The propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another . . . is common to all men. —Adam Smith
What is society, whatever its form may be? The product of men’s reciprocal action. . . . Assume a particular state of development in the productive faculties of man and you will get a particular form of commerce and consumption.
When Europeans, beginning with Columbus, entered the New World in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, there were a number of things they didn’t pause to appreciate before commencing with the pillaging. One is that they had happened upon a rare and precious natural experiment. The ancestor of native Americans had migrated from northeast Asia during the late Stone Age, the "Upper Paleolithic." Then, around 10,000 B.C., with the climate warming, the land they’d walked across was deluged by the Bering Sea. The Old World and the New World were now two distinct petri dishes for cultural evolution. Any basic trends inherent in the process should be evident in both.
The experiment wasn’t perfect. Certainly by 2000 B.C., and possibly earlier, the Eskimos (also known as the Inuit) had boats. Though paddling across the Bering Sea wasn’t the kind of thing you would do for weekend recreation, and travel from one Alaskan village to another was often arduous, there now existed the theoretical possibility for innovations to move glacially from Asia into North America. Still, for most of prehistory, cultural change in the New World appear to have been indigenous, and even during the last few thousand years contact with the Old World was tenuous. The two hemispheres, west and east, are the closest things to huge, independent examples of ongoing cultural change that this planet has to offer.
There is one other reason that primitive American cultures are so enlightening. As of Columbus’s voyage, they had an advantage over primitive Eurasian societies as objects of study. Namely, they still existed; they had not been steamrolled by the expansion of Old World civilizations. And, though Columbus and other Europeans tried to make up for lost time with their own steamrolling, they were not wholly effective. Observed and recorded in the New World was an unprecedented array of cultures, with diverse technologies and social structures.’ From this diversity a few basic patterns emerge, pattern that turn out to be consistent with the archaeological remains of those steamrolled Old World cultures. Native American cultures thus offer unique evidence of the universal impetus toward cultural complexity.
Indeed, they virtually how that impetus in action. Snapshots of the different American "cultural fossils" amount to a kind of time-lapse sequence in which cultural evolution pushes social complexity beyond the level of the Shoshone, toward the modern world.
TWO KINDS OF ESKIMO
Consider two kinds of Eskimo. The Nunamiut Eskimos are comparable to the Shoshone—a basically family-level social organization that occasionally reaches a higher level. (During seasonal caribou migrations, renowned hunter lead big hunts.) The Nunamiut’s neighbors, the Tareumiut, are closely related, and speak the same language. But there’s one difference: whereas the Nunamiut live inland, the Tareumiut live on the coast, and hunt whales. And, as the cultural anthropologist Allen W. Johnson and the archaeologist Timothy Earle have noted, this whale-hunting technology seems to have propelled Tareumiut social organization up the ladder of complexity.
Each whaling boat is run by an umealiq—a "boat owner"—who recruits a crew that includes such specialists as a helmsman and a harpooner. There is no better metaphor for a non-zero-sum relationship than being "in the same boat." (And that’s especially true when capsizing means death by freezing.) But in this case the non-zero-sumness extends well beyond one boat.
It often takes several boats to kill a whale, and boat owners must coordinate both the hunt and the food distribution. Perhaps building on this interdependence, the boat owners within a village have created a kind of joint insurance policy. If any one owner has fallen on hard times, he and his crew can draw food from other owners, with the promise of future reciprocation. The Tareumiut say proudly, "We don’t let people starve," and indeed the long winters—the season of scarcity—are less precarious for them than for the Nunamiut.
This spreading of risk doesn’t end at the village’s bounds. An umealiq who has had a banner whaling season invites boat owner from other villages to a "Messenger Feast," where he lards them with surplus blubber and meat. This may seem magnanimous, but, as with the smaller-scale "altruism" among the !Kung, generosity is a veneer; future reciprocation is de rigueur. Like insurance policyholders, the region’s boat owners are playing a non-zero-sum game, finding in large numbers security against misfortune. Long before economists were drawing graphs showing how diversified stock portfolios could serve the human aversion to risk, cultures were evolving by the same logic.
The Tareumiut are more socially complex than the Shoshone, the !Kung, or the Nunamiut. Their villages, with 100 to 200 people, comprise numerous families, living interdependently year round. These villages are truly "suprafamilial," whereas members of the smaller !Kung camps are often so closely related by blood or marriage as to be more like a big extended family.
