Winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel was also, somewhat surprisingly, a national best-seller. At a time when other popular nonfiction topics centered on personal relationships and diets, Diamond caught the attention of the reading public with a fascinating account of more than 13,000 years of human evolution and societal development.
Although the book has raised a few points of controversy among scientists, it also has gained widespread praise. Some scientists argue against Diamond’s thesis that geography and environment are the most important factors in shaping the world as modern humans know it. But most critics praise Diamond for the task he successfully took upon himself, which was to answer a very complex question. In the prologue of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond recounts how he became intrigued when his New Guinean friend Yali asked, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” The cargo that Yali refers to is technology—tools as simple as axes; accessories such as umbrellas; and more complicated inventions such as computers, cell phones, and the Internet. After all, Diamond points out, a mere two centuries prior to his meeting Yali, New Guineans were still using stone tools. What factors caused this gap between the development of one culture and another?
Diamond searched for an answer by examining millions of years of history, mapping out the migrations of early humans from Africa to Eurasia, from eastern Asia to the Pacific Ocean islands, and from Siberia to the North and South American continents. He follows humans as they evolve biologically, and then he concentrates on specific representative societies to illustrate his findings.
To define the differences between developing cultures, Diamond emphasizes the effects of food production, writing, technology, government, and religion. Then he demonstrates, in his opinion, why the differences among various cultures occurred. More important (and one of the reasons for some of the controversy surrounding this book), Diamond concludes that it is ultimately geography, not biology or race as some other studies have tried to prove, that produced the cultural disparities his friend Yali had pointed out.
Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel opens with a prologue in which the author presents a question from a New Guinean politician and friend named Yali: why were Europeans able to conquer so many other societies around the world? This question, in the past, has often been answered in terms of genetics, a belief that Diamond sets out to disprove. People are not born superior to another group, Diamond contends. To provide a background for, as well as an argument to support, his own explanation, Diamond then briefly sketches millions of years of human evolution. When Diamond reaches the last 13,000 years, he slows down to focus on specific societies and historical events. In the process, Diamond’s theory becomes apparent. He believes that the success of a society is not based on intelligence and ingenuity but instead on geography, food production, germs and immunity, the domestication of animals, and the discovery and use of steel.
Societies become more stable as they move from hunting and gathering to cultivating crops and raising domestic animals. What then inevitably follows is the development of specialized labor groups as well as the establishment of hierarchies in ruling parties. Populations thrive under these conditions, and in time empires rise. The stability provides farming societies with powerful advantages over nomadic hunter-gatherer groups, which are forced to roam the countryside in search of food. One major advantage of farming societies is that some members are eased from the burden of producing food and are then able to devote their time to making weapons and perfecting the art of using them.
Major portions of the Eurasian area, Diamond points out, had a natural advantage in agriculture because of the presence of plants and animals that were easily domesticated. Not only did this allow food surpluses to develop, but it also enabled crops such as cotton, flax, and hemp to be easily processed into clothing, blankets, nets, and ropes. Animals, besides providing food and labor, also gave Eurasians wool and leather—protection from the cold. Gourds, such as those grown in North America, were used as containers, which made life even easier for farming societies. Horses, which were domesticated in Europe, offered significant advantages in wars. Animals such as camels, llamas, mules, reindeer, and yak pulled wagons and sleds, easing the workload and allowing further exploration.
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Chapter 1 Summary
According to Diamond, the ancestors of human beings broke off as a separate lineage from other animals about 7 million years ago in Africa. Human ancestors began walking upright around 4 million years ago, and they moved to Eurasia around 1 or 2 million years ago. Sometime between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, not long after human fossils began to resemble modern homo sapiens, our race created an explosion of new technological and artistic innovations that far surpassed anything previously created. Archaeologists call this period the Great Leap Forward.
Shortly after the Great Leap Forward, between 50,000 and 35,000 years ago, the human race expanded its territory. Although human ancestors had remained in Africa and Eurasia for millions of years, people now moved outward to Australia, the South Pacific, and the coldest northern regions of Eurasia. The precise dates of human arrival in the Americas are harder to determine, but the colonization happened at least 12,000 or 13,000 years ago. Diamond thinks it is remarkable that human beings moved into all habitable areas of the globe in a few tens of thousands of years without the benefit of modern technology.
Diamond begins his consideration of the fates of human societies around 11,000 B.C., or 13,000 years ago, because during this period all the habitable continents were populated with hunter-gatherers, and no society had advanced technologically to become farmers or city dwellers. Diamond asks whether a modern archaeologist, transported back 13,000 years, could determine which continent’s people would have the best chances for developing advanced technologies. Considering each continent in turn, he lists the qualities one might consider to be advantages.
In 11,000 B.C.E., Africa had been populated for the longest time, which would have allowed its people to develop the most expansive knowledge of their landscape and environment. Africa’s people were also more genetically diverse than were the people of other continents, which suggests they might have had a greater range of genetic adaptability.
