Thursday, January 17, 2008

The importance of books and writing

Many years ago I read Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel, and always remembered his paragraph about how Pizarro was able to conquer the Inca in part because he and his men had, most probably, read accounts of battles and conquests and how to defeat with "unfamiliar people", while the Inca had not. Here is the relevant explanation, from the PBS video... just the first two minutes are relevant. The transcript is below if you'd rather... READ!

Voiceover: Pizarro and his most trusted officers debate their options for how to deal with Ataxalpa. Some advise caution, but Pizarro insists their best chance is to launch a surprise attack the next day. It’s a tactic that’s worked successfully in the past. Twelve years before Pizarro went to Peru, another famous conquistador, Hernan Cortez, had gone to Mexico and encountered another formidable civilization; the Aztecs. He conquered the country by kidnapping the Aztec leader and exploiting the ensuing chaos. Cortez’s story was later published and became a bestseller, a handbook for any would-be conquistador. It can still be found in the great library of Salamanca University in Northern Spain.

Jared Diamond: This wonderful library here can be thought of among other things as a repository of dirty tricks, because in these books are the accounts of what generals had been doing to other generals for thousands of years in the past and across much of Eurasia, and here from this library we have a famous account of the conquest of Mexico with all the details of what Cortez did to the Aztecs and what worked. That was a model for Pizarro to give him ideas what exactly to try out on the Incas, whereas the Incas without writing, had only local knowledge transmitted by oral memory, and they were unsophisticated and naïve compared to the Spaniards because of writing.

Voiceover: But if books were so useful, why couldn’t the Incas read or write? To develop a new system of writing independently is an extremely complex process, and has happened very rarely in human history. It was first achieved by the Sumerian people of the Fertile Crescent at least 5,000 years ago. They pioneered an elaborate system of symbols called cuneiform, possibly as a way of recording farming transactions. Ever since, almost every other written language of Europe and Asia has copied, adapted or simply been inspired by the basics of cuneiform. The spread of writing was helped enormously by the invention of paper, ink and moveable type, innovations that all came from outside Europe but were seized upon by Europeans in the Middle Ages to produce the ultimate transmitter of knowledge – the printing press. The written word could now spread quickly and accurately across Europe and Asia. The modern world would be impossible without the development of writing.

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