THE NORTHWEST COAST INDIANS
The Tareumiut, with their entrepreneurial boat owners and their intricate whale hunts, belie the standard image of the simple hunter-gatherer society. But not nearly so much as the natives of the Northwest Coast of North America—the Salish, the Haida, the Kwakiutl, the Nootka, the Chilkat, and others. These peoples, arrayed north and south of the present-day border between Canada and the United States, had taken yet another step up the ladder of complexity.
In the popular mind these peoples are best known for the "Potlatch," the famously ridiculous ritual in which local chiefs indulged in fierce duels of generosity. It got to the point, sometimes, where they would prove their wealth by heaping prized possessions not just on one another but on bonfires. But the culture of the northwestern native Americans illustrates more than the human penchant for showing off. Namely: the ongoing conversion of non-zero-sumness into positive sums, and the resultant growth in social complexity.
The Northwest Coast Indians were blessed with mindboggling natural bounty. The salmon in their river may not have been so dense that, as one explorer claimed, "you could walk across their backs," but they were dense. There were also halibut, cod, and herring, and the sea was rich with shellfish, sea otters, seals, and whales. And then there was the incomparable candlefish—so oily that supposedly you can stick a wick in it and use it to light a room.
Diverse game called for diverse technology. The Nootka had an array of fishhooks ranging from a heat-treated spruce hook for halibut to a bone hook for cod. They made harpoons and tied them to inflated sealskin floats, to sap the energy of struggling whales. Boats ranged from one-man canoes to eight-man whalers to sixty-foot cargo boats. The Nootka had traps for bear, for deer, for elk. They had four kinds of salmon traps, ranging from cubic- to cone-shaped, some as big as a small house. (The actual houses, suburban ranch-styles, were routinely larger than 2,000 square feet and sometimes a large as 4,000.) There were mokehouses for curing fish, cellars for storing cured fish, and watertight cedar boxes for storing berries.
Not all the technology was so utilitarian. Luxury goods ranged from ornate copper hields to decorative robes whose creation was an exercise in economic interdependence. Chilkat women spun the yarn from the wool of mountain goats and made twine out of cedar bark imported from Indians to the south. The yarn was dyed one of four colors, including a true blue (rare among hunter-gatherers) that wa made by importing copper from the north and soaking it in urine. On a loom, the women wove intricate patterns—animals or abstractions. The finished product was exported to various Northwest Coast Indians whose aspiration was to someday be buried in an attractive robe.
Much of this technology involved that classic non-zero-sum game, division of labor— through which, as Adam Smith noted, a group of people can expand overall output. Though all Northwest Coast Indian families would hunt and gather, many also had a sideline craft—carpentry, say—that was handed down through the family.
These native Americans also played the non-zero-sum game played by the Tareumiut and the Shoshone: collective hunting, as reflected in their whaling fleets and the huge fish traps they affixed to the river floor with massive posts. These things were major capital investments. To build a salmon trap or a whaling boat took weeks. The workers had to be paid for their labor, if only in the sense of being fed. So before building began, resources had to be saved and committed to the project.
Capital investment and division of labor are things we take for granted. They happen naturally in an economy with a currency, a stock exchange, and a bond market. The Northwest Coast Indians didn’t have a capitalist economy, or even a currency, yet they managed to play the same basic non-zero-sum games capitalists play. How? Through the great enemy of Adam Smith aficionados: centralized planning.
THE BIG MAN GOES TO MARKET
The chief planner was the political leader, the "Big Man." He held the allegiance of a clan, maybe a village. He orchestrated the building of salmon traps or fish cellars, and he made sure that some villagers specialized in, say, making canoes that other villagers could then use. To pay for all of this he would take one-fifth, or even half, of a hunter’s kill. Some of this revenue would be returned to the people in the form of chief-sponsored feasts, but for the most part this was simple taxation, used for public goods. Only, in this case, many of the "public goods" were things that a modern capitalist society might deem private goods. (The U.S. government doesn’t have a Bureau of Canoe-making.)
