"The first prehistoric farmers of central Europe, the so-called Linearbandkeramik culture that arose slightly before 5000 B.C., were initially confined to soils light enough to be tilled by means of hand-held digging sticks. Only over a thousand years later, with the introduction of the ox-drawn plow, were those farmers able to extend their cultivation to a much wider range of heavy soils and tough sods. Similarly, Native American farmers of the North American Great Plains grew crops in the river valleys, but farming of the tough sods on the extensive uplands had to await 19th century Europeans and their animal-drawn plows."
- Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies
If the reader has spent any time reading material regarding the rise of civilization and the development of human technology and culture, the above quote will not stick out. The sentiments expressed by Diamond are those that can be read in hundreds upon hundreds of other sources. They are not wrong. That is precisely the change that increased the food supplies of both Europe and North America, as well as many other familiar cultures that can be found around the world.
The paragraph jumped out at me last week, however, in light of the continuing controversy I seem to be having about the explanation of my tech level proposal. If I may express the argument some have made, it would seem obvious that, once the technique could be intellectually shared, the food supply of every region would be increased as the ox-drawn plough was introduced. Why would anyone continue to plough with hand-digging sticks once the ox had been domesticated?
Diamond is making an assumption in the above; he knows he's making the assumption and it is no problem for him, because the argument he makes is not challenged by the assumption. That assumption is that heavy soils and tough sods exist in the area where ox-drawn ploughs are introduced.
That is by no means a guarantee. There are many places around the world where such soils don't exist, where hand-digging sticks are sufficient. It is true that oxen will till much more soil than hand-digging sticks, but many places in the world do not have enough tillable soil to make the introduction of oxen an efficient addition. Oxen eat. Some parts of the world can't produce enough food for both the humans in the region and oxen, so if cows exist at all they are not the sort that are made into working animals. A working cow gives less milk and far less meat, and because it must be fed in and around the place where it works, it must be fed with food that is produced on the local soils. On the other hand, cows that are not used as working animals can be taken far afield, to eat natural grass on lands that cannot be tilled at all, since they are composed of too much stone.
If the habit of using a cow to till isn't pursued, then the region will possess no residents who know how to employ a cow as a working animal. Do you know? You don't, because you don't need to know. An impoverished, agriculturally-stunted environment doesn't have that knowledge either, not because it doesn't exist, or because it isn't known about, but because it isn't needed. There are no parents to teach the technology to their children, so for all intents and purposes, the region continues to exist in a technologically backward state. It is irrelevant what technology exists elsewhere.
Far too often, we presume that different parts of the world advanced at different rates because the knowledge was lacking. To some degree, this works for parts of the New World prior to the 16th century . . . but how does it explain the continued backward cultures of Persia, North Africa, even Lapland and Pictish Scotland up until the 1400s? People elsewhere in the world knew how to read ~ why didn't a typical Icelandic herdsman?
Well, what good would it have done him? It required all of his daily labor, in those hours when light was available, to accomplish the tasks that would keep him and his community alive. When he was done, it was dark. He could not afford candles ~ what a waste that would have been. It requires a tremendously intricate commercial and civilized culture to enable a very small number of persons to possess the capital to waste on candles for no other purpose than to read or otherwise occupy themselves at night. The typical resident of Iceland did not have access to that culture until the early 20th century. No resident of Iceland possessed it in the 15th. That is why Iceland had an aural storytelling tradition.
This notion that knowledge overwrites everything about an existing culture's technology and status is a 20th century one. We cannot free ourselves consciously from it because it represents so much of our personal identity and cognitive experience. We see something new and we have adapted to immediately embrace it ~ because everything that we see can be embraced, implemented into our lives and made useful. This has not been true through the majority of human history; something demonstrably true from the accounts written by hundreds of travellers into foreign places: Conti, Przhevalsky, Leo Africanus, Marco Polo, even Lewis & Clark, if an American example is needed. In a world without mass communication or easy travel, a distance of a hundred miles must be, for most people, as far as a trip to the moon. Most people did not possess enough food at any given time in their lives that would enable them to walk that far and back again.
That is hard to get our heads around, when we get on a flight in the morning to attend a funeral 500 miles away, then to get on another flight afterwards to be home in time for dinner. To us, every farmer's field is the same, every collection of livestock is the same, every weapon is the same ~ and if there isn't iron to be mined in the area where swords might be made, obviously it would be imported, right?
But am I right? What would Ooredoo, my most recent tech-6 contribution, do with a lot of swords? To be used against who? Invaders who would come to seize . . . what, exactly? And if the invaders took over, and demanded taxes from the residents, how would that actually change anything? They pay taxes already. If they spend their hard-earned food on swords, the swords would just be sitting in rooms, where they could not be eaten. What good would that be?
We simply can't imagine a world without nationalism, without identifying ourselves according to our traditional belief systems, without getting angry because an outside country has done something inside our country. But no one from before the 15th century would have cared about that. Nationalism is a very late cultural development.
I urge the reader to try to think as a medieval or renaissance individual would have felt, when faced with technologies that did not substantially improve their lives, or were impractical for reasons such as available resources or social interest. Things were not always the way they are today.