Since the early days of Homo sapiens, we have endured many
cultural and technological changes. Many historians now are wondering, what
usually comes first? Does a radical advance in technology force our cultures
of the past and present to change? Or, do the changes in our cultures' wants
and needs press for technological advance? These questions have yet to be
answered, but through our class readings and discussions one would get the
feeling that technological advances more often caused cultural change, with
the degree of change varying between societies. This paper looks to review
these technological advances and then bring into question whether one can
really determine which influences the other.
One of the greatest technological revolutions that historians
and sociologists are able to study is the Agricultural Revolution of our
forbearers. Because of this revolution, Homo sapiens moved from a hunter-gatherer
lifestyle to a static lifestyle of domesticating plants and animals. Paul
Ehrlich in his book, Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect,
discusses how the large scale cultural evolution that ensued could have
not occurred without the original technological revolution. "Without
farming, which freed some people of the chore of wresting nourishment from
the environment, there would be no cities, no states, no science, and no
mayors, fashion models, professional soldiers, or airline pilots."
(Ehrlich, 227) Yet, Ehrlich explains that even though a technological revolution
was spreading throughout the world, not all cultures ended up with the same
social practices. This is best seen in his discussion about the islands
Mangaia and Tikopia and their inhabitants.
Both the peoples of Mangaia and Tikopia originally embraced
the Agricultural Revolution. But, these two societies would have different
cultural reactions to the change this revolution brought. The people of
Tikopia would eventually switch over to a "sustainable arboricultural
system," realizing that domesticated animals like pigs were too destructive
to the farming system. The Mangaians, on the other hand, stuck with both
domesticated animals and plants as sources of food. As a result, the natural
environment, and thus the production of food on the island, deteriorated
with time. Archeologists have found that as "pig and chicken bones
faded from the late prehistoric fossil record and the native fauna declined,
two new items showed up as major features of the Magaian diet - rats and
people." (Ehrlich, p. 245) Eventually, this cannibalistic society found
on Magaia would crash while the Tikopian society would remain stable through
modern times. Ehrlich explains, through cited observations by Patrick Kirch,
that other cultural differences, besides their eating habits, factored into
why these two civilizations went different directions after adapting the
agricultural system. "The Mangaians 'chose a path that led in the end
to terror: to the stalking of sacrificial victims in the night, to the incessant
raiding of neighboring valleys, to a political system built on bruit force.'"
The Tikopians instead paid the price through population controls. Although
these population controls were at times harsh, they seem "to have been
a mutually agreed-on price." (Ehrlich, p. 246)
A second reading we did in class that explained cultural change
as a result of technological change was found in an article by Colin Chant.
In this article, Chant concedes the notion that cities could not have been
created without the development of agriculture. As technological advances
were made on farms and production rates rose, the cities grew as well. Cities
not only provided a place for specialization and trade, it also provided
its people a safe place to live. People no longer had to worry about defending
their farm or harvesting their yearly crop. They could concentrate on a
profession that they were either better at or simply enjoyed more. (notes)
A reading I found very helpful outside the class was entitled "The Fiber Revolution", by Joy McCorriston. In this article McCorriston explains that technological innovation, and its impact on social change can be traced all the way back to Mesopotamia. McCorriston's example of technological innovation is a rather small one, the change from flax to wool as the main textile fiber of the society. But the change in these textile fibers parallels a very large change in Mesopotamia's culture.
During the transformation of ancient Mesopotamia from a landscape of relatively independent and self-sufficient communities to a highly integrated complex of rural and urban settlements, flax was replaced by wool as the principal textile fiber. This shift coincided with the development of large textile producing workshops along side the formerly ubiquitous small-scale, household based producers.
McCorriston explains that when the people of Mesopotamia switched over from flax to wool, a lot of labor was freed up. (see table 2) Not only was labor freed up, but land as well. The people of Mesopotamia therefore were now able to produce other agricultural products, like cereal grains with their free land, and use their excess labor force to move into areas like specialized crafts. (McCorriston, p. 527) This move into specialization also coincides with the relocation of many individuals as well. People during this period, though not as rapidly as the Early Dynastic Period, start to move from their rural living quarters to the cities. (McCorriston, p. 526)
All of these readings point to the idea that a technological advance is what eventually leads to cultural change. But they are also all based on "fuzzy" knowledge from the past (McCorrison admits a lot of his theory is hypothesized). So one can try to apply this theory to a more modern day example. Did Herman Hollerith invent his tabulating machine at the turn of the century because our culture needed a better way to keep track of information, or did this invention simply give rise to all sorts of tabulating and computing machines that our culture accepted with open arms? In a sense, it is the same predicament as the chicken or the egg question. I feel it is therefore tough to explain which pushes the other to further evolution. Nevertheless, the two have a very unique relationship and have been interacting since man first evolved.
McCorriston, Joy. "The Fiber Revolution". Current Anthropology, Volume 38, Number 4, August - October 1997. p. 524.
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