DIAMOND, a researcher at UCLA, has been doing fieldwork in New
Guinea for over 25 years. New Guinea is home to some of the last
hunter-gatherers in the world. A long time ago, one of his New
Guinea friends asked Diamond why white people had so much and
New Guineans had so little.
That's an obvious question, but Jared was
surprised to realize he didn't know the answer. In fact, he didn't
know of anyone who knew the answer. When Europeans were busy
conquering the Americas and Australia and New Zealand and parts
of Asia and Africa, the obvious answer was that white people
were superior. Either they were genetically superior, or their
culture was superior. Historically, that was the customary answer.
Europeans were smarter or more capable. That explanation is clearly
bad, but a good one has failed to take its place.
Why did Europeans conquer the world? Why,
when Europeans came into contact with other places in the world,
did they almost always conquer? This is a key question in European
Jared Diamond had spent enough time with
the New Guineans, living among them, to know that they were intelligent
and resourceful people in Diamond's opinion, more intelligent
and resourceful than people living in modern societies, both
because of natural selection (unintelligent and unresourceful
people don't live long in the New Guinea wilds) and because the
New Guinea environment is so difficult, and the death rate is
so high, that they must smarten up as they grow up, or they don't
make it to adulthood.
But if they are so smart, why hadn't they
invented guns? Why hadn't they forged steel? Why were they so
outmatched when Europeans made their historic landing on their
Diamond decided to find out why. And the
way he started was a stroke of genius. He decided to go back
to a time in history when all humans were equal. About 13,000
years ago all humans on the planet were hunter-gatherers. No
group had much more than any other group. At that time in history,
there were no civilizations, no cities, no rich people. They
all had pretty much the same technology. Then what happened?
The first thing that changed was the domestication
of animals and plants. Agriculture. That is the beginning of
global inequality because agriculture wasn't invented everywhere
at the same time. Some places started earlier than others.
This is a key historical fact.
The first place people started farming
and tending animals was in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle
East near present-day Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. Agriculture was
invented in other parts of the globe much later in the historical
The people on the Eurasian continent got
a huge head start. They started farming 2000 years, 4000 years,
and in some cases 6000 years earlier than other places!
Now the question is again, why? Were people
on other continents not as bright? Why didn't they start farming
earlier? The answer is that in order for a people to settle down
to agriculture, they need a complex combination of factors, and
those factors happened to arise first in the Fertile Crescent,
by the pure luck of geography. Those people happened to be living
in the right place at the right time in history.
what it takes to start agriculture
Some groups of hunter-gatherers in New
Guinea are semi-farmers. They cultivate banana trees. But the
semi-farmers don't stay put. They haven't settled down and built
cities. They don't live permanently in the area because their
farming has never allowed them to. They have to
keep moving. They come back a couple of times in the year, once
to pull weeds, and once to actually harvest the bananas, but
they have to keep moving in order to get enough to eat. Why?
The reason is simple: You can't store
bananas. To settle down permanently, finding a food source
you can farm isn't enough. It has to be the right kind
of food source. The food source has to be something you can store,
and it has to contain some protein. Bananas have very little
protein. People can't live on it. They have to eat other things.
Historical botany shows wheat grew wild
in the Fertile Crescent before it was cultivated. It lent itself
to domestication in many ways, and because the growing season
was so short in that area, the seeds were rather large and had
evolved to remain dormant for a long time.
In other words, here was a food you could
store for a long time without rotting. It also is reasonably
high in protein.
Jared Diamond and many others have scoured
the globe for other potential plants that could fulfill the same
requirements. They are very rare and historically, have always
Not only that, but even a storable plant
seed wasn't enough to switch from hunter-gatherers to farmers.
They also needed an animal. They needed a good source of protein.
People don't survive very well eating only grain, so wheat was
not enough. And again, just by luck, in the Fertile Crescent,
there was an animal that could be domesticated, and again, that
wasn't historically true in most other parts of the world.
Wherever farming has taken hold around
the world, the farmers had historically at least one domesticated
animal to provide protein, at least one storable source of carbohydrates,
and a legume (peas, lentils, beans, etc.). Legumes are
also storable. They dry hard and don't rot readily. And they
are higher in protein than grains so they can be used as a protein
supplement when animal protein is scarce.
Can you see why this combination shows
up in history again and again? And why its alternative does not
ever appear? Not once in history does a civilization blossom
without these three factors. Because it is not enough to have
one (or even two) of these factors. It wouldn't be enough of
the right kind of nutrition to sustain a group of people.
But with all three factors, it's enough.
People could stop roaming, and form villages. And historically,
we can see that they did so.
There are very few places in the world
where a domesticatable animal, plus a storable carbohydrate,
plus a legume all exist in the same place.
There are many places in the world where
a grain grows. But farming didn't start and people didn't settle
down because that isn't enough. To have an adequate agriculture,
you need the combination, and it was rare. It became available
for the first time in history in the Fertile Crescent, and it
allowed people to settle down into villages.
That was the beginning. It doesn't seem
like much, but agriculture brought into existence a chain of
events that allowed farmers to advance their technology far beyond
the chain of causes and effects
This is how history played out once a sustainable
agriculture developed. First, people settled down. They had a
more reliable source of food throughout the year (because it
was storable), so they had more kids. A hunter-gatherer
woman only gives birth every five years or so because hunter-gatherers
move around a lot and until a child can walk on his own at a
pretty good pace, the mother cannot afford to have another child.
But once people settle down into a village
with a steady supply of food, they start having children at a
rate close to one per year.
So historically, the population of farmers
grows much faster than that of hunter-gatherers, allowing the
farmers to outnumber and defeat hunter-gatherers in war.
Also, because settled farmers are settled,
they can have more possessions, like tools and weapons. Hunter-gatherers
had to carry their things with them, so they were limited in
how many possessions they could accumulate. This has a long-term
narrowing influence on the development of new technologies because
often new inventions are built on previous inventions.
As farming techniques improved, farmers
had more food excess to store, so some people no longer
had to do the work of producing food. Specialists could then
develop. Tool makers. Weapons makers. And because they were specialized
and spent more time on their craft, they invented more. Technology
So farmers had better weapons and greater
numbers and could defeat hunter-gatherers even more effectively.
Another very important factor is: The more
people you have together, the more ideas they exchange. The process
of innovation began to accelerate when people settled down into
towns and cities.
Hunter-gatherers hardly changed at all.
They were relatively isolated, relatively small groups of people
who didn't have the time or incentive to invent new technologies,
and they couldn't carry much with them anyway, so their technologies
remained relatively unchanged for thousands of years.
the importance of latitude
One important advantage the Eurasians had
was a large piece of land stretching across the same latitude.
Look at an atlas and find the Fertile Crescent. See how far land
stretches in both directions on that latitude. It is enormous.
So the combination of the domesticated plants and animals
the self-reliant, self-sustaining, and complete agricultural
package could (and did) spread east to Asia and west to
Europe. To add to the advantage, that encouraged a constant interchange
between these far-flung places, which also accelerated the pace
In the Americas, Australia, and Africa,
the spreading was much more limited along the same latitude.
The reason latitude is important is that
if you go east or west at the same latitude, you have similar
lengths of day, somewhat similar climate and weather, which means
plants and animals that survive well at one spot are more likely
to survive well east or west of there, but not usually north
or south of that spot.
Added to that, there were significant barriers
to traveling north and south in Africa and the Americas. Huge
deserts and impenetrable forests prevented one area from having
much contact with other areas. So, for example, in Mesoamerica,
they had invented the wheel. Down in South America, they had
domesticated llamas. The people in Mesoamerica never got the
llamas and the South Americans never got the wheel. Had both
civilizations lived on the same latitude, it is likely both
would have used the wheel and the llama.