The Americas had been populated the shortest length of time. The Americas, however, had more space and environmental diversity than Africa did. Taken together, the Americas were also larger than any continent except Eurasia. Diamond reasons that both of these factors may have given early Americans an advantage.
Eurasians had the largest...
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Chapter 2 Summary
To defend his theory that environmental factors can determine the fate of a continent, Diamond considers examples from Polynesia. He claims that Polynesia, which is made up of many islands, provides many examples of societies that developed in isolation from each other. Also, because islands are smaller than whole continents are, the environmental factors that affect their inhabitants are somewhat simpler to explain.
In 1835, 500 Maori warriors sailed to the Chatham Islands, an archipelago inhabited by the Moriori people. The Maori came from a warlike agricultural society on the large, densely populated island of New Zealand. They were armed with both modern and traditional weapons. The Moriori were a peaceful and less organized hunter-gatherer people who occupied a more isolated, less densely populated archipelago. Over the course of just a few weeks, the Maori warriors slaughtered nearly all the Moriori and took possession of the islands.
Diamond proposes that the tragic events on the Chatham Islands played out in a predictable way: the technologically advanced society won. He points out that no genetic differences could have existed between the Maori and Moriori because the two cultures had diverged from a common source just 1,000 years before. Factors other than genetic superiority had to have determined the differences between the two peoples. Diamond sets out to examine what those factors were.
According to archaeologists, the Chatham Islands were colonized by ancestral Maori people from New Zealand about 1,000 years before the massacre. The colonizers who became the Moriori were most likely farmers when they arrived. However, the crops they brought with them could not grow in the Chathams’ cold climate, so they abandoned farming and turned to hunting and gathering. This left them unable to produce surplus food to support people who were employed in occupations other than finding food. The Moriori had little space in which to expand, so they did not develop a large society with a complex political organization. They were distant from other islands, so they had no need to develop strong, warlike defenses before the arrival of the Maori.
The Maoris of northern New Zealand, in contrast, had a large area that was suitable for growing the crops available in Polynesia. Their farmers could grow and store surplus food to support denser populations that included warriors and craftspeople. Moreover,...
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Chapter 3 Summary
Diamond turns to a subject more familiar to most of his readership: the collision between the Incas and the Spanish in South America in 1532. In that encounter, Francisco Pizarro and 168 soldiers captured King Atahuallpa, who was supported by an army of 80,000 men.
Before his encounter with Atahuallpa, Pizarro stationed groups of men with guns and trumpets in strategic positions around a square. He even put rattles on his men’s horses so they would make more noise. When Atahuallpa and his entourage arrived, Pizarro presented the king with a Bible and a message about its contents. Atahuallpa, unable to read Spanish and offended by Pizarro’s manners, threw the Bible to the ground. The Spaniards attacked, killing Incan soldiers and capturing Atahuallpa while the Incan army, terrified by the Spaniards’ weapons and surprised into disorganization, failed to fight back.
After describing this scene, Diamond sets out to determine why the Spaniards were able to capture Atahuallpa. Pizarro’s soldiers’ weaponry was, by South American standards at the time, unimaginably effective. Horses had never been seen in South America before, and sixty-two of Pizarro’s soldiers were mounted on horses, giving them an enormous advantage of speed and force. Pizarro’s soldiers also had guns, steel swords, and steel armor, none of which existed among the Incas. These weapons were so much stronger than the weapons previously used in the Americas that Spanish armies of dozens or hundreds of men routinely slaughtered thousands of Indians in battle.
In addition to superior weaponry, the Spanish conquest was aided by disease. The arrival of Spanish in the Americas brought about a smallpox outbreak among populations that had never before been exposed to the disease. Whereas European communities had developed a resistance to smallpox over the course of centuries, the Indians in South America had no such defenses. Whole communities died. Smallpox spread through the Incan empire more quickly than the Spanish could advance. Just a few years prior to Pizarro’s arrival in the area, an Incan emperor and his immediate heir had been killed. This brought about a civil war between Atahuallpa and his brother, who both claimed the Incan throne. Their conflict and the great loss of life it caused...
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Chapter 4 Summary
In Part Two of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond argues that superior food production was the root cause beneath the ability of Eurasia’s people to develop the guns, germs, and steel that conquered the rest of the world. He promises to discuss in a future section the particular ways food production techniques had this effect around the world, but first he devotes Chapter 4 to explaining why food production had this effect at all.
First, a population that can produce more food can also produce more people. Of the plant and animal matter our planet produces naturally, the vast majority is inedible, poisonous, or too inefficient for humans to bother eating. When people control what the land produces, they can choose to raise the plants and animals that are the best available sources of food. Some farm animals produce fertilizer, do farm work, and provide fuel for fires in addition to providing meat and milk. Consequently, herding and farming societies can usually feed 10 to 100 times the number of people hunter-gatherer societies can feed.
In addition to these advantages, farming replaces a nomadic lifestyle with a sedentary one. This allows farming cultures to bear and raise more children and store and use food surpluses. Farming societies are in a better position to support full-time leaders, shamans, artisans, and scribes.
