Monday, April 08, 2002

Back to my thoughts on that Atlantic Monthly article about pre-Columbian America. At some point in my schooling in Australia - probably in my first year of high school in 1981 when I would have been twelve - I was taught about the concept of a number system having a base. We were taught to convert the usual base 10 into base 6 into base 4, into binary, into octal etc. It was mentioned in passing that computers used binary, and programmers would often use octal. (Neither my teacher nor I, nor I expect the author of the textbook, had ever used a computer at that point, so this was taken on faith. I wouldn't find out about hexadecimal until later). However, the mathematics textbook had an interesting aside. It mentioned that the Mayan civilization had invented numbers based on place value around the time of Christ - well before they had been known in Europe and possibly before they have been known anywhere in Eurasia. It also had some pictures of what the Mayan numerals looked like, and it discussed how they used base 20 some of the time but that the base could vary from digit to digit. (This is not as strange as you think. When you write out the time as 11:22pm, you are effectively using a mixture of base 10, base 6 and base 12 and probably don't even realise it). I thought that this was absolutely fascinating, and in retrospect I think I must have been using a remarkably better textbook than I had thought at the time.

Of course I had no idea whatsoever who these Mayans were, other than having some vague idea that they had lived in the Americas somewhere. If I had had access to the internet at the time, then I could perhaps have found out more, but this was 1981. There was no chance whatsoever that I would learn anything about the history of the Americas in any other part of my schooling, so I was left with this tantalising glimpse of something . Of course, like everyone else that age I had seen Star Wars, and I had therefore seen the temains of the Mayan city of Tikal, which George Lucas thought looked just like a rebal base on a far planet. However, I did not put this together.

Other bits and pieces slowly came together: yes, there were a great many agricultural plants from the Americas, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, and in particular corn (the domestication of which was seemingly a vastly more complicated process than most of the staple food crops with a Eurasian-African origin (wheat, rice, sorghum etc)

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