Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 1


Ancient South America

Karen Olsen Bruhns
Ancient South America
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994, pp. 424, £17.95

AT PRESENT New World archaeology is in great excitement over the decipherment of the Maya script, since the possibility of reconstructing the history of that civilisation in some detail will reduce the scope for speculation within manageable limits for the first time. But because none of the cultures of South America produced written records, its archaeology continues to give full rein to scholarly debate. A clash between North American academe, just emerging from the Cold War and using politically correct language (‘supernumerary genders’, p. 223), and what this writer describes as ‘the Marxist orientation of numbers of scholars and their students’ in South America (p. 9), is one of the more predictable lines of controversy. Equally predictable is her approach to it: ‘As to whether South America’s past really shows the existence of a utopia now ruined by degenerate man, progress towards a truly egalitarian state of being (similarly now ruined by degenerate man), or even just the variety of the human response to life, I leave the reader to decide.’ (p6)

To help him make up his mind the author of this fascinating book appears to have abandoned the attempt to identify or periodise phases in human development at all: ‘Culture history is, or tries to be, a factual statement of what did happen as best we know, laying a basis for further discussion of meaning and pattern from the archaeological record.’ (p. 6) She objects most strongly to the fact that ‘much archaeological interpretation of time has been done on the basis of stages, the idea that on the world scene cultures pass through the same sequence of development in terms of economy, social and political organisation, etc.’, which according to her ‘have never been proved anywhere in the world’. Thus, in spite of his repeated denials of linear development, Marx, who had the misfortune to be ‘working and writing during the heyday of social/cultural evolution theories’ (p. 9), produced a Eurocentred ‘stage theory’ (p. 6), quite inapplicable to South America, where ‘the historical sequence of subsistence and craft technologies’ was ‘considerably different from that observed in Eurasia, and the definitions of civilisation and the way it develops based solely upon Eurasian models are clearly inadequate’ (p. 115). Dr Bruhns obviously has a point here, for stages theory, with its terminology of horizon, cultist, experimental, pre- and post-classical, city builder, formative, etc., has certainly run riot when applied to Andean development. Moreover, the ‘Marxism’ prevalent in Latin America bears the heavy stamp of the notorious automatic stages theory of the Short Course history of the CPSU. But surely only a prehistorian would deny that feudalism was a stage observably followed by capitalism, in Japan as well as in Europe.

It is therefore of some importance to the argument in this book to question anything that looks like parallel development, to argue against any diffusion of craft or technology, even within the New World itself, and to minimise anything that appears to suggest a logical progress from one stage of social organisation to another.

Of course, some parallels can hardly be denied. She accepts the good old Marxist maxim that ‘evident surpluses ... would have been needed to finance large structures’ (p. 112), but is at some pains to argue that these surpluses were not at all based upon the same grain cultivation as those of the civilisations of the old world (pp. 89, 112, etc.). There is nothing, of course, in Marxist or any other ‘stages’ theories to suggest that cereal production is the only way of assuring a surplus upon which ordered society can be erected. Certainly in Peru tuber and root crops are ‘demonstrably important in the ancient economies, more important, in fact, than any grains until circa AD 500’, and it might even be the case that here the earliest civilisation was ‘founded on a maritime economy in which agriculture and other domesticates were not particularly important’ (p. 112). The enormous wealth and power of Tiahuanaco, on the other hand, may rest upon ‘the possession of extensive pasture and abundant herds’ of cameloids, along with the reclamation of ‘low-lying lands by constructing huge systems of raised fields’ (p. 239), and Chimu society upon ‘elaborate irrigation systems’ (p. 299).

Dr Bruhns’ concentration upon the particularities of each society also makes her reluctant to accept that diffusion, whether from outside the continent or within it, played any significant rôle in the development of the various cultures at all. ‘Archaeological evidence suggests how weak the theories of a single origin and deliberate introduction of maize into other regions are’ (p. 96), ‘the very diversity of the earliest ceramics on the continent ... is most parsimoniously explained as the result of multiple inventions of ceramic technology’ (p. 121), the metallurgical system was ‘totally independent’ (p. 184), and much the same thesis is defended for stone working, textiles, animal husbandry, and so on. Surely Occam’s razor comes into play at some point here! And even if these things were all independently invented, does that not assume that at a certain point in the development of human society comparable technological innovation takes place?

Moreover, anxious as she is to deny stages of development, she cannot avoid introducing them: ‘During the first half of the first millennium AD ... large states were coming into being throughout the Andes ... the stage was being set for the first conquest states, multinational empires whose interest was in controlling land and resources as much as in obtaining booty or prisoners for sacrifice’ (pp. 221–2), so that ‘by the tenth century AD the central Andes had produced its first conquest states ... away from the Andean regions growing populations resulted in the development of large-scale hydraulic works’ (p. 276).

Did I hear the name of Wittfogel mentioned?

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 28.9.2011