Subject:      papermaking and trans-pacific contacts: Tolstoy
From: (Yuri Kuchinsky)
Date:         1997/07/06
Message-ID:   <5pockb$ekf$>
Newsgroups:   sci.archaeology.mesoamerican,sci.archaeology,

What can papermaking and barkbeaters tell us about the ancient contacts
between Asia and America?


While the discussion of trans-pacific contacts in these newsgroups has
focused primarily on plant diffusion, and various other assorted
parallels, the importance of papermaking has not been considered as yet.
Prof. Paul Tolstoy, of Montreal, has done much work in this area. Here I
will try to summarize his relatively recent publication, PAPER ROUTE, in

In this article that includes some very helpful illustrations, Tolstoy
considers in detail the parallels in papermaking on both sides of the
Pacific, as well as in the Polynesian islands.

The technology of papermaking appeared 4,000 or 5,000 years ago in Asia.
Mayan codices (of which very few survived the destruction by the Catholic
Inquisition) were made of bark paper, a material different from "true
paper", which was invented in China between 2,500 and 2,000 years ago.

"The Maya and Mexicans used bark paper not only to write on but also for
ceremonial clothing, banners, fans, bags, and other items." (p. 6)

And most if not all of such uses have also been documented in Asia. Such
ceremonial uses certainly predate the use of paper for writing, contrary
to what most of us would think...

"Bark paper or cloth is a layer of inner bark, or bast, taken from a tree,
often of the fig family. It is widened, thinned, and made flexible by
beating, sometimes in combination with other techniques, such as soaking
in water." (p. 6)

The difference between the two kinds of paper is that in "true paper" the
bark has been transformed by pounding into a pulp to the point where the
natural structure of the material is lost -- whereas in "bark paper", much
of the original structure of the naturally interconnected fibers of bark
is still retained.

According to Tolstoy, "true paper" has not been found in precolumbian
America, and this may indicate that the trans-pacific connection, such as
it may have been, had been lost by the time when the "true paper" was
invented in China. Or at least that any further contacts did not succeed
in transmitting the more advanced technology.

As early as 1888, German archaeologist Max Uhle noticed close similarity
between certain stone artifacts of Mexico and others in Indonesia. It was
already well known at the time that these stone artifacts, i.e. specially
shaped and grooved flat stones, were used in Asia as barkbeaters in the
manufacture of paper. Yet their use was then unknown in Mexico, although
Uhle suggested that they were used in ancient Mexico for a similar

This was confirmed in 1900 by Frederick Starr, who was the first scholar
to document the contemporary papermaking by Native Americans, the Otomi in
northeastern Mexico. His findings were confirmed by others.

And now let's look at what Tolstoy found in the course of his research. He

"My own survey of hundreds of speciments of the club and racquet types [of
barkbeaters] shows further correspondences in the construction of
Mesoamerican and Indonesian examples. ... My research also reveals a
pattern of dates for the archaeological examples. In Mesoamerica, the
earliest bark beaters are from the Maya area and its periphery,
particularly the Pacific coastal plain of Guatemala and El Salvador, where
they appear some 2,500 years ago." (p. 8)

"The dating of artifacts from the islands of Southeast Asia is less
secure, but both forms [of barkbeaters, i.e. club-shaped, and
racquet-type] almost certainly go back several hundred years earlier than
they do in Mesoamerica. In Taiwan they probably go back one or two
thousand years still earlier." (p. 8)

"Surveying the manufacturing technologies of bark cloth and early true
paper worldwide, I have identified some 300 variable features in the steps
that go into producing these materials. They include such elements as the
cultivation or care of trees used for their bark; ways of getting at the
desired bast layer, ... [a long list of such features follows here]" (p.

"In addition, I have recorded some 140 uses of the product, such as mats,
blankets, bags, various items of clothing, shrouds, banners, and of
course, writing paper." (p. 10)

"Finally, there are some 100 specific details of the design of bark
beaters, which may be combined in various ways, and a mass of relevant
botanical and linguistic information." (p. 10)

"As a result of this research, I have reached three principal conclusions.

