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Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond
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According to Guns, Germs, and Steel, why was the Fertile Crescent the origin of so many important developments in early history?

Diamond argues that the Fertile Crescent was a great place to settle because it had an abundance of wild plants and animals that could be domesticated, as well as other resources that encouraged people to stay in one place. "

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In the seminal work Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, author Jared Diamond refutes the notion that some races are more inherently talented than others and instead offers evidence that environment was the most crucial factor in the creation and growth of complex societies. Diamond explains that in early history, humans were hunters and gatherers, wandering from place to place living off wild plants and wild animals wherever they could find them. To be able to settle, they needed a ready source of indigenous plants that could be cultivated and harvested.

The Fertile Crescent was rich in wild plants that could be converted into cultivatable crops such as wheat, barley, peas, and lentils. The area also had abundant sheep, goats, and cattle that could be caught and domesticated. These resources enabled groups of people to settle together in communal units that would eventually become towns and cities.

The author points out that when societies are able to remain in one place, as opposed to moving about like hunters and gatherers, they are able to consolidate into classes and castes such as scholars, administrators, and craftspeople, which encourages the development of writing, specialized tools, and other technologies. This is what happened in the Fertile Crescent.

Diamond further explains that another important factor that contributed to the importance of the Fertile Crescent was the east-west axis of the Eurasian continent. This enabled easy travel, trade, and exchange of ideas and culture through similar climate zones. In contrast, North and South America and Africa lie upon a north-south axis with large natural barriers and radical climate differences, making travel and the exchange of ideas much more difficult.

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According to Diamond, geography played a decisive role in the rise of the Fertile Crescent as one of the first civilizations. In chapter 10, he explains that the predominately east–west orientation of Eurasia, compared to the north–south orientations of the Americas and Africa, made it possible for agriculture and domesticated plant species to migrate to other areas relatively quickly. This is because climate and environmental factors remain largely consistent at the same latitudes. Diamond uses the examples of Portugal and Japan, two countries many thousands of miles apart, but at about the same latitude. Even though they are so distant, they have similar climates. This is the kind of similarity that made it easier for cultivars from the Fertile Crescent to spread into Europe. On the other hand, these same cultivars could not spread farther south in Africa than Ethiopia, since they could not survive in the tropics. This is why agriculture developed independently in southern Africa.

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Jared Diamond would say that there are two main reasons why the Fertile Crescent was the origin of many important developments.  One reason was that the Fertile Crescent was ideal for the development of farming while the second had to do with the fact that it was easy for crops to diffuse from that region.

Diamond says that the Fertile Crescent had many advantages that allowed it to be the place where farming first developed.  These advantages are discussed in Chapter 5.  The Fertile Crescent had a good climate and it had many plant and animal species that could be domesticated.  Because farming started in the Fertile Crescent first, civilization started there as well.  Farming creates food surpluses, which allows some people to do things other than farming.  Those who do not need to farm can do things like developing new technologies.  Thus, geographical advantages allowed the Fertile Crescent to develop agriculture and agriculture allowed the region’s societies to develop various technologies including writing.

The second factor is the ease of diffusion from the Fertile Crescent.  After developments originated in the Fertile Crescent, they had to spread in order to be important in world history.  Diamond says that it was easy for crops to diffuse from the Fertile Crescent.  Eurasia has a long east-west axis, which means that crops can diffuse along single lines of latitude, which tend to have similar climates and growing conditions.  (Please refer to Chapter 10 for an extended discussion of why this is important.)  Because of this, agriculture (one of the most important developments in world history) could spread out from the Fertile Crescent.  Along with agriculture, other developments like writing could spread as well.  This meant that developments that originated in the Fertile Crescent could diffuse across great distances rather than remaining cooped up in that region.

In these ways, the Fertile Crescent became the origin of many important developments.  Its geography allowed farming and civilization to develop there first and it allowed those developments to spread to other parts of Eurasia.

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