Needless to say, the Big Man skimmed a little off the top. He lived in a nicer-than-average house and owned a nicer-than-average wardrobe. Whether he skimmed off more than he "deserved" is a complex question that gets at an unresolved academic dispute about how exploitive ruling classes are. We’ll get to this debate later. For now I’ll just note that skimming a little off the top isn’t exactly unheard of in a modern economy. Investment banking isn’t charity work.
The Northwest Coast Indians’ rudimentary "government" wasn’t only a stand-in for the market. It did things that governments do even in capitalist societies. For example, if fishermen were allowed to compete without restraint, they could deplete the salmon stock, hurting everyone. This is an instance of what the biologist Garrett Hardin famously called the "tragedy of the commons" in which overgrazing of public land by privately owned herds would be ruinous, so all herd owners can benefit by mutual restraint. The Northwest Coast Indians solved the problem by deciding when fishing would begin and end, much as governments today enforce a hunting season so that deer and ducks will live to die another day. There was even a specialist—a kind of "fishing warden"—who would go around from trap to trap, inspecting the haul to decide when the fishing must end.
Northwest government also blunted misfortune. Goods that Big Men gathered as tax— blankets, sea otter furs, hammered copper—were in times of scarcity traded for food with another region’s Big Man, and the food then divvied up among followers. Here Big Men were together tapping one of the most hallowed forms of socially integrating non-zero-sumness: the diffusion of risk, as practiced by the !Kung with their giraffe-meat dinner parties and by Eskimo boat owners with their inter-village feasts. The more widely this risk is spread, the better for all concerned. And the Northwest Coast Indians spread it as widely as any known hunter-gatherer people, "even across ‘tribal’ and linguistic boundaries,," as Johnson and Earle note.
The resulting safety net has been called by various anthropologists "social security," a "life insurance policy," and a "savings account." The diversity of labels illustrates that, even today, people argue over whether this function belongs in the public or private sector. The issue is partly a moral one, turning on judgments about whether the wealthy should help the poor. But to some extent the issue is technological. Modern information and transportation technology make it easier to do all kinds of exchanges without central coordination. Today a middle-class citizen of an industrialized nation can diffuse risk to the ends of the earth, buying mutual funds that invest east and west, north and south.
Two economists of differing ideologies could have a long argument about whether the Northwest Coast Indians, even with their primitive technology, couldn’t have put some of the Big Man’s functions in the private sector. But almost any economist would admit that, given the absence of money, these native Americans had a remarkable economy, with great specialization, large capital investment, and disaster insurance. All of this is a tribute to how steadfastly, even unconsciously, human nature pursues non-zero-sum gain, shaping social structure to that end.
In this case, the requisite social structure was elaborate: villages of up to 800 people, with dozens of families recognizing a single, central authority. To be sure, the Big Man’s power were hardly absolute, or even very formal; to keep the economy humming, he sometimes had to cajole or browbeat reluctant donors. Still, the Big Man system carries economic and political complexity to a level higher than any other society we’ve seen so far. The Northwest Coast Indians are testament to the arrow of cultural evolution, and to its guiding force.
FREAKS OF NATURE?
Yet they’ve often been depicted as the opposite. Anthropologists of a Boasian stripe have presented Northwest culture not as a natural progression toward modern social complexity, but as a freak of nature, proof that no universal evolutionary scheme can accommodate all cultures. The Northwesterners, wrote the archetypal Boasian Ruth Benedict, were a "vigorous and overbearing people" who "had a culture of no common order." Its "values were not those which are commonly recognized, and its drives not those frequently honored."
Actually, its values and drives are quite familiar—strikingly like those of the modern world. There was jockeying for status, an attendant accumulation of wealth, and thus an economy driven partly by demand for nonessential items. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that, if not corrupted by white men, Northwestern culture would have kept doing what it had done up until then—modernizing: producing wealth more and more efficiently.