After human societies domesticated large mammals, they quickly developed the ability to transport people and trade goods over longer distances. In Eurasia, horses became deadly tools of warfare by 4000 B.C. Later, when people invented stirrups and saddles, they became even more effective.
In Eurasian farming societies, domesticated mammals lived in close proximity to humans and gave rise to most of the infectious diseases that devastated the populations visited by Europeans in the 1500s and later. Smallpox, measles, and flu all evolved from similar diseases in farm animals. The people who domesticated the animals quickly evolved at least partial resistance to these diseases. However, the same diseases wreaked havoc every time they were introduced to populations that had not previously been exposed to them.
Near the end of the chapter, Diamond pauses to note some possible objections to the points he has made so far. He admits that, over the course of history, a few hunter-gatherer societies have developed sedentary lifestyles, specialist workers, and the like....
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Chapter 5 Summary
In prehistoric times, agriculture developed spontaneously in several different parts of the world, then it spread outward from there to many other regions. The places that developed agriculture are not the most fertile; indeed, some extremely fertile areas like California never encountered farming or herding until after Europe’s colonialist period began.
After noting these facts, Diamond asks a series of questions: Why did farming and herding techniques arise at different times in different places? Why did they take longer to spread to some areas than to others? Why did the shift from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural societies sometimes involve the violent replacement of one group of people by another?
Diamond explains that archaeologists can discover when and where agriculture arose by dating evidence of domesticated plants and animals and then comparing this evidence to the archaeological record of the domesticated species’ wild cousins. He explains that this process yields plausible but inexact information, which is particularly complicated when people appear to have domesticated the same species more than once in different places.
There are five places where people certainly invented agriculture independently without first having encountered farmers or herders from elsewhere: Southwest Asia’s Fertile Crescent, China, Mexico, the South American Andes, and Eastern North America. In four additional places, agriculture may have arisen independently but the archaeological record is uncertain. These places are the African Sahel, West Africa, Ethiopia, and New Guinea. With his discussion of these places, Diamond provides lists (see Table 5.1 in the book) of the early sets of plants and animals domesticated in each area.
Next Diamond examines evidence from archaeological sites, including Egypt, Western Europe, and the Indus Valley, where food production techniques appear to have been imported and where people also domesticated new plants. In Egypt, hunter-gatherers apparently adopted farming and herding gradually, phasing out their use of wild foods over time. Diamond believes this is evidence that the local population adopted farming techniques from their neighbors rather than inventing it on their own. He states that this kind of shift happened in several other archaeological sites around the world at various times.
Western Europe seems to have adopted agriculture in a...
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Chapter 6 Summary
To begin his discussion about why agriculture took longer to arise in some places than in others, Diamond compares the five areas of the world that have particularly fertile climates: southwest Asia’s Fertile Crescent, southwestern Europe, California, southwestern Australia, and South Africa’s Cape. Agriculture arose independently in the Fertile Crescent in 8500 B.C. and spread to southwestern Europe around 5500 B.C. In the other three places, agriculture was absent until after 1500 A.D., when colonists from Europe began carrying their crops and food-production techniques to other continents.
Diamond explains that food production techniques evolved slowly over time. The lives of early farmers were not much different from the lives of hunter-gatherers; indeed, the first farmers had to work so hard to produce food that they tended to live shorter, less healthy lives than did their hunter-gatherer neighbors. Hunting and gathering cultures often existed side by side and traded with agricultural societies without adopting farming techniques. Some groups lived and still live in ways that blur the distinction between the two lifestyles.
A culture’s shift from eating all wild foods to eating mostly domesticated foods typically took thousands of years. In the intervening period, people constantly had to make choices about how to divide their time between their various food-producing and food-finding activities. Their choices would have been affected by their need for certain types of foods at certain times, their preferences for some foods over others, the amount of effort it took to get each kind of food, the chances that their effort to get food would be successful, and their cultural beliefs.
The first farmers on any continent could not have consciously chosen to become farmers because they had no prior knowledge of a farming lifestyle. After food production evolved, however, their neighbors did have a chance to compare the lifestyles. These neighbors could choose to adopt food-production techniques wholly or partially or to ignore them completely. It is not surprising that those who lived in areas where hunting and gathering was more difficult adopted food production faster than did those who lived in areas where hunting and gathering was relatively easy. Some cultures adopted food production piece by piece, and some adopted it for a while and then abandoned it again to return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle....
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Chapter 7 Summary
All domestic plants today are descended from plants that were once wild. Some domestic plants are descended from poisonous plants or from plants that look much different from their domesticated cousins. Farmers managed to grow some plants much earlier than others, and even today a few prized food plants have never been successfully farmed. Diamond the questions, how did the domestication of plants happen before modern, scientific techniques were developed? Why was it possible for people to domesticate some plants in the Stone Age, whereas others are still undomesticated today?
Plants spread their seeds by any means necessary. Many are dispersed by animals either in feces or because animals carry them. When early humans gathered plants, they would have chosen the best of the available examples in their area—the largest, best tasting, most useful plants they could find. That means people were constantly dropping the best seeds near their homes, in their garbage dumps, and in their latrines. When people selected the plants they liked and unconsciously helped these seeds grow, the plants in their environments naturally evolved qualities that made them bigger, better, or easier to harvest.
In Southwest Asia, the earliest domesticated food plants were grains and legumes. These plants’ wild cousins were already edible, and they grew quickly and easily from seeds. They were easy to store, and they required only a few genetic mutations to work well as intentionally sown crops. After these first plants were domesticated, it took people 3,500 years to begin to grow the first fruit and nut trees. These trees took years to reach maturity, so only people with a settled lifestyle would have benefited from growing them. However, these plants—olives and grapes, for example—were quite easy to grow once they were planted, and their offspring grew the same way they did. Much later, people in this region began growing trees such as apples and cherries, which are much harder to cultivate.
The Fertile Crescent’s process of plant domestication was, in many ways, similar to processes that happened elsewhere. Around the world, common early domesticates included grains, legumes, and fibers used for weaving. In some places, the main carbohydrates were roots and tubers or melons and squashes instead of grains.
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Chapter 8 Summary
Food production arose where there were many domesticable plants and animals in the natural environment and not where such plants and animals were absent. Diamond points out that hunter-gatherers would not have put aside their lifestyles and taken up full-time farming unless they had access to a package of plants and animals that would, in combination, make food production a better lifestyle than hunting and gathering. In some places, the package of available plants and animals was simply less viable for farmers. To prove this point, Diamond contrasts Southwest Asia’s Fertile Crescent with two regions that developed agriculture later: New Guinea and the eastern United States.
The Fertile Crescent was probably the earliest civilization that had cities, written language, and widespread empires. According to Diamond, all of these were dependant on the ability of the people to grow and store food. Compared to other areas, the Fertile Crescent was unusually good for early food producers. Even before agriculture, the area’s Mediterranean climate produced a great deal of food per acre. The wild ancestors of wheat and barley were quite easy to domesticate and easily worth gathering for hunter-gatherers. These grains are very different from teosinte, the ancestor of the New World’s corn, which was of dubious value to hunter-gatherers and had to change a great deal before it would have become a useful crop. Furthermore, an unusually large number of the Fertile Crescent’s pants were self-pollinating, which made it easy to predict which plants would produce useful offspring. Finally, wheat had a higher protein content than either Asia’s rice or the New World’s teosinte.
Western Eurasia, the Fertile Crescent, southern Europe, and northern Africa have a climate that is highly productive for growing food. Agriculture did not arise spontaneously in the world’s other zones of Mediterranean climate because those areas did not have the same advantages as western Eurasia did. Western Eurasia had a more diverse array of plants, especially of productive annuals that proved easy to domesticate. Eurasia had thirty-two species of large-seeded grasses, for example, whereas the other Mediterranean climates each had one, two, or none at all. Western Eurasia also had a greater variety of elevations, which produced plants that matured at different times. This provided a great advantage for farmers, who could bring mountain plants into...
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Chapter 9 Summary
Domesticable animals are all alike; every undomesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way.
Many qualities must be present in an animal species before people can domesticate it. If any problem exists, domestication will almost certainly fail. This explains why many animals, like zebras, have never been domesticated.
People domesticated fourteen large mammals before A.D. 1900. Diamond calls these animals the Ancient Fourteen, and he considers them the most important domestic animals because many of them pulled plows, provided transport, gave milk, and so on. Various small animals, including mammals, birds, and even insects, were domesticated by ancient people as well. These animals provided their owners with many advantages but not as many as the Ancient Fourteen did.
Diamond defines large animals as those that weigh more than 100 pounds. He makes a distinction between domesticated animals, which are bred and raised in captivity, and tame animals, which have not evolved to live well in captivity. Of the Ancient Fourteen domesticated mammals, only five have gained importance worldwide: cows, goats, horses, pigs, and sheep. The other nine remain important only in relatively small areas.
None of the Ancient Fourteen come from North America, Australia, or Sub-Saharan Africa. One comes from South America, and thirteen come from Eurasia. Of those, seven occurred in Southwestern Asia, in or near the Fertile Crescent. Diamond thinks this is because more large mammal species occur in Eurasia than on any other continent.
However, the prevalence of large mammals does not fully explain the fact that Eurasian mammals were more readily domesticated than were animals elsewhere. Africa and the Americas contain animals that are similar to and often related to the sheep, pigs, and cattle that Eurasians domesticated. However, most have never been successfully domesticated even by modern scientists. All of the Ancient Fourteen were domesticated within a period of a few thousand years—a much more rapid process than plant domestication, which continues to this day.
To be domesticable, an animal must grow quickly, breed in captivity, and have a diet manageable by human owners. It must also be gentle enough and passive enough to not be a constant threat by killing people or destroying property. Mean, nervous animals are usually too dangerous to domesticate....
