How civilizations learn, or forget

Attention, civilization-watchers out there. Score one for the New World in its competition with the Old: 5,000-year-old Caral, Peru, confirmed last year as the oldest city in the Americas (see story at right), has pushed estimates for the beginning of civilizations in the Americas back another thousand years.

But there is a poignancy to the story of this lost civilization, which Peruvians will surely feel as they grasp the significance of the findings of their compatriot, the archaeologist Ruth Shady Solís.

Civilizations, alas, rise and fall. They learn, and then they forget - or they fail to teach what they know to their younger generations.

The shifting positions of competing civilizations can lead to wrenching dislocations of humanity - as Americans are learning as they struggle to answer President Bush's question after Sept. 11, "Why do they hate us?" The Middle Eastern civilizations named the stars and taught the world to count with their Arabic numerals, much more sensible than Roman numerals, awkward as square wheels. These peoples do not like to be looked down on by the West.

How interesting that the story of Caral is being told by a Peruvian, rather than a North American or European scholar. For a second time in just a few months, our Ideas cover story touches on the question of what we might call academic imperialism: the relationship between scholars from "developed" countries and research sites in "developing" countries (see Nov. 15).

The lessons that will be learned from Caral will be learned more deeply from having Peruvians involved in the research.

And let's hope that one of those lessons is that a society that achieved glory once can do it again.


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