The Northwesterners may have been on the verge of a de facto currency—strings of dentalia shells, used as a sign of prestige and occasionally as compensation for public service. Certainly the idea of abstractly embodied wealth was familiar. One Big Man, in exchange for goods, issued tokens that entitled the holders to blubber from the next whale that washed up on his people’s beach. If he had been born a century later, he might have founded the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
Granted, the Northwesterners did, as Benedict suggested, have their oddities. Tossing handwoven blankets onto a bonfire seems more wasteful even than modern means of conspicuous consumption. But not by much. Besides, the absurdity of the Potlatch has been exaggerated. It became flagrantly wasteful only after white traders filled Northwest culture with new luxury goods and in other ways jostled tradition. In pristine form, the Potlatch had mainly served non-zero-sum ends. It was a time to hare useful information, and, since the "generosity" was ultimately reciprocal, it was a rudimentary (and perhaps vestigial) way of using surplus to dull future risk. Even Benedict’s mentor, Boas himself, had said that one point of the Potlatch was to assemble an audience for large-scale altruism between villages, thus ensuring that the debt was recorded in the public mind.
Of course, Boas didn’t mean to affirm an evolutionary chema. In observing that the Northwestern economy was "largely based on credit, just as much as that of civilized communities," he was trying to throw a wrench into the evolutionary works. After all, weren’t hunter-gatherers, in such standard evolutionary theories as Lewis Henry Morgan’s, supposed to have communal economies?
Yes, they were. But one thing cultural evolutionists later decided was that Morgan had erred in defining his evolutionary stages in such tightly technological terms. In his scheme, for a culture to graduate from lower barbarism to middle barbarism it had to domesticate plants or animals (and to move from savagery to lower barbarism in the first place it had to have pottery). But, as the Northwest Coast Indians show, an affluent hunter-gatherer society can be more complex than some societies with domestication.
In the early 1960s, when the mid-century revival of cultural evolutionism was in full flower, Elman Service, one of Leslie White’s students, proposed a new taxonomy: band, tribe, chiefdom, state. The four grades were demarked not by technology but by political and economic organization. The Shoshone, hunter-gatherers, were a band. The Northwest Coast Indians, also hunter-gatherers, were a chiefdom—because they had extensive economic specialization coordinated by a central authority.
Defining evolutionary stages in terms of social structure was a great advance, but even so things remain fuzzy. No two societies in the same "stage" are exactly alike. Besides, cultural evolution can move so gradually as to resist division into "stages" in the first place.
To be sure, there are thresholds that get crossed somewhere between the earliest hunter-gatherers and ancient Mesopotamia: the suprafamilial threshold, in which multiple extended families come under unified village governance, and the supravillage threshold. But even these concepts lack Platonic clarity. Among the Northwest Coast Indians, the strength of supravillage leadership firmed up during war and loosened in peacetime. So scholars who consider uch leadership a hallmark of chiefdomhood have dissented from Service’s assigning the "chiefdom" label to Northwest culture. Allen Johnson and Timothy Earle, whose 1987 book The Evolution of Human Societies proposed a new seven-fold taxonomy, classify it as a "Big Man collectivity," just shy of a chiefdom.
Whatever. The main point is that, since Boas’s day, when the Northwest Indians were considered so aberrant as to almost single-handedly refute cultural evolutionism, they have begun to seem less peculiar. One reason is this realization that technology doesn’t work as the basic gauge of evolution, even if it is a basic impetus of evolution. But there are other reasons, too.
For starters, the ruthless generosity on display during the Potlatch has been found in a number of societies at roughly the same level of social organization. A Big Man in New Guinea, having bestowed piles of food and wealth on another Big Man, was heard to proclaim, "I have won. I have knocked you down by giving so much."
The satisfaction of delivering that one line seems meager compensation for the months it took the Big Man and his follower to scrape together the largesse. But the line impresses people, raising his social status. And social status, however ephemeral it sounds, has long brought tangible rewards. For example: Big Men, if Big enough, can attract multiple wives.
For that matter, a successful Big Man’s stature can rub off on his lieutenants. At one feast in the Solomon Islands, observed in 1939, a Big Man named Soni parted with mounds of ago-almond pudding and thirty-two pigs at a feast attended by 1,100 people. Soni’s closest followers, who had toiled long and hard toward this day, watched proudly, but, like Soni, ate nothing. They consoled themselves with this refrain: "We shall eat Soni’s renown."
Whether their share of Soni’s renown—along with any other patronage Soni passed along—justified the work they put into his elevation is an open question. Though every coalition has a non-zero-sum premise—the prospect of a win-win-win outcome for its members—every coalition also has its natural zero-sum dimension: tension over how to divide the costs and benefits of collective action. In the end, even if the coalition attains its collective reward, some members may get such slim pickings that they’d have been better off not joining in the first place.
