Culture and the Advancement of Technology

Chloe Lewis

Once humans became settled into their environment and managed to manipulate agriculture until they were able to sustain their population, they were able to spend more time focusing on enhancing the primitive technologies that had already been developed, as well as begin to search for answers about things that were not understood. Thus came the development of religion and engineering. The more developed culture became the more answers and technologies it demanded. Essentially, with human development, culture became the modus operandi for the advancement of technology.
Easter Island is a very small island off the coast of South America. (Ponting) Although Easter Island has few permanent residents today, it is the graveyard of one of the worlds greatest early civilizations. The island is small enough that you could walk around the entire thing in just one day. There are no permanent freshwater sources and the soil is not accommodating to agriculture. When settlers from Mesoamerica arrived at the island in the fifth century there were no other mammals on the island. The population peaked at about 7,000 and was mainly supported on the chickens that the settlers had brought with them and an abundance of harvested sweet potatoes (Ponting). Because the harvesting of sweet potatoes requires so little care, the islanders were left with a considerable amount of idle time. In this time they developed one of the most advanced civilizations of the time period. Large stone sculptures and wide disc-like platforms (ahu) are relics of this ancient culture. (Ponting) The large sculptures are artistically crafted and required a great deal of technological skill and understanding. Additionally, the sculptures were then placed on the ahu's, which was no small task considering that they were twenty feet in length, weighed several tons, and had to be transported all the way across the island. The people of Easter Island clearly had a developed understanding of astronomy and the cosmos as well; each of the ahu are astronomically aligned towards a solstice or equinox. All of this was down in the name of religion, to fulfill a complex system of beliefs. Unfortunately, the people of Easter Island died because they "hit a wall", running out of natural resources. Because of warring people, they were unable to create a "tech fix" to transport them selves off the island. Still, Easter Island is a good example of the way idleness of time leads to culture which demands technology (Ponting).
The Greeks on the other hand, developed a culture that was completely enmeshed with technology and the linear development relative to culture and technology is less clear, but extremely present. For the Greeks, culture was not only limited or driven by their religious persuasion but was also manifested in warfare, the arts, education, and social conduct (including everything from politics to chariot racing, to public bath houses). Urban planning is an example of technology being directly applied to many cultural contexts, as it is driven by the needs of a culture. Greek cities utilized urban planning to emphasize buildings that had public use. (Chant, 65) The best example of classic urban planning is Miletus, which was built around two harbors with designated residential areas. (Chant, 61) In the development of city plans, many comities were involved, but most importantly an oracle was always consulted and never forgotten in the physical layout of the city, with temples and shrines strategically located.
In Mesoamerica, the Mayan's were also developing architecture with a central theme of deities. Citizens lived in simple dwellings, but the corbel arch was, a signature Mayan structure, was designed the way that it was to honor the gods. (Ehrlich, 341)
The materials used in developing architecture gave way to trade and a growing economy. The manipulation of bronze, iron and even pottery all contributed to developing strong trade routes between nations. With trade came money and as the economy flourished a class system developed and commodity was born. Technology was driven not only by need and religion, but also by commodity.
The Chinese originally developed gunpowder for religious ceremonies, using it primarily in fireworks, but understood its potential use in warfare. Their culture however, did not want or demand its uses. It wasn't until the westerners began to use it in warfare that it quickly and massively spread around the globe. (Ehrlich)
In the case of the Inuits we are given the example of a technology being applied to a culture. Seal is a major component of the Inuit diet. When hunting seals, in order to be able to pull them out of the water after they had been killed, the Inuits used spears with cords attached to hunt them. When they obtained firearms and began hunting the seals with bullets, they lost most of their kills because the seals immediately sank. In this case, the Inuit culture adapted to and was dictated by technology, but it was not their own. (Ehrlich, 220)
Fundamentally, culture is responsible for the development of technology, there are however; exceptions to the rule.
Works Cited:
Chant, Colin, "Chapter 2: Greece" in Pre-industrial Cities and Technology, Routledge
Press, 1999, pp. 48-80.
Ehrlich, Paul R., "Ch.11: Gods, Dive-Bombers, and Bureaucracy" in Human Natures:
Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect, Island Press, 2000, pp. 253-279.
Ponting, Clive. A Green History of the World. New York: St. Martin's Press. 199

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last updated 2/6/03