So the width of the Eurasian continent
is a huge factor in the acceleration of technology. But there
was another factor that gave the Europeans a back-breaking advantage
when they encountered Native Americans and Africans (and Hawaiians
and Australian Aborigines, etc.). Whenever Europeans in the Age
of Discovery encountered anyone from any other continent, they
why didn't diseases go both ways?
Why is it that when Europeans landed on
the shores of the Americas that the Native Americans were devastated
by so many diseases brought by the Europeans? And why didn't
the Native Americans have their own diseases to give to the white
man? Why did Europeans have such a huge collection of deadly
diseases that they had a resistance to, but the Native Americans
didn't have very many diseases that Europeans had no resistance
Interesting question, isn't it? The answer
is that most of our diseases smallpox, measles, tuberculosis,
flu, etc. originally came from the animals Europeans had
Here's how it works: First, an animal has
a microbe that infects it, say cowpox (an actual case). Because
humans are hanging around cows a lot, some of the microbes jump
to the humans, but generally speaking, they can't survive. But
a little random mutation here and there and all of a sudden smallpox
comes into existence and wipes out huge portions of the European
population. It mutated to become a human disease. This
happened again and again. Plague after plague swept through Europe
over the centuries, killing off everyone who didn't have some
resistance to it.
Native Americans hadn't domesticated very
many animals. They didn't have cows, horses, pigs, chickens,
goats, sheep, geese, oxen, donkeys, etc. But Europeans had all
these any many more.
why the disease exchange was so one-sided. Disease did far more
to create an imbalance between Europeans and Native Americans
than all the other factors put together.
buy why not the Chinese?
So far, this explains why people on the
Eurasian continent dominated people on other continents. But
the Eurasian continent is very wide. Why wasn't it the people
from the Middle East or China who did the conquering? Why was
The Middle East is too dry for intensive
farming now. Most of the forests have been cut down and didn't
grow back. The place is like a desert these days, which was not
the case 13,000 years ago when agriculture was just getting started.
So their ability to survive well, much less produce surplus food,
diminished over time. At the time Europe began its Age of Discovery,
around 1500 AD, the Middle East was agriculturally past its prime
and not in a position to compete.
China, on the other hand, could have been
a potential rival for world exploration and dominance around
1500, but right about that time, the ruler of China decided to
dismantle all the shipyards in China! No more exploration by
sea, he said. One of the things that prevented China from being
the people who conquered the other continents, in other words,
was China's unity. A single ruler could decide the fortunes
of the whole region. Not so in Europe.
Europe has lots of natural barriers: It
is divided by water and mountains and lots of jutting landmasses.
So Europe has been continually divided into states. In the 1500's,
those states were all competing with each other. Even if you
had a ruler or two who didn't want to explore the world, you
would have other rulers who would, and they would become rich
and essentially force the other states to jump in or fall
behind (or even be conquered).
this is the answer to the question
Our original question was, why did Europeans
conquer the world? The answer is, because they happened to live
on the Eurasian continent, so they were lucky enough to start
agriculture earlier than any other place on earth. Just by luck,
they were at the right latitude with the right combination of
available animals and plants that could be domesticated. And
with a head start of thousands of years, their technology was
more advanced. And because of their close association with their
domesticated animals, they carried many diseases to which they
had resistance but people from other continents did not. Because
of their head start, Europeans possessed guns, germs, and steel
and they conquered the world with them.
Much of the global inequality seen today
comes from this original source.
If you'd like to know more, Jared Diamond
has written an excellent book and made a first-rate DVD about
how Europeans conquered the world. Both are titled, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.
Check them out. Diamond goes into far more interesting detail
than I have here in this article.
If you are interested in the impact of
disease on Native Americans, read the book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before
Columbus, by Charles Mann. Fascinating.