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Chapter 10 Summary
Diamond proposes that Eurasia has yet another advantage, in addition to its larger variety of domesticable plant and animal species: its geographic size and orientation. Eurasia covers the largest East–West area of any continent, whereas the Americas and Africa span greater North–South distances. Diamond hypothesizes that this orientation gave Eurasia another advantage over the other continents.
The Fertile Crescent’s package of plants and animals spread quickly and, in many cases, completely into Europe and North Africa. Most of this area had adopted a substantial number of the Fertile Crescent’s plants, animals, and food productions techniques within just a few thousand years of the dawn of agriculture. Other Fertile Crescent technological innovations, such as wheels and written language, spread similarly quickly. Although the wild relatives of the Fertile Crescent’s crops lived in much of Europe and North Africa, the crops were almost never domesticated a second time. Genetic analysis shows that people throughout the region were using the crops domesticated in the Fertile Crescent, not the plants that grew naturally in their own environments. In fact, several wild beans and barleys that could have been domesticated in Europe never were—although the same species were domesticated independently in the Americas and in China. All this suggests that people throughout the region were easily able to adopt the Fertile Crescent’s entire food production package without being forced to reinvent any of it themselves.
Diamond believes that food production spread easily in Eurasia largely because the continent is arranged on an East–West axis, so the climates share similar latitudes. Neighboring areas had similar climates, day lengths, plant diseases, and so on, so the Fertile Crescent’s plants were already genetically programmed to do well in local conditions. Animals, too, adapt well to neighboring climates to the East and West of their original locations.
Food production similarly spread quickly and easily East to West from south China through the Philippines, Indonesia, and New Guinea. Africa’s Sahel zone may provide a third example of such an East–West spread of agriculture, but paleobotanists are not yet sure of the details.
Around the world, a North–South spread of food production tended to happen much more slowly. In Africa, the food production packages that did well in one area...
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Chapter 11 Summary
In Part Three of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond traces the ways food production led to the development of the guns, germs, and steel that enabled Eurasians to conquer so many people around the world. One of the most important results of human domestication of farm animals was a transfer of diseases between animals and people. Smallpox, flu, plague, and many other diseases stem originally from infections in farm animals. This is significant because, according to Diamond:
The winners of past wars were not always the armies with the best generals and weapons, but were often merely those bearing the nastiest germs to transmit to their enemies.
Among germs, as among other forms of life, evolution selects those individuals that are most effective at surviving and producing offspring. In the case of microbes, this means that the individuals most effective at infecting new victims are most likely to survive. It makes little difference if the microbe kills the victim as long as the disease spreads. Many of the nastiest germs move through populations as epidemics. They spread quickly from person to person, make each person very sick for a short time, and leave victims immune for life—if they recover. The result is a highly infectious but largely immune population.
This kind of highly infectious disease cannot survive in most hunter-gatherer communities. Hunter-gatherer populations are too sparse. Germs that move through these populations too quickly tend to kill everyone and die out before they can spread further. Because of this, hunter-gatherer societies usually supported other kinds of germs but not highly infectious ones like smallpox and plague.
Germs were major contributors to European victories around the world, especially in the New World. From the time the Spanish arrived in the Americas, far more Native Americans died from disease than from battle. Importantly, disease killed many political leaders, which destabilized governments and left soldiers with low morale. Smallpox killed huge proportions of both the Aztecs and Incas. North America’s population was similarly decimated, in this case by overland arrival of disease that preceded the arrival of European colonists. Archaeologists now think that North America had a population of about twenty million before A.D. 1500 but lost at least nineteen million to Eurasian diseases.
More than a dozen...
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Chapter 12 Summary
European explorers could read and write, which gave them a clear advantage over the mostly illiterate societies they conquered. Literacy allowed for maps, written sailing directions, detailed study of accounts by previous explorers, and so on. Diamond next discusses why Europeans had writing when the people of most other cultures did not, and he describes the origins of writing.
There are three basic strategies for representing language in written symbols: alphabetic, logographic, and syllabic. Alphabetic systems display individual sounds as written signs. Logographic systems display words as signs. Syllabic systems display syllables as signs. Today, virtually all developed writing systems use a combination of these techniques.
Like food production, writing was invented more than once. Archaeologists believe it was invented independently in Sumeria around 3000 B.C. and in Mexico around 600 B.C. Both of these writing systems came into existence slowly as people began using symbols to represent a few words. The systems then developed over thousands of years into complicated mixtures of logographic, syllabic, and alphabetic symbols. These systems were difficult to use, and only a few educated scribes had the skills to use them.
Most other writing systems were created when the principles of writing spread from these original sources. This often happened through a process Diamond calls blueprint copying, by which scribes learned one written system in detail and later adapted it to work with another language. When they did this, they often introduced improvements to the systems. The first true alphabet seems to have occurred in Egyptian hieroglyphics, which developed a set of symbols for the twenty-four consonant sounds in the Egyptian language. However, Egyptians did not use this alphabet to represent all their words. They retained logograms and symbols for many important ideas. Around 1700 B.C., Semites who knew the Egyptian system adopted it and abandoned most logograms, instead using a purely alphabetic system to write the Semitic language. After a few further improvements, the Semitic alphabet was copied by many other cultures. It evolved into today’s major alphabets of Europe, Africa, India, and parts of Asia.
