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The Great Divide: Nature and Human Nature in…
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The Great Divide: Nature and Human Nature in the Old World and the New (2012 original; edició 2012)

de Peter Watson

MembresRessenyesPopularitatValoració mitjanaMencions
1793119,978 (3.69)1
Compares and contrasts the development of humankind in the old world and the new between 15,000 B.C. and 1500 A.D., and cites climate, domesticable animals, and hallucinogenic plants as the reasons for the discrepancy.
Títol:The Great Divide: Nature and Human Nature in the Old World and the New
Autors:Peter Watson
Informació:Harper (2012), Edition: Reprint, Hardcover, 640 pages
Col·leccions:La teva biblioteca
Etiquetes:Archaeology, Ancient History, Anthropology

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The Great Divide: Nature and Human Nature in the Old World and the New de Peter Watson (2012)

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Here the author concentrates on the differences between the Old World and the New beginning in Paleolithic times and taking us up to the time that Europeans discovered the existence of the Americas. The question he explores is why they were so different at that point in time. I found the book very interesting even though much of the material was already known to me. However, I also found that I had to take a break from reading it (twice!). Watson covers so much material and also has a tendency to belabor his main points making a few days reading other things very welcome. I am glad that I did return and finish in the end. There were interesting maps and an equally interesting appendix on reactions to discovering a whole new world of people, flora, and fauna. At well over 500 pages a somewhat challenging read.
  hailelib | Sep 22, 2019 |
Everyone knows something about the rise of Civilization and where it occurred: Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and China all very early on achieved recognizably civilized societies. From these origins, civilization radiated outwards throughout much of the Old World. But why wasn't the same degree of success achieved here in the New World (i.e., the Americas)? Only in the central Andes was there a comparatively early success. -But even that was on a much smaller scale.

Our author, Peter Watson, in this intriguingly speculative study, finds the main differences (of course there are many nuances here) between the Old and New Worlds to be:
-On the one hand, east-west geographical orientation, farming, fertility religions, and domesticated animals (that are useful for everything from food to work and war), dominate the history and ideologies (religion, politics) of the old world.
As difficult as old world history so often is, it allowed civilization to both rise and flourish.
-While (again, according to our author) in the new world violent weather (and volcanoes, earthquakes), north-south orientation, fewer (much fewer) usefully domesticable animals and cereal crops, and abundant hallucinogens sent culture, ideology and religion reeling in a very different direction.
Here the circumstances conspired to thwart the rise of old-world style massive civilizations.

Why is east-west orientation so much better than north--south? Because an east-west orientation allows the cultivation of the same domesticated animals and crops across multiple time zones, and because the weather (generally speaking) remains constant. This is not true of north-south migrations.

I would have emphasized more the importance of rivers (and trade) than our author does. If one looks at the four Eurasian 'Cradles of Civilization' one finds (in each) great river systems that lead to the sea, and other societies. The only new world site of comparable antiquity, the recently discovered Norte Chico civilization, existed (comparatively speaking) in splendid isolation. Its breakthrough to civilization does not spread throughout the region.

Our author certainly does not deny that there is one humanity. His purpose is to show how much that one humanity can differ in belief and behavior thanks to different circumstances.

In Closing

I enjoyed this book a lot. I would like to see what our author does in this book attempted in a comparison between sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of Afro-Eurasia.

Now, as far as the rise of civilization goes, Africa, like the Americas, got a raw deal. What gave sub-Saharan Africa a trajectory so different than the rest of the Old World?
Three points come immediately to mind:
1. Terrible tropical diseases that ravage both man beast. Most know that disease was difficult on the colonialist cum imperialist, but (in some areas) it was killing 50% of native infants! That is an incredible and terrifying number!
2. Tropical soils with little humus and are easily leeched. So even if Africa had the grains that allowed the build up of surplus that was enjoyed elsewhere in the Old World, they could not have come close to others success thanks to the poor soil. -And one needs agricultural surplus to achieve an enduring civilized state
3. Africa is a vast Plateau. Therefore most rivers eventually come to impassable waterfalls or dangerous cataracts. This is murder on any trade that might have developed within Africa and beyond. Thus the inflow of information and goods from the rest of Eurasia slowed to a trickle.
Sheesh! What a mess!

Th first great expanding civilizations absolutely had to be in Eurasia (including North Africa). I enjoyed this book by Watson a lot. As stated above, I would like to see our author,(or anyone else) attempt to do what our author does here for the new world done for sub-Saharan Africa.
Four stars for a very thought-provoking read!
1 vota pomonomo2003 | Jun 14, 2017 |
Watson begins with an interesting question: How to account for the differences between the Old World and the New World at the moment of contact in 1492? His main thesis is that environmental factors operate on humans to produce an ideology, a way of understanding and interpreting the world, and that the ideological trajectories of the Old World and the New World began to diverge around the 10th millennium BC thanks to a whole complex of interlinking changes that occurred together. His claim to novelty, and what drew my attention to this book, is his discussion of the influence of intoxicants and hallucinogens on the development of human civilization. Alas, his kitchen-sink approach and his discursive style make this a grueling read.

