What are the five continents that Jared Diamond refers to in Guns, Germs, and Steel and what were the settlement patterns of each?

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The five continents to which Jared Diamond refers in Guns, Germs, and Steel are Eurasia, Australia, Africa, North America, and South America. The settlement patterns include humans first appearing in Africa, then expanding to the other continents. Humans went from Africa to Eurasia and Australia, and then to North and South America.

The settlement by humans of the continents resulted in the societies that we now have. Diamond argues in Guns, Germs, and Steel that these geographic trends resulted in variations in terms of which societies proved more technologically advanced than others. For example, he argues that European terrain favored the development of writing and agriculture.

Most books that set out to recount world history concentrate on histories of literate Eurasian and North African societies. Native societies of other parts of the world—sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas, Island Southeast Asia, Australia, New Guinea, the Pacific Islands—receive only brief treatment, namely as concerns what happened to them very late in their history, after they were discovered and subjugated by western Europeans.

The main thrust of Guns, Germs, and Steel is the argument that geography, rather than inherent human traits such as intelligence, determined why European and Asian societies conquered other societies, such as those of Africa. According to this argument, factors outside of humans, such as infectious germs, can take more responsibility for social outcomes than humans themselves.

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When analyzing the settlement patterns of human populations, Diamond references the continents of Eurasia, Africa, Australia/Oceania, North America, and South America. Diamond concludes that there are clear factors which determined why humans migrated and settled in some environments more than others, mainly the availability of resources/materials (such as water, minerals, land, plants, and animals) and conditions (such as weather, geographic positioning, location relative to other lands, and threat potentials). Favorable conditions allowed for larger states and greater technology to develop.

Diamond explains that the shape, size, and location of continents affected the migration and sustainability of human groups. He claims that isolation thwarts innovation and modernization, limiting settlement; therefore, the settlement of Australia/Oceania took longer due to the isolation of the continent. He also argues that the continent of Eurasia allowed for greater success in settling, due to east–west, travel than the continents of North and South America, where people faced north–south travel with drastic climate changes. Human groups situated along the same latitudinal axis shared similar seasons and climates and, thus, easier travel; this allowed for the exchange of more ideas, trade, resources, and technology. Settlements and cultures thrive in sustainable, advantageous conditions. Thus, cultural diffusion occurred more readily throughout Eurasia and into the northern coast of Africa, due to close proximity.

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Diamond‘s five continents are the ones with human life: North and South America, Africa, Australia, and Eurasia. Antartica is not discussed since it has never independently supported human life. Diamond’s thesis is deceptively simple: human civilization developed and spread according to the geographic orientation of land masses. That is, civilization spread most easily from east to west (or west to east); this is because climate tends to stay the same on similar latitudes. It was easier for domesticated grains to spread to areas with similar climates and growing seasons than to spread to places that were much colder or hotter. In this way, agriculture could easily spread from the Fertile Crescent west toward the the Mediterranean but not as easily north to Northern Europe. Another factor that influenced the spread of technology and agriculture, according to Diamond, was geographic isolation; Australia, for example, was never able to develop agriculture on its own, despite being ahead of other regions in other ways (for instance, in the development of water craft).

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Most geographers assume that the world can be divided into six continents, corresponding to the six major landmasses of Africa, Antarctica, Eurasia, Australia/Oceania, North America, and South America. Diamond discusses five of these. The single exception is Antarctica, as it has no indigenous human life and is therefore not relevant to his work.

In terms of settlement patterns, Diamond emphasizes that the land mass of Eurasia is laid out to make east-west trade and travel relatively easy, so that civilizations could exchange resources and ideas, something that facilitated the development of advanced civilizations. Africa and the Americas, by contrast, are laid out primarily on north-south axes, with many barriers to trade. Australia and Oceania are surrounded by oceans, limiting cultural cross-fertilization. 

Diamond also discusses how favorable conditions for agriculture led to early dense settlements in Eurasia, something that also fostered the development of advanced civilizations.

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