Guns, Germs, and Steel Chapter 6 Summary
by Jared Diamond

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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.

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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.

Although the switch between lifestyles was not quick or simple, food production clearly had a competitive advantage over hunting and gathering. Over the past 10,000 years, nearly the entire world has shifted to food production. Although archaeologists and anthropologists do not agree on the exact reasons for this shift, several factors probably played a role. First, wild game and plant species became less available because of depletion by hunter-gatherers and because of climate changes on Earth. Also, the growth of technology made farming more advantageous over time. Increasing human...

(The entire section is 716 words.)