Civilization: a Rope or a Broom?

4 November 2009



There is an interesting story on the BBC, Logging ’caused Nazca collapse’, that poses several interesting questions regarding the nature of civilization. Let us briefly consider some of these questions.

Nazca whale

The article concerns itself with the Nazca civilization, but Peru is something like the Fertile Crescent of South America: the home of not one, but of several civilizations, with a history that reaches far back in time. The more archaeologists look into Peru, the more they find. There was the Norte Chico civilization (also Caral or Caral-Supe civilization), the Chavín, the Paracas, the Moche, the Nazca, the Tiwanaku, the Wari, the Chimú, and the Inca. Probably there are more.

Sometimes the divisions indicated by these names are called cultures and sometimes they are called civilizations. The distinction between culture and civilization is a philosophically interesting one, and it is moreover a distinction that I will need to eventually visit, but I am not going to go into it today. For today I will simply call them civilizations.

A beautiful Nazca bowl, relic of a vanished civilization.

One of the remarkable things about Western civilization is how it has inwardly transformed itself from one civilization into another while geographically moving but little. Thus Western civilization exhibits a high degree of continuity despite the discontinuity represented by the change from one civilization to another. Historical periodization remains highly contentious within Western history. There was the civilization of classical antiquity, medieval civilization, and modern civilization. All transpired within various regions of Europe.

The tripartite periodization of Western history: classical antiquity, the Middle Ages, and modernity.

I don’t know much about Peruvian civilization, and now that I think of it I feel the lack of my knowledge. I do not know the extent to which Peruvian civilization, rich as its history is, constitutes a changing continuity as in Western history, and to what extent it involves relatively isolated civilizations. The emphasis must be laid upon relatively, for obviously these civilizations would have had some contact with each other. The question is to what extent the civilizations of Peru exhibit the kind of seamless transformation that one sees, for example, in the transition from medieval to modern Europe. Picking a point of transition is an exercise in arbitrariness.

The Nazca civilization looks relatively isolated partly because its remains are now preserved in a desert. But looks can be deceiving. I do not know to what extent the Nazca might have carried on sea-borne trade with neighboring peoples, and whether such contacts could have bound regions together into a unified civilization.

Also, the collapse of Nazca civilization looks total in retrospect also because the remains of the civilization are dramatically preserved and isolated in a desert. When I was reading this article about the collapse of Nazca civilization, my thoughts turned to the great example of collapse in Western history: the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Medieval civilization did not collapse; it transformed itself into modern civilization. But Roman civilization in the West collapsed. When I thought of it, it struck me that in the Western Empire there was nothing to replace Rome when its power collapsed. The Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, slowly ceded its territory over the millennium of rearguard action. There were other empires eager to take the place of the Byzantines.

In Western Europe, the collapse of Roman power meant the collapse of civilization, and as civilization returned to Western Europe it was slowly and gradually built from the ground up by incremental efforts, mostly the efforts of the Catholic Church. Yet still there was slow change and continuity in many parts of the Western Empire. Generalizations have their place — we cannot understand anything without general ideas under which we can subsume particular details — but the most interesting part of historical research is not about generalizations but rather particular details.

The archaeologists cited in the BBC story characterize the end of Nazca civilization as a collapse. Moreover, they say that deforestation contributed to this collapse by exacerbating the devastation of the El Niño cycle, one of which cycles finished them off. Dr David Beresford-Jones is quoted as saying, “Our research contradicts the popular view that Native American peoples always lived in harmony with their environment until the Spanish Conquest.” What Dr Beresford-Jones did not say here (though I don’t know that he didn’t say it elsewhere) is that this is not news to anyone in archaeology or anthropology. There are numerous examples of peoples of the Americas depleting their food resources and either moving or or shifting to different food resources. In some instances there is an extensive archaeological record (for example, in shell middens) of native peoples alternating between food sources over the long term as one staple declines under harvesting pressure while other staple recovers after it has been abandoned as a dependable food source.

El Niño and La Niña are part of a natural, combined oceanic-atmospheric cycle referred to as El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) that affects weather, hence also civilizations at the mercy of the weather.

What Dr Beresford-Jones also did not say is that while the findings contradict popular perceptions of the native peoples of the Americas, the study seems to magnify popular perceptions of environmental apocalypse. The collapse of Roman power has been credited to soil erosion, over-exploitation of resources, and human-induced environmental change. These are a few theories among many theories. These theories may be correct. They may correctly identify contributing causes, even if the causes identified by these theories are not the primary causes. But we do not yet know this to be the case. Similarly, human-induced environmental change may have been central or peripheral to the collapse of the civilization at Nazca. But things as complex as the intersection of natural history and human history are not clarified by simplification to one or two or a handful of causes.

A careful consideration of the artifacts of material culture may reveal family resemblances between the Nazca civilization and the Huari civilization, which latter flourished not long after the former collapsed.

How isolated was the Nazca civilization? Did the Nazca civilization experience a collapse, or did its people scatter and take their civilization with them to other regions? Did some of the people bring some of their civilization with them as they escaped the collapse of their institutions? If Nazca civilization is a part of a larger Peruvian tradition of civilization that exhibits the synthesis of continuity and discontinuity that we see in Western history, then the Nazca are to be seen in the context of predecessor civilizations and successor civilizations, and we can only form an accurate idea of the collapse of Nazca civilization by understanding the degree to which its institutions were inherited from predecessors and bequeathed to successors.


Is the phenomenon of civilization like a rope, with its many fibers twisted together?

Is the overall pattern of Peruvian civilization like a rope, which derives its strength from many distinct fibers intertwined, and in which there is no one fiber that runs the length of the rope? This was a favorite Wittgenstein analogy. In The Brown Book Wittgenstein wrote:

We find that what connects all the cases of comparing is a vast number of overlapping similarities, and as soon as we see this, we feel no longer compelled to say that there must be some one feature common to them all. What ties the ship to the wharf is a rope, and the rope consists of fibres, but it does not get its strength from any fibre which runs through it from one end to the other, but from the fact that there is a vast number of fibres overlapping.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Preliminary studies for the “Philosophical investigations”: generally known as the Blue and Brown Books, p. 87

Or is Peruvian civilization, on the contrary, more like a straw broom, in which each individual stalk of straw emerges with many other stalks in an explosion pattern from a central originating point? The answer to this question has implications for understanding the very idea of civilization and of history.


Or is the phenomenon of civilization like a broom, with its many individual pieces of straw exploding from a central point?

Wittgenstein’s rope analogy, as he uses it, is formulated synchronically. If you like, you could say that Wittgenstein was thinking in structural terms in this passage, but civilization is a temporal entity: One of the most significant things about civilization is that it exists in time; it has an origin in time, experiences development in time, and can come to an end. But we can reformulate Wittgenstein’s synchronic insight in diachronic terms, or, if you prefer, we can try to think Wittgenstein through functionally rather than structurally. In this way, the rope analogy can be applied to temporal phenomena like civilization, and so too with the broom analogy.

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One Response to “Civilization: a Rope or a Broom?”

  1. Food for thought, (or rather, those bits I could easily read). I am afflicted with color blindness (deuteranopia in my case). I mostly use Safari browser (unsure if that makes a difference), and much of your site is a bit of a strain on my eyes. I don’t wish to whinge, and I know it is my problem really, but it would be cool if you would bear in mind color blind folk like me whilst undertaking your next web page design.

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