Writing did not always spread through blueprint copying; sometimes it spread through a process Diamond calls idea diffusion. Idea diffusion happened when someone learned the...
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Chapter 13 Summary
In 1908, a clay disk bearing writing was excavated on the Greek island Phaistos. The disk bears forty-five symbols, probably of a syllabary, which were stamped into the clay. Nobody has yet deciphered this writing. Archaeologists believe it may have been the first printing system in the world but that it dropped out of use. A similar printing system did not emerge elsewhere until 2,500 years later and 3,100 years later in Europe.
Some inventions happen because people need a technology and set out to create it. Other inventions come about because people tinker and experiment and create something for which they only later find a use. Diamond argues that this latter process is more common in history. He also believes that invention depends less on the work of a few rare geniuses than on the accumulated efforts of many people who improve on the work of those who came before them. Most famous inventors, such as James Watt and Thomas Edison, were improving on similar, less useful inventions. The likes of Watt and Edison simply managed to push inventions to a level that made them usable on a mass scale.
People often assume that the inhabitants of some continents are predisposed to be technologically backward. Diamond feels that such assumptions are speculative and that they neglect to take into account that native societies are highly varied. Some individuals and tribes adopt new technologies rapidly when they are introduced even when their close neighbors do not. Diamond believes it is impossible to assume that people across whole continents are systematically better or worse at creating and adopting new technologies consistently over many millennia.
Technological progress happens more and more rapidly over time. The Industrial Revolution brought more new technologies than the Bronze Age did, which had brought more new technologies than the advancements before it. Technological advancements depend on the mastery of basic problems and the development of complementary technologies. Sustainable printing depended on the existence of paper and moveable type, for example, which were imported to Europe from China. The maker of the early printing system using the Phaistos disk did not have the use of such technologies. Because of that, his system was less practical, which may explain why it dropped out of use.
The development of food production in 8500 B.C. resulted in a major jump in technology development....
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Chapter 14 Summary
Diamond turns to government and religion, exploring how they arose in different ways around the world. He begins by dividing societies into four categories: band, tribe, chiefdom, and state.
Bands are small groups of up to eighty people related by family ties. They live and work together without much connection to anyone outside their group. Bands tend to be egalitarian, without class structure and with informal leadership. Very few people still live in bands today.
Tribes form the second smallest kind of society. For the purposes of the political discussion in this book, a tribe is defined as a group made up of hundreds of settled people organized into political units at the level of a village or cluster of villages. Tribes usually consist of more than one family group, each of which has its own land. Tribal governments are still relatively egalitarian, involving communal decision making and no formal class structure, although some tribes have chiefs with limited power. Like bands, tribes exist relatively rarely as political groups today. Most former tribes are incorporated into a larger political structure.
The third kind of political organization, the chiefdom, no longer exists independently today. However, chiefdoms were very common from about 7,500 years ago until the colonial period. They consisted of groups of several thousand to tens of thousands of people who were ruled by a chief with exclusive control over the group. The chief’s office was formal, inherited, and permanent. Society was arranged into chief and commoner classes.
Chiefdoms incorporated systems of taxation and produced varying results for their inhabitants. Some chiefdoms provided a better life than people could achieve individually. Others worked as kleptocracies, merely transferring wealth from the common people to the upper classes. Leaders kept power by arming elite groups, redistributing wealth in popular ways, maintaining social order, or promoting institutionalized religion to justify themselves.
Today the most common and influential kind of political organization is the state. States arose for the first time by around 3700 B.C. and eventually grew to cover almost all the world’s habitable surface. States are larger than chiefdoms, uniting up to more than a billion people under a single political system. They usually contain more than one major city, build large public works, accumulate taxes,...
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Chapter 15 Summary
In the final section of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond reviews the histories of five geographic areas, exploring the question of why they developed to the points they did—and no further—by A.D. 1500. He begins with Australia, the continent that had the least complex technology, the lowest population density, and perhaps the most distinctive societies of all.
Australia was inhabited by modern humans very early, perhaps even before Europe. Its people had some of the earliest stone tools, the earliest hafted blades, and the earliest boats. However, Australia’s people did not develop as much technology from that point as one might expect. Even more perplexing, Australia’s society did not develop the food production, bows and arrows, or other trappings of modern society that their neighbors, the New Guineans, did.
Some people assume that Aboriginal Australians are somehow genetically inferior to their New Guinean neighbors. However, Aboriginal Australians and New Guineans are genetically separated by only about 10,000 years of history. Diamond thinks their environments rather than their genetics determined their ability to achieve—or not achieve—technological advancement.
New Guinea has a good climate, good soil, and adequate rainfall. Early New Guineans were able to domesticate many crops. Their pigs, chickens, and sweet potatoes were imported from Asia but the rest of their crop package is native. The transition to food production apparently sparked a population explosion that led to an increase in technological advancement and political complexity.
