    Whether beast of burden, slave, indentured servent, paid labor or machine, the individual human has always depended on forces outside of himself to achieve luxury. If beasts of burden hadn’t been available, slavery would have been even more widespread in the past and more common now.

  4. Steve Newton says:

    Jared Diamond makes a similar point in Guns Germs and Steel (both book and TV series). The particularly interesting examination is in the TV series, where he looks at people in New Guinea who developed agriculture and actually found themselves worse off than nearby hunter-gatherer cultures. He explores two variable–one being domesticated animals–and the other being the low caloric yield of available plants. I’d say he makes a convincing argument that without either of those ingredients an agricultural surplus is difficult if not impossible to attain.

  5. Cal Rea says:

    I think the effects of animal domestication is even more fundamental. The effects of the domestication of dogs (or of dogs “domestication” of humans) had a considerable effect on the advancement of hunter-gatherer societies in the Upper Paleolithic. In addition, management of animal populations for the benefit of human populations seems to be integral to the success of Mesolithic populations as well. Gobekli Tepe is re-writing understanding of the technological capabilities of Mesolithic civilizations, with regard to engineering (moving big rocks around), material science and art (stone carving) and, perhaps, the possibility of managing plants as well. Being able to manage animal populations to allow for something akin to partial occasional sedentarianism made cultivar cultivation much more manageable. Even when we don’t use animals (per se) we need to control them to a degree to change the fundamentals of our life-ways.

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