Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Guns, Germs & Steel - And Bolivia

This excellent PBS documentary, based on the book (b/t/w - which I have not read), is really thought provoking. Episode 2, which I caught last night specifically deals with Pizarro's conquest of the Inca Empire. Due to the inter-woven roots of the Pre-Columbian peoples of Bolivia and Peru, this is extremely relevant to the history and subsequent development of the peoples of Bolivia.

The territory of what is now Bolivia, was then known as Collasuyu, which was one of the four kingdoms (or 'suyus') that formed the Tahuantisuyu, ruled from Cuzco by the Inca. The Collasuyu culture originated on the shores of Lake Titicaca. The average Colla survived in the harsh Andean highlands, by growing potatoes and other crops in terraces cut out of mountains at very high altitutdes. This labor-intensive work, required discipline, attention to detail, and order, and produced a cohesive family-tribe unit known as the ayllu that is at the core of Andean life. These self-contained units owned and work the land cooperatively under the direction of an elder, whom demanded unquestioned obedience. Over the individual ayllu was a regional figure, mallku, who collected a . Ayllu members were expected to serve in different capacities for the overlords, anything from farming his plots of land, to serving in an Army. In addition, This Aymara-speaking self-ordering society, based around the Ayllu. Extended all over what is now the Bolivian Andes. As the ruins of Tiahuanaco show, it also evolved into a thriving culture, with its own City-States around the time of Christ, preceding the Inca, by some 13 or 14 centuries. Its influence extended into today's Peru, and what became known as the Tahuantisuyu Empire adopted much of the Colla culture, including the ayllu. But, at some point after the first millennia A.D. the Colla Civilization went into a period of decline, feuds broke out among ayllus, Tiahuanaco was abandoned, and one of the most powerful factions moved the capital.

Their Inca neighbors by the 14th Century, were organizing a formidable empire, and had their eyes set on Collasuyu. Needless to say the 'incorporation' of the Aymara-speaking Tiahuanaco kingdom was the result of a quick, but vicious campaign by the Quechua-speaking Inca's armies over one faction of the divided Collas. The defeated Colla ruler and his Court were marched to Cuzco at the head of the Inca victory parade, which culminated in most of them being beheaded or fed to wild beasts. And as soon as the Colla army was defeated, the entire ayllu based system in Bolivia simply switched allegiances to the new ruler of Cuzco.

At the beginning of the take-over, for most Collas living in Ayllus, life did not change a lot. It was pay tribute to ruler x, instead of ruler y, and forced work for a different overlord. But the Inca gradually increased taxation, adding extra contributions to the already harried ayllus. The Collas, pressed into service of the Incas army, also rebelled against Cuzco, and at one point the Inca had to raise an army of over 100,000 men to fight the Colla insurrection. The last one was put down right before the Spanish conquest, might have also contributed to finishing off what was left of the Colla aristocracy and warrior class. The Incas also engaged in an early form of ethnic cleansing, moving entire Colla populations to the periphery of the kingdom, and installing Quechua-speaking families as colonists throughout the kingdom. Inca rule also became harsher to the average Colla. Their most effective resistance was to keep their language.

So enter the Spanish, the drama that occurred in Cajamarca was going to play an enormous role in the future of the Collasuyu, which the Spanish would conquer almost by default. As the program brilliantly shows, Pizarro and a few hundred Spaniards, were able to defeat Atahualpa's enormous army in one stroke; taking advantage of the leaders confusion about the divinity of the Spaniards they were able to suddenly pounce on the Emperor's numerous guard, brutally killing hundreds of warriors and seizing the emperor, in full view of the rest of the army which folded almost immediately. The Spaniards were then able to impose their rule over the Incas existing control structure. But the underlying defeat of the Tahunatisuyu also implied in the greater scheme of things, a defeat of the Andean culture.

How Did They Do It

Jared Diamond is a professor at UCLA in Los Angeles. But most of his fieldwork has been done in Papua New Guinea. His time there inspired him to explore the roots of inequality in the modern world. To understand why some people have been able to dominate and conquer others

So he looks at why the Incas were so soundly defeated by the Spaniards.


Europe is fairly flat, with access to the vast steppes of Central Asia, (as well as quick communication with Africa and Asia via the Mediterranean and Atlantic). The America's broken up by mountain ranges, jungles, nasty deserts, North to South different weather and time-zones. Bolivian area - screwed even worse by Andes and cut-off from sea by desert.

Here were Europe and Asia forming the continent of Eurasia, a giant continent but it’s stretched out from east to west, and narrows from north to south. The American continent is long from north to south, narrow from east to west – very narrow at Panama where it narrows down to less than 100 miles. The two continents are of the same lengths, about 8,000 miles in maximum dimensions, but Eurasia is 8,000 miles from east to west, and the Americas are 8,000 miles from north to south, it’s as if these continents were rotated 90 degrees of each other.

These distinctions are crucial as Eurasia's geography allowed for constant contact and interactions (some pretty bloody)between different cultures.

Geography helps Europe domesticate livestock and agriculture

Agriculture first developed in a part of the Middle East known as the Fertile Crescent. Over time, crops and animals from the Fertile Crescent spread into North Africa and Europe, where they triggered an explosion of civilization. By the 16th Century, European farms were dominated by livestock animals that had come from the Fertile Crescent. None were native to Europe. They provided more than just meat. They were a source of milk and wool, leather and manure. And crucially, they provided muscle power.

South America - loses out, Llamas were sole native animal, geography made it hard for other species to migrate - or to be brought in. These gentle beasts have limited cargo capacities, unlike horses.

