Ancient civilizations and failures of imagination

A couple of months ago, the BBC reported new findings on puquios, which  are spiralling holes scattered across Peru’s Nasca region. Through satellite imagery, a team of Italian researchers deduced the purpose of the once-mysterious holes: based on their placement and proximity to settlements, puquios seem to be part of a complex water retrieval and distribution system.

The BBC report carries a standout quote from the lead researcher:

“What is clearly evident today is that the puquio system must have been much more developed than it appears today,” says Lasaponara.

There are a lot of other notable quotes regarding this breakthrough, but that one dredged up a memory from one of the anthropology classes I took in college.

“You laugh at these people cataloging skull sizes,” our professor told us then, “but Darwin influenced a lot of early anthropology, and the idea of progressing from something primitive or primordial to something more sophisticated was carried over to views on culture. Cataloging skulls was just one way of finding supposed biological evidence for those views.”

“These views,” in more formal terms, fall under the name social evolutionism. (Here’s a quick overview of the concept’s history, key concepts and methodologies, and various social evolutionism theories.) Culture was thought to proceed in a unilinear, progressive manner, meaning wherever it sprung up, it would go through the same stages of “simple to complex.” This led to a lot of unfortunate (and false) conclusions regarding other cultures, especially in the nineteenth century: to European imperialists carrying guns and making cross-continental voyages, for example, indigenous peoples with their different lifestyles, technologies, and socio-cultural systems looked to be simple “savages” occupying a lower rung in the cultural development ladder. As we can see from the sad, brutal histories of imperial conquest, viewing others as fundamentally “lesser” is a good first step towards extensive Othering and the enforcement of some outrageous power dynamics.

While I’d hope that we’re now much more aware of the dangers of viewing contemporaneous cultures through a social evolutionism lens, what’s interesting is that many of us remain largely unmindful of the limitations this lens can also place on our evaluation of cultures across history. Look, nobody’s claiming that the Nasca had supercomputers alongside their puquios and geometric lines. But with that fact seems to come an unspoken assumption that the Nasca, or most any other prior civilizations, are incapable of creating anything of appreciable sophistication.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, this assumption that older civilizations are somehow “primitive” or “less developed,” and thus less capable, than ours. There’s a recent NPR article with a salient Isabel Allende quote:

“People in other times, in earlier times, were not less sophisticated than we are. They were just as we are, with less technology.”

When assessing the possible extent of earlier civilizations’ capabilities, we seem to be eliding an important qualifier: for their time, i.e., “Certainly they are capable of sophisticated creations and technologies for their time.”  The traps of social evolutionist-esque thinking seem to be compounded by the curse of knowledge, which in this case means an inability to disregard the technological possibilities seen or made real in the years since these civilizations’ existence. We don’t, after all, have the same scale to measure by, history- and technology-wise. Some calibration has to take place for any meaningful comparisons to be made, and as Tania Lombrozo points out in that NPR article, for that we need imagination:

“Allende was warning against the danger of stripping people of their layers and complexity alongside their cellphones and modern medicines. This is a more subtle failure of imagination than the failure to know what the future will bring… This failure can make the experience of living in the past seem more impoverished than it was, because our familiar technology isn’t just absent, but missing.

There’s a bit of an imaginative leap, for example, from seeing the satellite’s-eye view of puquios distribution and positing that it’s an extensive hydraulic network. That leap requires a willingness to believe that building such a network is within the Nascas’ abilities. Sounds simple now — I mean, the evidence is there, right? How could they have concluded otherwise? — but that’s hindsight speaking. As the existence of confirmation bias shows, our interpretations of evidence can be warped by preconceived notions. Our engagements with earlier civilizations occur at a remove: culturally, temporally, technologically; we are poised to carry preconceptions on those three points at the very least. If we don’t allow ourselves to imagine much beyond the readily apparent, how can we allow the evidence to yield the correct conclusions?

Imagination in popular consciousness is a marvelous, transformative force, and I think some part of that holds true even in, I guess, these more formal contexts. The satellite imagery helped, but I’d like to think that, in a sense, imagination is what allows current researchers to turn holes in the ground into sophisticated irrigation systems.