Cultures and Their Technologies

Emma Schroeder

Separating culture from the things that work within it and the things that create it is a difficult thing to do. Culture is not a stable entity; instead it continuously moves and changes. Early human cultures evolved with their environment. Societies had to develop in different ways in order to survive where they were located, changing social structures and the tools used. Both physical and intellectual developments could be considered technologies, technologies which in turn changed the society that had created them.

A culture's influence on technology is partly based on environmental and other external influences that shape the culture. When a culture forms, it develops in a way that is conducive to its survival. Agriculture developed around 10,000 years ago (Ponting, A Green History of the World), and no one knows exactly how. It could have been a changing climate or a change in human population. Either of these could have caused the need for a new way to survive, the solution for the early humans being agriculture. Another example of environmental change that influenced human culture is the adaptation of aborigines to the Australian desert. As it is a possibility that humans caused the environmental shifts in Australia (NPR radio clips), they would have had to adapt as those changes were taking place.

Societies slowly diverged from the traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle in different ways. Some people moved on to agriculture, creating a sedentary culture. Early agricultural societies first settled in valleys, an environment that suited their farming culture. Some of these earlier settlements included the Indus, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers (Drower). As a result of the sedentary lifestyle, populations grew because of changed routines for women. Women no longer had to carry children on long foraging trips, which allowed for shortened lactation and therefore less time between each pregnancy (Ehrlich, ch.11 Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect). With the increased population, it was necessary to find a way of transporting water to the plants so an increase in production would be possible. As a sedentary culture, large, immobile technologies could be used for irrigation. And it was no longer impractical to spend a lot of time and energy creating something that you would soon move away from. Therefore, many water moving, lifting and channeling technologies were invented. These included wells, pulleys to lift the water up, dams, dykes, cisterns, aqua ducts, canals, and terracing (Drower). In fact, the main technologies of the early agricultural societies were all water related.

But there were also societies that did not domesticate plants, but instead domesticated animals. Because herding and grazing animals invited a nomadic lifestyle, it was not possible or practical for these cultures to develop technologies such as the extensive irrigation of Mesopotamia. Instead they invented tools that would help their traveling. "Nomads developed technologies suited to their mobile way of life" (53, Chant), including the invention of the horse bit and bridal, as well as being the first to use the wheel as a transportation device (Chant).

Besides leading to technologies that increased agricultural output, a secondary result of increased agricultural production was the need for a way to record all of the crops and food distribution. Recording crops and surpluses was probably the first use of writing in human cultures. One of the earlier writings that we know about is Linear A, used in Greece during the Minoan era (Chant). Increased production also lead to a stratification of the human population as new jobs were created for people who were no longer required to farm. This allowed new technologies to develop to be used in new areas. Trading developed as societies had people with free time and the supplies to travel long distances, as well as materials to trade. Cultures adopted new ways to deal with increased communication, including cities for trading between places and walls around those cities for protection. It is thought that the first cities developed with trade, as cities provided a gathering place that could bring together raw materials, agriculture, and different societies (class discussion, 2-18-03). Societies used land and sea as trading paths. Physical placing of settlements changed according to the way in which trade was conducted. Greece was based on trade by sea, and so its cities had easy access to rivers that led to the ocean, and shipping technologies quickly evolved including man-made harbors and lighthouses (Chant).

While I have mentioned many examples of cultures developing technologies and then using them to their advantage, there were also some technologies created that could not be used in certain ways because of cultural views. China could have covered the earth much earlier than the Europeans if its culture was willing to use its technology to conquer and spread Chinese civilization. China had "a gigantic armada of some 300 ships and 28,000 sailors" that had traveled "as far as east Africa decades before Christopher Columbus sailed" (268, Ehrlich ch. 11: "God, Dive-bombers, and Bureaucracy"). But Chinese society held views that encouraged inwardness and looked down upon business, which meant that China stayed relatively self-contained even though it had the technology to do otherwise.

There are two things that effect societies and are created by them, but cannot be specified as technology in its normal sense. These are warfare and religion. I feel that religion could be categorized as an intellectual technology. It is something created by society in order to explain certain phenomenon. As humans moved away from a traditional hunter-gatherer culture, religion provided a way of designating leadership based on something other than biology (Ehrlich, ch.9). This can be seen when comparing desert societies to rain forest-based societies. Desert societies tended to create monotheistic religions, placing the reason for all hardships on one almighty god, while rain forest religions tended to be polytheistic. The environment surrounding a culture influenced religion, which in turn helped the people function together as a society. In this way, religion is a technology that helps a culture make the most of its resources (humans) by giving them a framework in which to work together.

Warfare is another technology that is not simply material. There are technological advances that help in war and hunting, such as the spear, bow and arrow and horse riding. But warfare is not just physical. It can mirror changes taking place in a culture. Warfare is used conquer resources and also as a way to unite a country together: if there is something to fight against, it connects people. In Greece, the make up of war changed when the government moved to democratic city-states. Instead of being dominated by aristocratic warriors on horses, there was a move toward foot soldiers that fought together, in a more egalitarian way. This mirrored the movement of Greek culture away from an aristocratic society to a democracy (Chant).

In all societies, there has not been a one-way movement between culture and a technology. Instead, as a culture develops within an environment, it slowly develops the need for certain tools. As this technology develops, the culture transforms again, to envelope the technology and use it to its maximum potential. New technologies allowed for expansion or growth in certain areas. This is true of irrigation. The use of irrigation allowed for a society spread over a larger area of land, and increase food production. In this way, irrigation created a surplus and allowed for the development of a stratified society, which in turn created technologies of its own. This happens for every invention, creating a blurred line between a culture and the technologies it uses. When a culture develops a technology, that technology in turn changes the culture that invented it.

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last updated 2/21/03