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Guns, Germs, and Steel

by Jared Diamond

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Student Question

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, what protected New Guineans from European invasions?

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Diamond says that there were four factors that protected New Guineans in this way.

  • Most importantly, there was malaria and some other diseases.  These diseases made it very difficult for Europeans to live in the lowlands or to pass through them on the way to the more hospitable highlands.
  • New Guineans were not decimated by European diseases.  This was partly because they had been somewhat exposed to them through Indonesia and partly because New Guinea was not widely settled until a time when public health practices reduced the spread of disease.
  • Europeans didn't reach the highlands (because of the diseases) where there lots of natives until the 1930s.  By that time, the idea of killing native people to get their land was unacceptable.
  • European crops and animals don't do well in New Guinea's climate.  This meant that it was hard for Europeans to establish any sort of major settlements.
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According to Guns, Germs, and Steel, what protected New Guineans from losing to invading Europeans who sought out lands to conquer and settle?

The answer to this can be found in Chapter 15.  There, Diamond tells us that there were two main reasons why the New Guineans were protected to some degree.

First, New Guinea was home to diseases that Europeans could not deal with.  Most importantly, there was malaria that prevented Europeans from settling in the lowlands of New Guinea for a long time.

Second, New Guinea is home to very rugged terrain.  It was very hard for Europeans to reach the highlands in any large numbers until the 20th century.

Finally, European crops and animals do not thrive very well in New Guinea.  European staple crops do not do well and even today, most crops grown in New Guinea are native crops.

For these reasons, it was harder for Europeans to conquer New Guinea than it was for them to conquer places like the Americas or Australia.

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According to Guns, Germs, and Steel, why did New Guineans ultimately not lose out to invading Europeans?

The answer to this can be found in Chapter 15.  Specifically, it can be found starting on p. 317 and ending on p. 319 of the paperback edition of the book.  Throughout this book, Diamond says that geographical factors are the basic cause of most things that have happened in the long run of world history.  It is geographical factors that he credits for allowing the New Guineans to escape being conquered by Europeans.

The first geographical factor that helped New Guineans was the presence of “malaria and other tropical diseases” in the New Guinea lowlands (317).  This made it very hard for Europeans to get a foothold in New Guinea.  Diamond says that Americans and Europeans have trouble living in New Guinea today, even with modern medicine.  It was worse, of course, before modern medicine.

The second factor is the proximity of New Guinea to Indonesia.  This proximity meant that many Indonesians came to New Guinea over the years and brought germs from Asia.  Therefore, New Guineans had some immunity to Eurasian diseases.

The third factor was that European crops and livestock do not do well in New Guinea.  Crops from the West have not grown well.  Animals that are brought to New Guinea suffer from indigenous diseases and likewise do not do well.  This meant that the Europeans could not really set up their own sorts of economies in New Guinea.

All of these geographic factors prevented Europeans from dominating New Guinea.

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