After a succinct statement of his thesis, Watson lets loose with a catalog of hypotheses and equivocations so that it is hard to tell just which factors explain what. For instance, he believes it is possible to reconstruct distant occurrences in deep time using a ‘new scientific synthesis’ of geography, botany, anthropology, archaeology, meteorology, cosmology, geology, and paleontology to show that environmental catastrophes produced profound effects on the mental life of ancient peoples. Earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis are scary and hard to understand, so Myths. And myths are memories.

This is buncombe. Deep time is fun to think about, but it tells us nothing about the distinction between Europe and the Americas in 1492. Piling academic fields of enquiry on top of each other does not bring clarity. And, there is no way to adequately comprehend the mental life of ancient peoples. The consequences of any ‘rupture’ that occurred on the Sunda Shelf between 11,000 and 8,000 years ago have been superseded time and again in the intervening millennia.

Watson seems to acknowledge the wildly speculative nature of the explanations he includes here. On every other page he refashions his caveat; “the significance of this extraordinary difference may have something to do with…” becomes

“The evidence that we have at the moment shows…”
“This may well have been related to…”
“This may not be all there is to…”
“a plausible theory made more so by the fact that…”
“It is not too much to think that…”
“It may be no coincidence that…”
“What follows from this analysis, if correct, is that…”
“On this reckoning, …”
“What we may be seeing here is…”
“One model for this may have been…”

What is introduced as a ‘tantalizing inference’ in one chapter becomes the foundation for further conjecture in the next. Perhaps the accumulation of suppositions and speculation is meant to give the illusion of coherence, but any order to the presentation is confounded by the mangled chronology and the introduction of more and more explanatory factors. When Watson goes back to Ur on page 233, I suddenly felt like taking a nap. By the time we get to Part Three, “Why Human Nature Evolved Differently in the Old World and the New,” (p. 249) the explanation may have something to do with the weather, volcanoes, alluvial plains, deep-sea fishing, barley, oats, shamanism, potatoes, pottery, metallurgy, the domestication of animals, grave goods, cave drawings, chicha, Venus figurines, bulls, bison, jaguars, salmon, beer, ploughs and the traction complex (what?), milk, wool, vegetable fibers, megaliths (menhir/cromlech/dolmen), soma, democracy, tobacco, Christianity, Quetzalcoatl, rubber, psilocybin, mummies, chocolate, or some other I may have missed.

Despite the ill wind blowing through The Great Divide, there are some interesting tidbits to be found here. The best part of the book is the discussion of the cultural effects of hallucinogenic vines, cactus and mushrooms in the Americas, though a reader must excavate the relevant passages from a muddy mess. Other good stuff, to be taken with a grain of salt:

“In the Americas there is a dearth of ‘watery chaos myths’ beyond the Pacific north-west, and New World myths lack almost any references to sea monsters or dragons.”

Fig. 6 is a “List of known catastrophes in ancient times” that includes a bouncing asteroid in Campo Cielo, Argentina (c. 2000 BC), a blitz of fireballs (AD 400-600), meteorites that killed 10,000 people in China (AD 1490), and a tsumani without an earthquake (Japan, AD 1700).

The plant known as Syrian rue (Perganum harmela) from central Asia was used as a truth drug by the Nazis and is the chief ingredient in the preparation of yagé (!?). It is also the source of red dye used in Persian carpets, and thus the geometrical designs characteristic of central Asian carpets may imitate the entopic images produced by harmine, and the tradition of ‘flying carpets’ may be a reflection of the flying sensation induced by the drug.

Some emeritus professor of cognitive archaeology believes that the squiggles of ancient cave art are caused by people actually ‘seeing’ the structures of their brains between the retina and the visual cortex under the influence of drugs.

Someone else thinks that Genesis is a mythical account of the transition from hunter-gathering to farming.

Earthen bowls with a sunburst design suggest the emergence and spread of specific cults involving psychoactive substances.

Tobacco enemas among the first peoples of North America produced hallucinogenic effects and helped overcome fatigue.

Horses―introduced from the steppes into Europe―were expensive, needed careful handling, and were potentially dangerous. Therefore, the use of more intensive psychoactive substances (opium, cannabis) may have become inappropriate, and their use declined. Europeans turned to beer and wine. Riding a horse when you are stoned is harder than riding a horse when you are soused.

The first representation of potatoes on pottery ~1100 BC appeared alongside images of jaguars, baring their teeth and snarling, suggesting they were worshipped as ferocious gods. There were also “depictions of maimed individuals, of people with congenital hairlips, with faces deformed in other ways, such as with split noses, and still other pots depicting figures with amputated legs. The suggestion is that these people were felt to be special or sacred in some way, possibly that they were seen as half-way creatures, half-way between humans and jaguars, perhaps.” Or maybe they had been attacked by jaguars. ( )
  HectorSwell | Jun 12, 2017 |
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Compares and contrasts the development of humankind in the old world and the new between 15,000 B.C. and 1500 A.D., and cites climate, domesticable animals, and hallucinogenic plants as the reasons for the discrepancy.

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