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Sunday, 2 December 2012

A Very Tilted History of South America

This week we were studying the Incas.  There was a line in the book which really caught my attention.  "Because the Incas had not yet invented the wheel, the mountain paths did not have to be very wide."  I thought, "Wait a minute, why can't we flip that around?  Because the mountain paths were not very wide, the wheel would not have been very useful to the Incas."

It makes me laugh when I hear anyone talk about an unbiased view.  Do you have an opinion?  Then you have a bias.  Are you breathing?  Then you have an opinion!   And guess what?  That opinion is based on several prejudices of which you may not even be aware.  We all have basic assumptions given to us by our society, but that is fodder for another blog!  Here, just let me clarify that I am not talking about blatantly prejudiced views but more pervasive tiltings which reflect the culture and motivations of the author.

Incan history is particularly fascinating because there are almost no primary sources.  They apparently hired professional memorizers (South American version of minstrels and town criers?) so they had no need for written history.  Of course, like most history, the memorizers only remembered big events involving important people.  After the Spanish arrived it would have taken some time for the Spanish to learn enough language to engage these memorizers, the few that probably were still alive.  And the Spanish had to justify their treatment of the Incas by demonstrating that these people were primitive and barbaric.  So many filters that the history recorded by the Spanish (the only written history that we have) probably had very little to do with reality.

How many of you have heard the story that the natives, having never seen a horse before, thought that the horse and rider were one creature and were the god incarnate?  This was the popular story told to me as a child in school to explain the rapid conquest of the Incan empire.  In truth, this is highly unlikely.  The Incan Empire rivaled Rome in its sophistication and development.  There was a complex bureaucracy, superb road and infrastructure system.  Huge cities and a population estimated at around 12 million.  Books like to point out that they were technologically backwards, having no wheels, or ships, or writing, or metal tools.  The geography  precluded wheeled transportation.  The only water around was an endless ocean.  They could not see islands on the horizon to indicate that there might be purpose to head out to sea.  I have explained perhaps why they didn't need writing.  Necessity is the driver of invention.  If they didn't have metal tools, then they didn't need them.  They certainly were proficient at working gold and other metals.

These were highly intelligent and advanced people.  They could easily separate a man and a horse.  Most likely their isolation and relatively conflict free lifestyle left them vulnerable both to the Spanish weapons and Spanish germs.   The truth is we will never know and that is something that I love to read in a history text.  How refreshing when the author admits that these are merely probable guesses.  Sometimes we can figure out more using our own brains and relying less on the highly coloured accounts of the conquerors.  

My point is that, in any history, unless you can examine the primary source yourself, there is a  tilt in the account.  This is not a bad thing unless it is not acknowledged.  The first thing we always do when reading a text is figure out the slant of the writer.  What is the purpose of the writer?  What world view or paradigm does the writer hold?  Are there other criteria that might be in play?  For whom is the book written?  By any chance, are the publishers trying to make the "Acceptable Curriculum Resource List"?  :) 

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