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Thursday, March 24, 2011

South American Vs Old World Complex Societies: Similarities and Differences

MesopotamiaThe civilizations of the Old World were in fact derivatives of the first ancient cultures, even dominating their ancient counterparts in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China. They did so by utilizing new forms of agriculture and technology, improving upon the methods previously noted. The South American societies paralleled the Old World ancient societies in that they exhibited advanced architecture, powerful armies, social hierarchies, and intensive farming systems.


The Egyptology Handbook: A Course in the Wonders of Egypt (Ologies)In Mesopotamia, China, and Egypt, the citizens were “inextricably tied to the irrigation system fed by the great river through canal systems, controlled by the government” (Wenke and Olszewski 2007). This was not the case in South America, as citizens of the civilization worked as a collective, to provide the community with ample resources.

Relatively simple agricultural villages in South America grew mostly maize, beans, squash, and peppers and the abundance of the Pacific Ocean didn’t require the reliance on one staple crop. Overall the impact on the land was relatively low as opposed to their Old World counterparts, who utilized hoofed animals for intensive agriculture. Domesticates in Peru, or rather the role of these animals (llamas and guinea pigs) is unclear.

Sites like Tucume thrived, raising crops and animals and formulating a complete infrastructure including waterways and manmade watercourses, like the advanced systems we observed in Mesopotamia. The advancement of irrigation in this society located in Peru is fascinating. Why? The extreme environment and dry arid lands required physical and cultural adaptations.

South Americans “partially solved” a long standing Old World agricultural problem regarding tubers, developing a method of freeze drying potatoes for storage. In Old World Africa, the use of tubers was limited, as they were never brought under cultivation. Furthermore, tubers were also under cultivation in ancient China, India, the Near East and the Mediterranean Basin.

In sum: Old World societies relied on one staple crop, whereas South American complex societies saw crops as a supplement, utilizing maize, beans, potatoes, quinoa, fish from the nearby Pacific, and squash, to sustain the populations.

Class and Social Hierarchy 

Culturally, Old World societies were a bit different than South America. There was social inequality as sited by the hierarchical organization of class systems. State religions provided, as Wenke and Olszewski (2007) noted, the “context of life”. We saw temples in Mesopotamia which clearly indicated some sort of social hierarchy. The Shang society was headed by a king, who ruled through hierarchically arranged nobility (p 446). Consequently, the Erhlit’ou culture, as evidenced archaeologically, consisted of large abodes, middle sized lodging, and small villages, suggesting an administrative hierarchy.

There was relatively little evidence to suggest social inequality or hierarchy in Peru, aspeople seem to have participated in collective labor without developing strong differences in access to resources. Michael Moseley suggested that these Peruvian societies living in villages along the water exhibited “simple social stratification” on the basis of fishing.

In the case of Chan Chan, however, there was clear evidence of a class system much like the districts are separated today. Social classes were sectioned off in nine "citadels" where they lived, worked, and carried on with their daily lives. Evidence at Chan Chan’s reflects a strict political and social strategy, marked by the city's division. The Inka were organized into a stratified class society under a monarch.

In sum: The beginnings of South American complex societies may have not exhibited social inequality, however as advanced architecture was created, farming techniques grew more dependent on labor and class divisions became apparent. This movement towards a more hierarchical class based system was seen in the Old World as well. As technology and agriculture became more advanced so did the need for a political entities and polities to control the new system.


Old World trade typically happened in the lowlands by the river valleys. This was seen in Mesopotamia, Indus Valley, and Huanghe. If we consider Peru, however, there were populations living in both the highlands and lowlands. Two separate environmental zones were utilizing trade, and not always via waterways. In fact, there is no evidence of boats being used along the Andean coast, so we can assume in fact that seafaring trade was absent.


Unlike the Old World, the Inka were the only Pre-Columbian civilization to lack or develop a written language. Furthermore, the Inkas and the New World civilizations developed or utilized the inventions of the Old World including wheeled vehicles, making farming and trade much for efficient and thus allowing the Old World civilizations to have overwhelming power.

The Egyptians, although many are unaware, were excellent seafarers, building boats for exchange with other societies via waterways. On the other hand, no boats have ever been found at any sites along the Andean coast, therefore we can assume trade was occurring between highland and lowland societies on foot.


In Old World Egypt, the resources were similar along the Nile Valley and Delta, however in Andean South America, different natural resources, ocean and farm, gave way to an economic advantage when both resources were utilized.

Final Thought

Although the civilizations of the Old World and South America were quite varied, there was a fundamental similarity between the two. The evolution of the “social institution” gave way to exploitation of peoples, even using the excuse that it was the civic or religious duty of the citizens to conform to this new structure.

  • Wenke and Olszewski: Patterns of Prehistory 2007


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