In cases such as Soni’s, my guess is that this sort of out-and-out parasitism is the exception, not the rule. I say that not because I assume Soni is a nice guy, but because I assume his followers, being human, are naturally good at guarding their interests. In any event, regardless of whether their gain indeed warranted their labors, Soni’s job was to convince them that it did. And in thus mobilizing a productive coalition of scores, even hundreds, of follower for a project whose payoff is distant and vague, the Big Man carries politics to a level beyond that of the Shoshone rabbit boss.
Indeed, though he lacks formal power of office, and must rely on persuasion, the generic Big Man foreshadows the modern politician. He "is usually a good speaker, convincing to his listeners," writes Allen Johnson of the Melanesian Big Man. He "has an excellent memory for kinship relations and for past transactions in societies where there is no writing." The Big Man "is a peacemaker whenever possible, arranging compensatory payments and fines in order to avoid direct violent retribution from groups who feel they have been injured." But, if peacemaking fails, "he leads his follower into battle."
Central among the Big Man’s political challenges is to keep different families united in a single polity. It is a loose polity by modern standards, but it is firmer than, say, the essentially leaderless communities of the Tareumiut. Crossing this threshold, to the centralized suprafamilial political unit, was assuredly no easy task. Affection and trust by nature come more easily, and less conditionally, within families than between them.
It is striking how often, around the world, Big Man societies have used the same cement to keep friction between families low: rituals and language that harness the natural emotional valence of kinship. Thus the various families in a Northwestern clan would celebrate their common, distant ancestor (sanctified by their totem pole), though it’s not clear that this ancestor had in all cases actually existed. And in a New Guinea Big Man society, a men’s organization that lent cohesion to the suprafamilial fabric was called "Brothers Under the Skin."
THE ABERRANT !KUNG
But if the native American societies of the Northwest Coast were not a freak of nature, and in fact represent a natural phase in cultural evolution, then why do so few hunter-gatherer "cultural fossils" record that phase? Why is it that most other Big Man societies on the anthropological record, including those above, had domesticated crops? Why are a large majority of known hunter-gatherer societies labeled by anthropologists as "egalitarian" (at least, relatively egalitarian), such as the !Kung and the Shoshone?
Maybe because that’s all that was left by the time the anthropologists showed up. One reason the !Kung and the Shoshone are so culturally simple is that they live in barren lands. This means, for example, that they must move often to keep fed, and so can’t accumulate the weighty status symbols that the more sedentary Northwesterners spent their time crafting. (Never set out on a fifteen-mile trek with a thirty-foot totem pole balanced on your head.) What about hunter-gatherers who live on choice land? Well, by the time anthropologists happened on the scene, most of those societies were gone. Their cultures had either evolved to a higher level (perhaps the ones the anthropologists had come from) or been overwhelmed by a culture that had. Agricultural societies, after all, are known to lust after good land, and hunter-gatherer societies are known for succumbing to their advances, willingly or not.
So hunter-gatherers who may have inhabited the fertile hores and valleys of Europe and Asia are not available for inspection. Similarly, in Africa, the Bantu and other agriculturalists long ago swept across the best land, erasing past culture. Even in North America, much of the richest land—along the Mississippi River, around the lower Great Lakes—was being farmed by the time white men arrived. And of the remaining affluent hunter-gatherer cultures, many—in Florida and California, for example—were pushed aside before nineteenth-century anthropologists could marvel at their peculiarity (though in both of those areas, white intruders got a clear glimpse of impressive social complexity before annihilating it). The Northwest Coast Indians, far from the main avenues of western onslaught, are one of the few hunter-gatherer societies closely observed by anthropologists in such a rich natural habitat. For all we know, they are typical.
Indeed, archaeologists have lately amassed evidence to that effect. On various continents, between 6,000 and 15,000 years ago, hunter-gatherer remains show signs of growing complexity. There are capital projects, such as storehouses. And "prestige technologies" sit alongside the familiar stone blades and arrowheads. There are bracelets, necklaces, finely sculpted amber pendants, and headdresses. Jewelry is made of bone or hells or malachite or volcanic glass. Even practical things—bowls, knives—get more ornate. And within a given society, some people are buried amid more of this wealth than others. In short, the remains of these societies look rather like the remains of the Northwest Coast Indians.