The critter factor, enabled Europeans to not only develop plowing techniques, which led to increased harvests, the horses muscle increased mobility - and changed warfared.

Guns and Steel

Some very cool shots of ancient guns, but the Professor thinks the strength of Spanish arms lay elsewhere.

The real power of the conquistadors lay elsewhere, with the production of steel. Toledo had some of the best sword smiths in the world. But why were people here able to craft deadly steel weapons, while the Incas were still making simple bronze tools?

Jared Diamond: There was nothing innately brilliant about Europeans themselves that allowed them to be the ones to make high quality swords. Just as with guns, swords were the result of a long process of trial and error that began outside Europe. People started working with metal in the Fertile Crescent 7,000 years ago, and because Europe is geographically close to the fertile crescent, Europeans inherited this metal technology.
But they took this technology on to a new level. European soldiers demanded stronger, longer, sharper swords.

This development, put the Spaniards at the cutting edge of sword-making - as well as in using them in battle. Besides steel, the Spaniards carried centuries of lessons acquired from Spartans, Greeks, Carthaginians, Israelites, Persians, Egyptians, Moors, North Africans, Romans, Mongols, Huns, Goths, Franks, and everyone else who had brandished a sword in anger from Europe, Africa, and Asia. In particular, the Spaniards, the docuemntary points out, were coming from a 7 century history of battling the Moors for control over Spain. And those lessons extended beyond the particular tactics or skills of warfare. The Reconquista was not a straighforward 'us vs. them' fight, instead it was a complex history of constantly shiftialliancesces that often crossed across religious lines. A flair for conspiracy, automatic mis-trust, constant vigilance, and ruthlessness were lessons the Spanish brought with them as well.

Books -- Writing.

Here the professor goes into the advantages posed by the spread of the written word, and the printing press. As always this is something that is the result of centuriemillenniania of development across several cultures. The Incas are shown as not possessing this development. Advantage- Pizarro, he could rely on the printed record of Cortes' conquest of Mexico in making his strategy. Hmmmm.kindnda disagree. To begin with many of his men were illiterate. Pizarro also facing a different situation than Cortes, who had accumulated a fairly large native army when he approached Tenochticlan.

Plus, tIncasa's had a form of writing, which enabled them to keep fairly good records.

Another- and perhaps most deadly advantage- the spread of smallpox that decimated the native peoples of the America's

The first smallpox epidemic of the New World swept through Central America and reached the Inca Empire. Wherever it went, the virus decimated native populations, making them easier prey for Spanish conquest. But why were the germs so one-sided? Why did the Spaniards pass their diseases onto the Incas, and not the other way around?

The prof's answer, again due to geography. it was the Europeans continuous exposure to livestock that was an initial carrier of diseases, that eventually made them immune to these diseases. Living with pigs for centuries. and having ancestors who escaped the bubonic plague, made you less likely to be susceptible to smallpox.

But again lets restate the original theses about geography, both from the author and the narrator of the program.

Voiceover: Diamond has already shown that crops and animals could spread easily east and west across Eurasia. Because places the same latitude automatically share the same day length and a similar climate and vegetation. But the American continents were the opposite of Eurasia. A journey from one end of the Americas to the other is a journey from north to south, a journey through different day lengths, different climate zones, and dramatically different vegetation. These basic differences hindered the spread of crops and animals as well as people, ideas and technologies. The people of the Andes were chronically isolated, without access to writing or almost any other innovation from elsewhere in the Americas. By contrast, Pizarro and his men were geographically blessed. As Spaniards, they enjoyed the benefit of technologies and ideas that had spread easily across Eurasia.

Bolivia, in particular has suffered doubly, first because the isolation that initially allowed the great civilization at Tiahuanaco to grow and flourish, also led to its stagnation, since there was little opportunity to share knowledge and advances. When the neighbors did come through it was the Inca, who had learned the lessons of the Collas, and had figured out ways to conquering them. That was, strike two. The resulting Empire, though, was weak at its core, compared to what the Spaniards introduced in a swift brutal blow.

One last thing, I sort of agree with the authors conclusion, and it does make a lot of sense.

Jared Diamond:: I came to Spain to answer a question – why did Pizarro and his men conquer the Incas instead of the other way around? There’s a whole mythology that that conquest and the European expansion in general resulted from Europeans themselves being especially brave or bold or inventive or smart, but the answers turn out to have nothing to do with any personal qualities of Europeans. Yeah, Pizarro and his men were brave, but there were plenty of brave Incas. Instead, Europeans were accidental conquerors. By virtue of their geographic location and history, they were the first people to acquire guns, germs and steel.

I agree with accidents of geography and luck. But there was something else at work in the Conquest. Mario Vargas Llosa pointed this out in an essay a while ago. The Spaniards also had the individual initiative, the ability to improvise, and think outside the box, fruit of the tortuously slow process taking place in Europe at the time - the increase of personal autonomy and thought. The Inca's on the other hand, were in a top down hierarchical structure, where blind obedience to the Inca was the norm. The Spaniards used that little advantage - which again is a result of favorable geography - to conquer the Inca at his palace.

But, despite that issue, this program really puts things into perspective when talking about the reality of Bolivia today, geography and luck matter. It also does away with arguments that blame Andean misery on the "West"; or on the other side, those who claim that it is the Indians own fault. Bolivia's fortunes, have a lot to do with unfavorable geography and isolation, its peoples have done as best as they could under those conditions. The Spaniards themselves, were as much a product of their circumstances, learning lessons from the Moors that they applied to the peoples of the Andes, in the same way the Incas had done it to the Collas. But, neither side was really prepared to deal with the other one. The ultimate challenge is changing attitudes of centuries, in order to really change conditions of the people for good.


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