What was the "Great Leap Forward" described in Guns, Germs, and Steel?
In chapter one of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, the author, a professor of geography, discusses the early evolution of human beings and the transformative developments that occurred over thousands of years. In what he labels “our Great Leap Forward,” Diamond describes the single greatest evolutionary period in human development, a period that occurred roughly 50,000 years ago. This was the period, he notes, when Neanderthals gave way to Cro-Magnons. This early form of humanity developed the tools that helped our species advance enormously over the earlier steps on the evolutionary ladder. Archaeological expeditions had uncovered skeletons and remains of stone tools at sites identified with Neanderthals, but sites associated with Cro-Magnon skeletons included more sophisticated tools shaped from both stone and bone. As Diamond wrote in this chapter:
Tools were produced in diverse and distinctive shapes so modern that their functions as needles, awls, engraving tools, and so on are obvious to us. Instead of only single-piece tools such as hand-held scrapers, multipiece tools made their appearance. Recognizable multipiece weapons at Cro-Magnon sites include harpoons, spear-throwers, and eventually bows and arrows, the precursors of rifles and other multipiece modern weapons. Those efficient means of killing at a safe distance permitted the hunting of such dangerous prey as rhinos and elephants, while the invention of rope for nets, lines, and snares allowed the addition of fish and birds to our diet.
Diamond’s notion, therefore, of a “Great Leap Forward” involved radical advances in humanity’s mental development. The technological advances made by Cro-Magnons enabled them to survive while Neanderthals died off.
Jared Diamond's 1998 book Guns, Germs, and Steel makes the argument that differences in levels of cultural development across varying regions of the world are primarily environmentally determined rather than due to innate differences in mental capability or character among different human populations.
In Chapter 1 of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond argues that we can best understand the preconditions for the development of advanced civilizations by studying the moment before the "Great Leap Forward", the period in which humans developed such advances as tool use, agriculture, division of labor, and other features that form the basis of economic and population growth. He sees such factors as domesticable plants and animals, natural resource availability, trade routes, and genetic diversity as possible factors leading to this leap. He is particularly interested in the way geography, especially ease of movement on east-west as opposed to north-south axes allowed civilizations to develop and grow.
In Chapter 1 of his book, Diamond refers to the Great Leap Forward that occurred about 50,000 years ago. The signs that this leap occurred are stone tools and the first preserved jewelry, which have both been recovered in East Africa. Diamond sees the tools and jewelry as signs that there was a great improvement in humans' abilities to manipulate their environment at this time. He has argued that this change occurred because of the improvement in the human voice box resulted in better language skills, but others have argued that the Great Leap occurred because of a change in human brain organization that created modern language. The question of whether the Great Leap Forward occurred in one place, most likely East Africa, and spread to other regions, or whether it occurred at the same time in different locations, is still unclear.
You can answer this question by reading in Chapter 1. There, Diamond tells us that the "Great Leap Forward" was a time, between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, in which human beings experienced huge advances in their ability to create technological and artistic artifacts.
Before this time, human beings made only crude stone tools. They did not make any art that survived in the fossil record. They did not even make fish hooks. After the Leap, human beings started to make all sorts of tools. They started to make fish hooks and needles and awls and all sorts of other things. They started to make art like beads and paintings and statues.
This burst of new creativity is what Diamond calls the "Great Leap Forward."