That is why it is not mere conjecture to call the Northwest Coast Indians "cultural fossils," rough exemplar of a particular stage in cultural evolution. Boasian anthropologists can spend all the time they want denying evolutionary pattern, but archaeologists have found a trend too widespread to be meaningless: the more recent the hunter-gatherer remains in a given region, the more likely they are to speak of social and technological complexity. And in particularly lush spots—along rivers, lakes, and oceans—the complexity often approaches that of the Northwest Coast Indians. As the archaeologist Brian Fagan has written, artifacts unearthed in recent decades speak of a "global trend toward great complexity in hunter-gatherer societies in well-defined regions as widely separated a northern Europe, outhern Africa, Japan, the [American] Midwest, and coastal Peru."
The nineteenth-century evolutionists lacked these data. They can be forgiven for overgeneralizing from a biased sample, and typecasting hunter-gatherers as poor and communal. And Boas and Benedict, having this type-casting in mind, can be forgiven for considering the Northwest Coast’s advanced culture a problem for evolutionary theories. Still, the fact remains that they were wrong. A mature evolutionary theory is bolstered, not undermined, by the parallels between complex hunter-gatherer societies and modern economies.
For that matter, evolutionary theory is bolstered by simpler hunter-gatherers, including the Shoshone. They, too, embody directional cultural change. When the first Americans crossed Beringia, they possessed Upper Paleolithic technology, which had begun to flourish around 35,000 B.C. This was a big advance over Middle Paleolithic technology, but it was still pretty basic: long stone blades, fine bone points for spear or harpoons, spear-throwing contraptions. Then, around 12,000 years ago, after Upper Paleolithic people reached America and started carrying this technology all over the New World, the Old World was swept by the next big thing: Mesolithic technology. This included various fishhooks, hunting and fishing nets, complex traps and snares, racks for smoking meat to preserve it, storage baskets, and mortars and pestles for grinding wild seeds. And the bow and arrow, invented at the very end of the Upper Paleolithic, now spread widely.
AN EVOLUTIONARY MIRROR
How closely was this Old World trend mirrored in the New World, our hemispheric petri dish? Very. Every society in the Americas, by the time the Europeans arrived, had reached or surpassed the Mesolithic level (which for obscure reasons of academic history is called the "Archaic" in its American manifestations). Even the "lowly" Shoshone had their rabbit nets, and commensurate institutions. Of course, not every American society independently reinvented everything in the Mesolithic tool kit. The bow and arrow may have come all the way from Eurasia via Eskimos a few thousand years ago. But much of the New World technology is too local in its utility to have come across the Bering Sea.
All of this helps explain why we can call the Shoshone "cultural fossils": because, like the Northwest Indians, they correspond roughly to what the archaeological record depicts as a natural phase in a worldwide evolution from simple to complex social structure.
If there were a single continent, or even a single large piece of turf, that didn’t reflect this trend, then the skeptics of cultural evolution would have ground to stand on. But the once-standard example of cultural stagnation—Australia, land of the aborigine—has now been swept from under their feet. Archaeologists have found a trend in Australian hunter-gatherer culture toward more subtle subsistence, featuring, for example, fishhooks and a neat trick for harvesting eels—digging dead-end ditches. (And when was the last time you invented anything as clever as the boomerang?) Meanwhile, trade was growing, as aborigines tried to get their hands on such fancy items as greenstone axes. This and other evidence of a shift comparable to the Mesolithic has undermined the "traditional static model of Australian prehistory," observes the archaeologist Harry Lourandos.
Maybe there’s a limit to how flattered the aborigines should be by this revisionism, for here I’m using it to support the notion of an upward arrow of human history, and on this arrow their culture ranks "lower" than most others. Still, embracing this notion isn’t as insulting as denying it. For to deny any directionality in cultural evolution is to say that the aborigines, or the Shoshone, or the !Kung, left to their own devices, would show no natural tendency toward higher levels of technological sophistication and social complexity.
