Re: This used to be on disease and immunity
Fri, 05 Jul 1996 12:07:15 -0700

Domingo Martinez-Castilla wrote:

> 2. Linear history: it is clear that my two correspondents just cannot
> get away from this Judeo-Christian conception, which is, I presume,
> just OK. Progress (understood as general improvement) for them is
> tantamount to the passage of time. This is a philosophical point of
> view, widely prevalent and at the basis of Western-Christian thought (in
> which I was raised, of course), with which many people do not agree,
> some of them very influential and very Judeo-Christian by the way. A
> discussion on this belongs to the history groups, to which I would
> gladly move them.

I would think this would be a good forum to discuss the application of non-linear
dynamics to anthropology. New sciences are always so slow at replacing the old.
The way to speed this process is to introduce it to the scientific community. What
better place to begin than here?

Also, the association of linear concepts with 'Western-Christian thought' suggests
a major bias. Linear concepts of dynamic systems are prevalent throughout the
world and throughout history (this includes pre-Christian and Eastern). In fact,
the concepts of non-linear dynamics, although earlier attempts were made, have
only recently been proven. This is due in large to computer technology.

> 5. Domestication: I humbly request any reference indicating which
> American animal and crop species were domesticable and had not been
> domesticated at the time of contact. In other words, how many
> indigenous American species of plants and animals have been domesticated
> in the last 500 years? Or even more: all over the world? In the world
> there may be some (arguably some trees and forages, like Eucalyptus
> globulus and Leucaena leucocephala; some fish like Tilapia and trout,
> but I really do not know how domestic they are --note that there is no
> direct correspondence between tameness and domesticity), but I do not
> know of many.

I suppose I'd better establish my definitions first. These definitions are drawn
from the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary:

domesticate: (2) to adapt (an animal or plant) to life in intimate association
with and to the advantage of humans.

tame: (1a) to reduce from a wild to a domestic state. (1b) to subject to

Domestication, then, implies a process which takes place over an extended period
of time, as adaptation does not take place in a short period. This would furthur
suggest a reference to a population. Taming implies a more immediate process, and
suggests a reference to an individual plant ot animal.

Based on this, a list of plants domesticated within the past 500 years can be
quite extensive. Plants domesticate fairly rapidly. Many animals, on the other
hand, do not domesticate so easily. However, I am willing to bet that a list could
be established.

To tell you the truth, (and I realize you are not the one introducing this line of
thought), I cannot even understand the nature of this approach. I can think of no
culture, historical or modern, which has succeeded in utilizing 100% of it's
available resources. The lists of plants and animals which have not been
domesticated, but which could have been (or still could be) could fill volumes. In
fact, I know I have a book somewhere which identifies plants which would be better
suited to modern domestication, based on overall cost of production, nutrition,
and the effective utilization of available land, than many of the popular crops.
The choice of which animals or plants are domesticated seems to be based on a
cultural preference for certain foodstuffs rather than on a decision on the
effective utilization of available resources. A different group of people in a
region would probably have domesticated different animals and plants. On what
basis then can we argue that one choice is better than another?

> 6. Why? My interest, if I may indulge into additional personal
> references, in understanding the basis of agriculture and civilization
> is a growing offshot of my work in agricultural development in Latin
> America and East Africa. In the Andes, in particular, my quest is to
> understand the basis of a very successful agriculture before 1500, in a
> region for which Western agricultural expertise cannot yet provide any
> lasting contributions. I may be incredibly biased, so I humbly, again,
> request references indicating that Andean agriculture was "backwards"
> or "behind" at the time of contact. I can give you some (Cieza, Cobo,
> Pedro Pizarro --brother of Francisco, Betanzos, Estete, etc., all of
> them Spaniards and several with previous European experience outside the
> Iberian peninsula). There are some seminal works indicating that the
> basic agricultural paradigm in the Andes was very different from that in
> temperate Eurasia, which should not be that surprising taking into
> account the unique nature of the Andean terrain. The problem is that we
> do not yet completely understand it.

I know you are referring to Andean culture. But, I haven't yet examined that
region. I am sure that many of the Aztec practices were also common to Andean
agriculture and some may even have originated there. The most impressive feat I
can think of in Andean agriculture is in the fact that agriculture could thrive in
that region at all.

As to the concepts of 'backwards' or 'behind', the Aztec practices of irrigation,
fertilization, and terracing are still standard in agriculture now. Certainly the
crop diversity of the Aztecs was more resistant to destruction by disease and
insects than the specialized crops of Europe. Most Aztec crops required individual
seeding, so the plow was not initially a major introduction. (Besides, with the
lack of draft animals, harrowing is the best alternative to plowing. This was a
common practice among the Incas, I think). The Aztec methods of dry farming are
still impressive by todays standards (Aztecs tilled the soil to maximize water
retention in areas which were not irrigated). And, the most impressive I've seen
so far, are the floating gardens like those at Xochimilco.