The Great Divide, Nature and Human Nature in the Old World and the New

Jacques G. Richardson (Jacques G. Richardson is a Partner based at Decision+Communication, Authon la Plaine, France.)


ISSN: 1463-6689

Article publication date: 9 March 2015



Jacques G. Richardson (2015), "The Great Divide, Nature and Human Nature in the Old World and the New", Foresight, Vol. 17 No. 1, pp. 85-88.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2015, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The discovery of America was important intellectually to the Europeans because the new lands and peoples challenged traditional ideas about geography, history, theology, even about the nature of man (p. 525).

This longish treatise on how humanity’s socio-cultural and economic development emerged is, probably unwittingly on Peter Watson’s part, a detailed sketch of retro strategy as an interpretation of forward movement. Historian Watson traces the findings of archeology and paleontology through the different worlds of Eurasia and the Americas from humankind’s earliest moments until roughly the present era. He separates this persuasive thesis, rich in detail, in three functional parts:

  1. the difference between early Americans and the world’s other peoples;

  2. how nature in the Old World differs from that in the New World; and

  3. how human nature itself evolved differently in these two half-worlds.

Subscribing to the broadly accepted view that Homo sapiens originated in Africa, the author also adheres to the thesis that our development in doing occurred, saliently, in the great Eurasian land mass, especially in southwestern Asia and the great steppe lands to the north and east. There, the Homo species learned to sophisticate food procurement, exploit quadruped animals, expand tool use and live collectively while defending themselves against both hostile congeners and nature. In the western hemisphere, cultural innovation developed more slowly and with less diversification – and in the original homeland of Africa at an even slower pace. Our ancestral hominids in effect tested and refined their own scenarios for survival and, generation by generation, achievement.

The author’s “divide” refers to the global split in the evolution of the early civilizations. Those of Eurasia extended:

[…] between latitudes seven degrees north and fifty degrees north, both tropical and temperate zones […]; the main ancient American civilizations – Chavin, Moche, Olmec, Toltec, Inca, Aztec and so on – all occurred between eighteen degrees south and twenty-five degrees north […]. The American civilizations are entirely within the tropics […].

The western hemisphere’s culturo-economic evolution was thereby along a north-south axis determined largely by the topography of its two continental masses and their mountain ranges. Eurasian development, on the contrary, played along a west–east axis largely unencumbered by natural barriers and facilitating migration. Asia – Americas migration occurred, as we all accept now, while the Bering land bridge still existed.

The progression from hunting and gathering to agriculture occurred more rapidly in Eurasia beginning about 10,000 years ago, whereas this emergence was slower in moving from nomadic patterns to more sedentary modes in the Americas. The storing of grain and pastoralism appeared faster in Eurasia, and the truly flourishing agriculture in the Americas had to await the arrival of the Iberians and northwestern Europeans in the fifteenth century. Artifacts created and improved by humans appeared faster in the Old World than in the New World, although South America’s Olmec culture created fine ceramics and textiles well ahead of other New Worlders. In both hemispheres, there developed a surprising sense of water management and conservation, including the construction of earthen canals for irrigation, controlled gravitational flow and reservoirs – all clearly engineering demonstrations of foresight and planning.

Beer, wheels and the environment

The Chavin cult, like that of the Olmec, spread far and wide in the American southern hemisphere. Notable advances embraced:

[…] the forging and annealing of gold and silver, techniques with no known antecedents in ancient South America – soldering, sweat-welding, and repoussé decoration, alloying, embossing and champlevé resulting in three-dimensional metal objects of great beauty (some people think Chavin art the high point of all pre-Columbian art).

The pre-Columbians also designed and built extensive residential systems, with the pueblos of North America and at least one city of 200,000 population in South America.