This is of course ridiculous. Every known hunter-gatherer culture embodies a technological evolution that speaks of stubborn ingenuity focused on the resources at hand. The !Kung’s one-liter ostrich-egg canteens, their four-liter antelope-stomach sacs, their bone arrowheads coated with beetle-pupae poison paste—all have their counterparts in comparably mart hunter-gatherer innovation around the world. The aborigines use kangaroo incisor as chisels. They attach wooden handles to their stone knife blades by heating gum from eucalyptus to make a glue as strong as epoxy. The Andaman Islanders fuse vegetable gum and beeswax for the same purpose. They use bivalve shells for woodworking—a trick also discovered by the Alakaluf of southern Chile. The Copper River Eskimo took copper from the river, heated it, and forged it into daggers and arrowheads with stone hammers. The Greenland Eskimo used sandstone to saw chunks of iron from local meteorites and then pounded it into tools and weapons. The Chukchi of Siberia made webbed snowshoes, and the Australians of the Great Sandy Desert made webbed sand-shoes. And again and again—as with the Northwest Coast Indians—we find technology that goes beyond the demands of subsistence. The Ainu hunter-gatherers of Japan made "mustache lifters" to keep their soup facial-hair-free.
All of these cultures show longstanding, incremental progress. That this trend would continue indefinitely, had it not been interrupted by outsiders, is a central tenet of cultural evolutionism—or, more precisely, of the kind of cultural evolutionism championed in this topic: a hard-core kind that sees the coming of the modern world as having been all but inevitable. To deny that tenet is to deny, explicitly or implicitly, the unity of humankind, the fundamental equality of aptitude and aspiration among people of all races.
Not that all of the aspirations are noble. Among the drivers of cultural evolution are the quest for status, the pleasure in showing off, and the thirst for material goods, ranging from key survival tools to needless gadgetry. The archaeologist Brian Hayden, having lived with indigenous peoples in Australia, North America, the Near East, and the Far East, has this to report: "I can say categorically that the people of all the cultures I have come in contact with exhibit a strong desire to have the benefits of industrial goods that are available. I am convinced that the ‘nonmaterialistic culture’ is a myth. . . . We are all materialistic."
Of course, notwithstanding the psychic unity of humankind, different peoples have moved along the arrow of history at different speeds. And there must be a reason. But if there is one lesson to take away from native American cultures, it is that race doesn’t seem to be that reason. The various peoples living in the New World when white men showed up were not genetically homogenous; both biological and linguistic evidence suggest that they came from Asia in three successive waves. Still, the distinctions were not large; to the extent that the concept of "race" has coherence, the native Americans were all in the same "race." Yet, within that race all basic levels of social evolution were represented: from the Shoshone—the "irreducible minimum"—through the complex hunter-gatherers in the Northwest, through the agricultural chiefdoms to the east and south, to the state-level societies in what we now call Latin America.
Indeed, if we take linguistic affinity as an index of genetic affinity—as it usually, though not always, is—we can see how little genetic differences mean. The Shoshone and Nahuatl languages are close relatives—both members not just of the Amerind subset of the New World languages, or of the Central Amerind branch of Amerind, but of the Uto-Aztecan sub-branch of Central Amerind. Yet the Shoshone were at the "bottom" of the ladder of cultural evolution, and the speaker of Nahuatl—the Aztecs, who built pyramids and had hieroglyphic writing—were at the top. Blood would seem to mean little compared to environment, historical contingency, and cultural legacy.
Or consider, again, the peoples comprising the Northwest Indians. All belonged to what anthropologists recognize as a basically unified, though hardly homogenous, culture. Yet recent studies how them to be as different genetically as any group of Indians living contiguously in a comparably mall space. And they peak languages so different as to suggest that some are descended from the first great migratory wave from Asia and some from the second. Yet they had a common habitat and intertwined cultural histories, and these proved decisive.
Okay, so if genes aren’t the answer, what is? What exactly was it about the Shoshone that so handicapped them? So far in this topic we’ve more or less assumed that an environment of plenty, such as the Northwest Coast, conduces to advance, while barren land does not. But, as we’ll see in the next topic, that explanation is incomplete at best.
To be sure, fertile environments often accelerate cultural evolution. But not for the reasons you might think—not just because they yield natural affluence or permit the accumulation of surplus. The real key to cultural advance is more subtle. And, as we’ll see, it is a powerful key, capable of explaining broad patterns in the past. For example, not just why the culture of the Shoshone was "slower" than that on the Northwest Coast, but why the New World in general had "slower" culture than the Old World.