*The Great Divide: Nature and Human Nature in the Old World and the New*

That is the new book by the very active and very smart Peter Watson, due out soon but I bought a copy in the UK.

Why has the New World been so different from the Old World?  What a splendid seventeenth and eighteenth century question.  Imagine Jared Diamond — and with comparable scope — yet with shamans, peyote, and El Niño playing a role in the argument.  I recommend it to everyone who can keep in mind how speculative the argument will be.

If we had to sum up what has gone before and describe in a few words the main features shaping early life in the Old World, those words would be: the weakening monsoon, cereals (grain), domesticated mammals and pastoralism, the plough and the traction complex, riding, megaliths, milk, alcohol.  One way to highlight the differences between the two worlds is to perform the same summing-up exercise for the Americas…For the New World the crucial and equivalent words would be: El Niño, volcanoes, earthquakes, maize (corn), the potato, hallucinogens, tobacco, chocolate, rubber, the jaguar, and the bison.

Unlike Diamond, this book assigns ideology a central role in the story.  Europe and the Middle East generate the ideas of the shepherd, the New World the ideas of the shaman, some of which may have been picked up or carried from the Chukchi of Siberia.  Perhaps my favorite point in the book is the observation that the Old World had a greater diversity of ideologies.

Watson touches on many Hansonian themes about the differences between gatherers and foragers.  Here is a Guardian review.  Here is an Independent review.  Here is a Matthew Price review.

This is an easy book to criticize, see the reviews or for instance take this passage:

…artwork was not developed [in the early stages of the New World] because there was no need to establish either dedicated territories or tribal identities.  And/or food was in such plentiful supply that they had no need to keep records that assisted their memory of animal habits.

One really does have to take this book as a scenario, not as science.  It is nonetheless interesting if used with care.


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