Yet, pottery had come first among handicrafts, along both sides of the divide, as well as supple but unbreakable liquid containers for the nomadic rovers of the steppes (on horse). In southern America, pottery was made (4000-800 BC) chiefly to store beer – brewed from maize – for consumption at first only by shamans. The wheelbarrow probably originated in China in the dim past, but the wheel itself was developed into cart transport by the Harappa civilization along the Indus river in the third millennium before the current era (BCE). The lack of draught animals in the Americas impeded, there, an early appearance of the wheel.

Early times in the Old World were characterized by a “weakening monsoon, cereals (grain), domesticated mammals and pastoralism, the plough and the traction complex, riding, megaliths, milk, alcohol”. In a summing up of advances in the New World, Watson reminds that “the crucial and equivalent words would be: El Niño, volcanoes, earthquakes, maize […], the potato, hallucinogens, tobacco, chocolate, rubber, the jaguar and the bison”. Stated otherwise, “the New World was for humans a much more vegetal environment than the Old World […]”. These ancestors of the human race were:

[…] tied to the land and the plants that they knew, and as a result, their mobility was restricted […]. There was little pastoralism or nomadism in the New World that would have the historical impact that these life-ways had in the Old World.

In addition, just as people were rooted to the soil and often victim’s en masse of natural calamities, so was the transport of ideas. Quasi-religion and homespun philosophy left few traces beyond the shaman artifacts and burial practices of ancient times (including the detritus of bloodletting, torture and both animal and human sacrifice), largely because there were so few ways of leaving information behind.

Fixed graphic

Spurred by the evolution of Mesopotamian and Greek civilization, however, communication began to take new forms in what the philosopher Karl Jaspers has called the Axial age. This was, roughly speaking, the millennium immediately before the birth of Christ, and the introduction at that time of the great belief systems that have endured. These are:

[…] Confucianism and Daoism in China; Buddhism, Jainism and Upanishadic Hinduism in India; prophetic Judaism in Israel; and philosophical rationalism in Greece. This was […] the period of the Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah, the mystics of the Upanishads, of Mencius, Isaiah and Euripedes.

Writing, religious influence and communication

Alphabets were perfected, but in Eurasia only, and they very soon had an effect on religion, especially expanding Christendom. The Greek-speaking marketplaces of Alexandria, Damascus, Ephesus, Jerusalem and Rome inspired local scribes to note (in Greek) the accounts, parables and other jottings that became the New Testament (p. 379). The earliest writing in the Americas was the hieroglyphic-type of characters developed spontaneously by the Olmec, Zapotec and Maya of the New World – without the slightest influence from the Egyptians.

Author Watson continues his profiling of contrasts and comparisons between what transpired in Eurasia and what did not in the Americas, almost to the present. Perhaps, most significant, in terms of the world we know today as Christendom, was the “religious capitalism” emanating in the ninth century of our era from Christendom’s monastic settlements in western Europe. The discipline and concentrated efforts of the monks assured their ability to feed themselves properly and sell surplus in the markets even in times of drought or flood, so that landholdings (some of which numbered 40,000 hectares or 100,000 acres) became emblems of wealth, investment and influence. This new economic picture stimulated, too, its duplication by lay citizens on private land. Monasterial discipline in work habits contrasted markedly with, for example, the Chinese mandarinate who grew fingernails to extraordinary lengths to prove the absence of manual labor in their privileged lives.

The reader is left with the clear understanding that, as probably the most thinking members of nature’s great spread of biota, humans:

  • thought their way towards what material legacy to pass to future generations and, perhaps even more importantly; and

  • continue to do so today.

Peter Watson has served up, therefore, an anthropological panorama of how the human species has developed, complementing nicely Niall Ferguson’s Civilization, the West and the Rest (see foresight’s review, Vol. 00 No. 0, p. 00).

As a reviewer, my criticism of the book is limited. Because of the author’s citing of hundreds of different ethnic strains active in the two global hemispheres, many of which will be unknown to the average reader, a glossary of identification (who, in which world region, era of flourishing) would be helpful in revised editions.

               Fixed graphic

Fixed graphic

About the author

Jacques G. Richardson is a member of foresight’s Editorial Advisory Board.

Related articles