Still, New Guinea did not advance to the technological level that Eurasia did. This is because the New Guinean crop package was lacking in protein and because the island’s available area was so limited. New Guinea’s population never surpassed one million before European arrival, and the rugged terrain kept its people politically divided. The other world centers of agriculture all had populations in the tens of millions before they developed writing, metallurgy, and statehood.
Australia is the driest, least fertile, and least ecologically diverse continent. Shortly after humans arrived, its large native mammals went extinct. This left the continent without domesticable mammals. The ecology offered few plants worth domesticating in the relatively infertile soil. Frequent, severe droughts make agriculture risky there even...
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Chapter 16 Summary
Most of the world’s largest countries are extremely multicultural. China is a great exception. The vast majority of Chinese people speak Mandarin or a similar language, and most Chinese families have considered themselves Chinese for millennia. Diamond theorizes that China was once as linguistically and culturally diverse as Russia or Brazil, but that China began its process of unification far earlier.
To support this point, Diamond turns first to Chinese languages. Mandarin and its seven close relatives, all Sino-Tibetan languages, are collectively spoken by 1.1 billion Chinese people. These languages exist alongside 130 other languages, each of which is spoken by a much smaller population. China’s languages fall into four families. The Sino-Tibetan languages are spoken by the majority of the people throughout the country, whereas isolated islands of people speak the other four families of languages. Most of these languages are related to languages spoken in a variety of Southeast Asian countries. Diamond believes that the speakers of these languages were the original inhabitants of what is now South China. He thinks northern Chinese speakers of Sino-Tibetan languages conquered their neighbors to the South, either adopting them into Chinese cultures or pushing them into Southeast Asia.
Agriculture began in China at least by 7500 B.C., perhaps earlier. It may have originated in two distinct parts of China, but the archaeological record is uncertain. Early Chinese farmers domesticated wild millet and rice, as well as pigs, dogs, and chickens. Several other plant and animal species came into domestication later. The Chinese invented paper, gunpowder, and other important products. Several of Eurasia’s most important germs may have arisen there as well.
China’s cultures began to merge by around the fourth century B.C. Large North–South distances slowed the spread of crops, but not as much as in Africa or the Americas, where deserts prevented expansion. Most of China’s advancements spread from North to South. China’s three early dynasties also originated in the North.
Diamond believes that China’s head start in food production, and subsequent development of writing and technology, gave the country a major advantage over its neighbors. Southeast Asia was still inhabited by hunter-gatherers until the fourth millennium B.C., but they were probably replaced by food producers from South China...
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Chapter 17 Summary
Long before Columbus sailed to America, people traveled long distances to colonize new places. One of these movements was the Austronesian expansion, a movement of southeast Asians into Indonesia and the Philippines. Diamond believes that the Austronesians were originally South Chinese or Southeast Asians. Linguistic evidence suggests that the expansion originated in Taiwan.
Archaeological records corroborate the linguistic evidence. The archaeology indicates that people making artifacts similar to those of South China replaced hunter-gatherers in Taiwan in the fourth millennium B.C. Artifacts show that these new Taiwanese had ocean-going watercraft suitable for an outward expansion. Over the next several thousand years, their pottery styles, stone tools, pigs, and crops spread outward into the Pacific Islands. They displaced hunter-gatherer populations on most of the Philippine islands and reached many previously uninhabited islands in the Pacific Ocean. They also moved east as far as Madagascar.
Diamond proposes that the Austronesian expansion replaced the original hunter-gatherer populations of the Pacific Islands for the same reasons that Europeans replaced the people of so many other cultures. The immigrants’ tools, weapons, skills, and diseases must have helped them dominate or kill most of the people they encountered.
The Austronesian expansion reached New Guinea but did not replace all of the people there. The New Guineans of the northern highlands, who already had a good deal of agriculture and its accompanying technology, retained possession of their lands. Austronesians probably moved into the vicinity of New Guinea and traded with New Guineans. However, they were unable to accomplish a complete replacement of New Guinean society with their own.
The Austronesians seem to have had substantial advantages over the hunting and gathering people they encountered on most of the islands they occupied. On New Guinea, however, they must have found a society that was more equally matched to theirs. Ancient New Guineans already grew some of the same crops as the Austronesians, and they also had a comparatively high population density. They were, compared to the Austronesians, fairly resistant to disease. Whereas ecological difficulties probably stopped the Austronesians from invading Australia, cultural and technological factors stopped them in New Guinea.
Before Europeans arrived, the...
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Chapter 18 Summary
An in-depth comparison of Eurasian and Native American societies in A.D. 1492, when Columbus sailed to the New World, shows why Eurasians were able to come close to replacing Native Americans on the American continents. The biggest difference was in large domestic animal species, which were so much more numerous in Eurasia. Plant domestication was less widespread in the Americas for a variety of reasons, as is discussed in earlier chapters. Even where agriculture was well-developed, the available plant species were less advantageous in the Americas. Corn, which is low in protein, was the main cereal crop. People had to plant their crops by hand rather than using animals to plow.