[1]     The first is that, bark beaters aside, the Toradja of central
Sulawesi (in Indonesia) and the Mesoamerican communitites share ways of
making and using bark cloth that are as numerous and as striking as the
similarities between the tools they use. ... Some of the elements are very
rare in the world and are found only in these industries and their close
relatives. All have functional alternatives, and few, if any, are
absolutely determined by the mere goal of making bark cloth" (p. 10)

This of course is very important from the point of view of whether or not
these inventions may or may not have been made independently in the two
geographical areas under consideration. Here is where the _complexity_
that was already discussed in these ngs comes in as an important
consideration. If certain elements of the manufacturing complex _could_
have many possible functional alernatives, but these alternatives are not
evidenced in the _actual_ processes, the possibility of independent
invention is diminished significantly thereby. In other words, the
manufacture and use could have diverged significantly, and yet they
didn't. And this is a strong indication that these complexes sprang from a
common source.

[2]     "The second point ... Mesoamerican papermaking qualifies as a
member of one family of Southeast Asian bark cloth and paper industries.
Its direct connection to them would be unpoblematical were it not for its
geographical location." (p. 10)

[3]     "Finally, the shared features and innovations suggest a family
tree for these industries with a history of common inheritance and local
differentiation. In it, Mesoamerican paper technology evolves from a
prototype shared with Sulawesi bark cloth and moves toward the threshold
of the true papermaking. Evidence from China suggests that this threshold
was crossed sometime between 2,500 and 2,000 years ago, possibly in
southern China or Indochina. Mesoamerica, however, acquired a version of
the technology as it existed just prior to this event, probably from the
area that includes Indochina, Taiwan, and the Philippine Islands, where
the two beater forms occur together archaeologically." (p.12)

Further, Tolstoy adds:

"Contrary to what some might expect, Polynesian tapa making -- perhaps the
most elaborate set of procedures ever devised to make bark cloth -- does
not provide a credible link between the Indonesian and Mesoamerican
technologies. ... Polynesian tapa making has its own distinctive
characteristics, such as the use of the hollow wood anvil, and lacks many
key features that link Java and Sulawesi to Mesoamerica, notably the
unique racquet beater with a stone head, unknown in the Pacific east of
the Philippines." (p. 13)

(As I understand it, Tolstoy is suggesting that Polynesian papermaking
branched off the common "family tree" of East Asian papermaking
technologies very early on, and continued as a separate tradition
thereupon. This "separation" may have taken place as early as 3,000-2,000
years bce.)

So here we see that our intuitive idea that if some cultural traits, or
agricultural plants, did diffuse across the Pacific, the Pacific islanders
should have had them too is probably quite off base. Greg, for example,
was wondering why maize, that I believe diffused across the Pacific in
ancient times, is not found in precolumbian Pacific islands? I suggested
some reasons for this already, i.e. that it was unsuitable for Pacific
islands agriculture. The example of papermaking further adds to the things
that could have been in evidence in precolumbian Pacific islands,
supposing that diffusion across the Pacific is accepted, but were not.

As to who and how may have brought this technology to America, Tolstoy

"The travelers who brought papermaking to the New World may not have been
castaways [as has been commonly proposed] at all, but explorers or
deliberate settlers." (p. 13)

People who may be interested to learn more about this fascinating research
are encouraged to track down this article by Tolstoy and see there some
good quality illustrations of barkbeaters on both sides of the Pacific.
They do look remarkably similar.

It seems to me that Tolstoy has contributed very significantly to helping
us see at last those dark pages of the world history that remained obscure
for so long. His research is finally uncovering the full story of the
incredible co-operation of the Native peoples around the world many
centuries before the Europeans ever managed to make it to these areas.
Those whose Eurocentric pre-conceptions may make them feel uncomfortable
about this hidden story of accomplishments of ancient tribal cultures
being told should perhaps re-examine their cherished dogmas and

Best regards,


Yuri Kuchinsky   | "Where there is the Tree of Knowledge, there
     -=-         | is always Paradise: so say the most ancient
 in Toronto      | and the most modern serpents."  F. Nietzsche
 ----- my webpage is for now at: [22] -----

Paul Tostoy, PAPER ROUTE, NATURAL HISTORY, 6:1991. p. 6.

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