Study Guide

Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs, and Steel Characters


There are many historical figures mentioned in Diamond’s study. Some—such as the philosophers Aristotle, Plato, and Rousseau—are included because of their theories of how societies are formed, which Diamond then refutes. Other people, such as Atahuallpa, the last Incan king, are used as examples of how one society conquered another. Atahuallpa was held captive by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who demanded “history’s largest ransom” in gold. After Pizarro received everything he asked for, he killed Atahuallpa anyway. Even though Pizarro had the weaponry to destroy the Incas, through this act, Diamond recounts, Pizarro demoralized the Incas, causing their complete collapse.

Another factor in Pizarro’s victory over the Incas was the use of horses. Even though the Incas outnumbered the Spaniards five hundred to one, the combination of the Spaniards’ guns and soldiers on horses proved lethal. This same advantage was used, Diamond points out, against the Native American people in North America and is the reason behind their all but total collapse. One exception, Diamond writes, was the Sioux (Lakota) victory over General George Custer’s U.S. Army battalion at the famous battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. The reason, however, for the Native American victory was their adoption of technology. “Thanks to their mastery of horses and rifles, the Plains Indians of North America, the Araucanian Indians of southern Chile, and the Pampas Indians of Argentina fought off invading whites longer than did any other Native Americans,” Diamond writes.

Other explorers—Christopher Columbus, James Cook (in the Hawaiian Islands), Hernan Cortés (in Central America), and Hernando de Soto (in North America)—are briefly mentioned, as are the catastrophic effects they had on the societies they encountered. Also included in Diamond’s discussions are important inventers, such as Thomas Edison (phonograph), Johannes Gutenberg...

(The entire section is 667 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear