Machu Picchu, Maize and the Advantage of Backwardness: More Comments

Nick Asheshov’s article on Machu Picchu, Maize and the Advantage of Backwardness has triggered comments from a former Central Bank president,  British and American archaeologists, an explorer, and an author and film-maker. 

The following are the most recent comments in this ongoing conversation:

Graham Thiele, at the International Potato Centre, Lima, is concerned that “a reader could get the wrong end of the stick and think potatoes are not important in the Andes.

“The article appears to say that maize is superior in an absolute sense to potato, but my argument was more nuanced. Potatoes would still have been a key part of local food systems but because of bulkiness are not suitable for longer distance trade and surplus extraction. Hence the potato, then as now, could have been a key part of the diet of poor (esp at higher altitudes) but not widely traded. The part about potatoes rot easily is a bit overstated as under higher altitude conditions potatoes can be stored for several months, just not as long as maize.”

From Christopher Roper, in Dorset:

Nick Asheshov’s lively account of Machu Picchu, Maize and the Advantage of Backwardness shows that though he may have some grasp of Inca-ology, he knows absolutely nothing about China.  He says in his piece that the Inca Empire was bigger and better than Ming Dynasty China, which was contemporaneous with the apogee of the Inca Empire at the beginning of the 16th century.

This is nonsense.  As anyone remotely familiar with the Ming, for instance, through just a glance at “A History of East Asian Civilization, Volume 1 East Asia: The Great Tradition” by Edwin Oldfather et al (1960), Ming Dynasty China was famously “one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in human history.”

We can all admire the Incas, and pat them on their broad backs for their achievements –but, come on, bigger and better than the Ming?  Here’s just a line or two taken at random from The Great Tradition.

“Ming rule saw the construction of a vast navy and a standing army of one million troops.   Under the Ming a fleet under the Muslim eunuch admiral Zheng He in the 15th century far surpassed all others anywhere in the world in size. There were enormous construction projects, including the restoration of the Grand Canal and the Great Wall and the establishment of the Forbidden City in Beijing during the first quarter of the 15th century. Estimates for the late-Ming population vary from 160 to 200 million.”

Now, as Nick Asheshov certainly knows, the best estimates of Inca population, from –for instance– Noble David Cook’s pioneering Demographic Collapse: Indian Peru, 1520-1620 (CUP 1984) and in Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492-1650, the Inca Empire probably had a population of 10 million and indeed this compares favourably with three or four million, for instance, for England at the time.  But frankly, it’s still a flea-bite compared with the 160mn-plus for Ming China.   The Inca Navy amounted to a few KonTiki rafts and some totora-reed surf-boards.

Asheshov comments:   The comparison of the Inca Empire with Ming China comes from Michael Moseley’s standard “The Incas and their Ancestors” (2001).  However, it is clear that both Prof.  Moseley and I should be more cautious in the future.

David Beresford-Jones adds:

Christopher Roper is doubtless correct in his comparisons of Ming Dynasty China and the Inca Empire.  Yet, it’s striking that in showing so, he further underlines Nick Asheshov’s interesting thesis on the ‘advantage of backwardness’. As so often, Colin McEvedy puts it pithily:

“For size and majesty the Chinese Empire had no rival in the fifteenth century. With over a hundred million orderly souls, a bureaucracy of indestructible traditions, and a history going back 3,000 years, this was a fact. It was also an attitude: the Ming Emperor recognized other states only as tributary – or rebellious – members of a world dominion bestowed on him by Heaven. This attitude was not unreasonable within the East Asian sphere: both Korea and Vietnam had been Chinese provinces in the past and their rulers were prepared to pay token tribute in return for Chinese recognition. It became untenable when the world beyond became visible and was then to cause a loss of the dignity it was supposed to enhance. Even before that happened, it had done damage as an intellectual soporific, making the Chinese smug and incurious, and lowering the vitality of their culture.”

The comparison, then, one might wish to draw on the ‘advantage of backwardness’ at this cusp of momentous change in world history, would be between Europe and China.

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One Comment

  1. Robert Ball, MA (Cantab) says:

    One wonders what effect a predominantly maize diet had on the Incas, since it is deficient in one essential amino-acid (tryptophan) and therefore is not a complete protein. Prolonged consumption of only maize leads to stunted growth and pot bellies, as in parts of Africa where maize is the only, or almost only, item of diet.

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