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Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond

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How did the extinction of big mammals in Australia impact its people according to Guns, Germs, and Steel?

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One of the central theses of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel is the importance of animal husbandry, meaning the ability of a civilization to domesticate large animals like cows and horses for their own needs. He often makes the comparison between Eurasian civilization and Mesoamerican civilization by pointing out the relative strengths of Spanish conquistadors relative to the Aztec Empire in the 1500s. While Spaniards domesticated about a dozen types of animals, the Aztecs had only domesticated the dog. This meant that Spaniards could rely on larger animals for food, as well as horses for transportation, while the Aztecs could not —leaving them a step behind.

In the case of Australia's civilizations, Diamond points out that Australia did have many large mammals during the Ice Age: big marsupials, giant kangaroos, and giant wombats. Yet these "candidates for animal husbandry" disappeared as the animals were driven to extinction, either by human activity or by a changing ecology. The result was an entire island with no domesticable native mammals. Australia, like the Aztec Empire, had only the dog, which was not native to Australia, arriving perhaps 3,000 years ago.

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Diamond sums up the effects of the large-scale extinctions of Australian megafauna in this way:

Those extinctions eliminated all the large wild animals that might otherwise have been candidates for domestication, and let native Australians and New Guineans with not a single native domestic animal (44). 

Diamond assigns considerable importance to the presence of domesticable animals, which he sees as indispensable to the development of agriculture. Settled agriculture is the single factor that contributes to the ability to produce the "guns, germs, and steel" that gave some peoples the power to conquer, colonize, and even destroy other peoples. Because aboriginal Australians had no domesticable animals, they did not develop these things, and their surroundings were unable to sustain the kind of population growth that gives rise to civilization. Something similar happened in the Americas, which also lacked domesticable animals, a fact that placed native Americans at a disadvantage when they made contact with Europeans for the first time. This is crucial to Diamond's thesis that environmental factors--essentially accidents of geography--led to pivotal differences in the development of human societies. 

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Big mammals became extinct on the continent of Australia. According to Guns, Germs, and Steel, how did this impact the history of the people on that continent?

To cobble together an answer to this question, we have to look in a couple different places in Guns, Germs, and Steel.  When we do, we will find that the extinction of large marsupials in Australia meant that the Australian people would have a harder time developing agriculture and would, therefore, have less of a chance to develop a wealthy and powerful civilization.

The first part of the answer can be found on p. 308 in the book.  There, Diamond tells us that there were many large animals in Australia during the Ice Ages.  However, these large animals either died off or were exterminated by hunters when humans arrived in Australia.  What this meant, Diamond says, was that Australia had no large animals that could be domesticated.  The largest animal that could be was the dingo, which is a species of dog.

This brings us to the other part of our answer.  That is, we need to talk about why it was important that there were no large domesticable animals in Australia.  For this, we can look at p. 88.  Beginning on that page, Diamond tells us why large domesticated animals can do so much to help people develop agriculture.  He says that, first of all, domesticated animals give people a source of protein in their diet. People can eat the animals and can get dairy products from some large animals as well.  Next, domesticated animals produce manure, which can be used to fertilize fields, thus making agriculture more productive.  Finally, large animals can also pull plows.  This, too, makes it much easier for farmers to grow more food on a given amount of land.  Without large domesticable mammals, Australians would have had a much harder time developing agriculture.

Throughout his book, Diamond tells us that agriculture is the key to developing a strong and wealthy society.  People who could not develop agriculture were not likely to develop as rapidly or as effectively.  Thus, the extinction of the large animals in Australia meant that humans in Australia would not be able to develop a rich and powerful society.

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