These differences in food production led to a difference in the number of infectious germs carried by the competing societies. The Europeans, who were carrying far more infectious diseases, infected and decimated Native American populations. Eurasia’s superior food production also gave Europeans the chance to develop superior technologies. By A.D. 1492, all European societies made substantial use of metal tools, whereas only some Native American populations had managed to produce these tools. Stone and bone were still the primary tool materials on the American continent. Partly for this reason, Europe had far better military technology, so a few Europeans were able to defeat thousands of Native Americans at once. Europeans had more sources of power for machines, both from animals and from technologies developed as a result of food production. Eurasians had created wheeled machinery, ocean-going ships, and writing systems that were comparatively easy to learn. Eurasians and Native Americans also had different political situations. Eurasia had many large empires and relatively few remaining tribal systems. The Americas, in contrast, had just two large empires and many areas organized at the level of tribes and chiefdoms.
Diamond illustrates the differences in timing of the rise of food production and other developments in major Eurasian and Native American societies (see Table 18.1 in the book). Food production appears to have been independently invented in the Americas four times, compared to twice in Eurasia, but in all cases it appeared much later in the Americas. Diamond argues that the Native Americans needed time to develop the tools appropriate to agriculture. Eurasians in the Fertile Crescent were already developing tools like stone sickles...
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Chapter 19 Summary
The population of Africa is far more diverse than most Americans imagine. Before Europeans arrived, Africa was already home to five major racial groups. Additionally, in millennia before A.D. 1500, Africa experienced two dramatic, little-known population shifts: the Bantu expansion and the Indonesian colonization of Madagascar.
For the purposes of his book, Diamond lumps Africa’s people into five heterogeneous categories: whites in North Africa, Indonesians on Madagascar, Pygmies in the Central African rainforest, Khoisan in southern Africa, and blacks in sub-Saharan Africa—including in areas that overlap with some other races of Africans. Diamond does not go into detail about the history of white people in northern Africa because their background overlaps with that of Europe and Southwest Asia. He does, however, discuss the backgrounds of Africa’s other major racial groups.
Africa’s languages fall into five rough family groups that correspond roughly to the people who speak them. North Africans speak Afro-Asiatic languages from a family that gave rise to the Semitic languages of the Bible. Madagascar is largely occupied by people who look like and speak a language similar to the people from the island of Borneo 4,000 miles away. Black Africans and Pygmies speak primarily Niger-Congo languages, although Pygmies speak these languages with sound and vocabulary differences that suggest that their ancestors may have spoken another family of languages long ago. In several pockets on the borders between North and sub-Saharan Africa, people speak Nilo-Saharan languages. This suggests that speakers of Afro-Asiatic and Niger-Congo languages overtook much of the area that formerly belonged to Nilo-Saharan speakers. Khoisan languages are confined to the Khoisan people in southern Africa and in a few small pockets of East Africa. The existence of these pockets suggests that the Khoisan formerly covered a widespread area but were later mostly displaced by the speakers of Niger-Congo languages.
One subfamily of Nilo-Saharan languages, the Bantu languages, accounts for almost all the Nilo-Saharan languages spoken in the area archaeologists and linguists think were once inhabited by the Khoisan and Pygmies. This strongly suggests that Bantu-speaking people had some advantage that allowed them to spread outward from a single center and colonize areas where other groups formerly lived.
When Europeans arrived...
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In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond sets out to explain why people from Eurasia, and not people from other continents, conquered much of the rest of the world. At the outset of the book, Diamond rejects the idea that any moral, intellectual, or genetic factor could have produced a race of inherently superior people. Instead, he argues that environmental and geographical factors allowed Eurasians to advance faster than their counterparts elsewhere.
Diamond explains that he became interested in exploring the historical inequalities between human societies in July 1972, when he was studying bird evolution in New Guinea. One day, he was walking along a beach, and he struck up a conversation with a charismatic New Guinean politician named Yali. In New Guinea, people were still using Stone Age technology when European explorers arrived 200 years ago. New Guineans immediately recognized the value of European tools, weapons, clothing, and so on, which they referred to as cargo. Yali asked:
Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?
Diamond could not answer Yali’s question. However, Diamond felt immediately that it was an important question—especially when he considered it on a world scale and not just as a comparison between Europeans and New Guineans. Diamond expands the question as follows:
Why did wealth and power become distributed as they now are, rather than in some other way? For instance, why weren’t Native Americans, Africans, and Aboriginal Australians the ones who decimated, subjugated, or exterminated Europeans and Asians?
As he begins to attempt to answer these questions, Diamond notes that the archaeological record suggests that technology on all of the habited continents looked about the same in 11,000 B.C., at the end of the last ice age, but that something changed after that. By A.D. 1500, Eurasians had developed far more technology than the residents of other continents. Diamond states that he wants to explain why technology and society developed so differently on different continents.
Before beginning his argument, Diamond pauses to refute several possible objections to his line of questioning. He points out that he is seeking to explain why Eurasians became so dominant in the...
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