Native Americans Conquer the English! Why History Wasn’t Reversed-Part 2

The saga continues. If you are not up to date on Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond then read last week’s post here. We now know that civilizations arose not from individual genetic differences but rather environmental conditions that encouraged agriculture: domesticable wild plants, domesticable mammals, and the orientation of a continent’s axis. Agriculture allowed groups of people to expand their social organization from nomadic bands all the way to advance states (common all over the world today). Larger populations required better communication between people-motivating the creation of the first alphabets. Two independently-derived alphabets were invented in areas of the world where agriculture had it’s longest history: the Sumerian cuneiform (Mesopotamia, 3000 B.C) and Chinese (1300 B.C)-most all other writing systems were derived from either of these. Along with the alphabet, large groups of specialized jobs, supported by a surplus of food (agriculture) allowed for a myriad of technological innovations. Technology was pushed through competition and the spread of knowledge between different societies; this spread of knowledge was faster among Eurasian societies compared to North American societies partly due to the axis orientation differences. Civilization not only promoted technology but also religion. Religion served a role in connecting large groups of people in one common higher purpose and rationalized living one’s life for the higher “state.” This is best seen in the Christian Crusades against Islam. It is important to note however that groups of people have been spiritual throughout all of history, organized religion is a whole different beast (Jesus denouncing the religious figures of His time).

As civilizations advanced, they many times spread to new areas and conquered other groups of people. Most everyone knows about the expansion of Europeans starting with Columbus’ exploratory trip in 1492. However, a much larger expansion took place several millennium before in South China. This is known as the Austronesian expansion and it was comprised of the more advanced agriculturists of South China spreading from Taiwan all the way through Polynesia and reaching as far as Madagascar off the coast of Africa. Humans first inhabited Southeast Asia and Polynesia by 33,000 B.C. Between 33,000 B.C. and 3,500 B.C. the people who inhabited these areas were mainly hunter gatherers with limited technological sophistication. However, beginning in 7500 B.C., China was growing their civilization and by the year 3,500 B.C. began migrating south. With agriculture, the Austronesians were able to spread from the Philippines to New Zealand and everywhere in between (except New Guinea and Australia); they eventually were the first people to reach the Hawaiian Islands. This mass human expansion was one of the first examples of how advanced civilizations with the aid of agriculture could take over less-advanced groups through germs and superior weaponry.

The book goes on to talk about the differences between Europeans and Chinese in respects to expansion in the last 500 years. Why didn’t China expand to the west coast of North America and colonize in similar fashion to Europeans? How did Europe pass China and the Middle East in technological advancement? These are complex questions with several possible answers but one hypothesis is that China’s united geography compared to Europe’s segmented geography created differences in competition. China had one united ruling government while Europe had several feuding states; the competition in Europe facilitated greater technological advancement and was less prone to idiosyncratic individuals. China did have times of imperialism but in 1492 the dynasty in place was not interested in expansion. On the other hand, Christoper Columbus had to ask several different European states for funding before finally catching a lucky break with Spain. As soon as Spain was raking in the cash in the New World, other autonomous European countries jumped on the bandwagon-unified China followed their emperor’s decision to stay put. This is only one part of the answer of how our modern world was shaped but it highlights geography’s role in shaping history. Understanding our past helps us understand our present. Today there are rich countries and poor countries, successful businesses and unsuccessful businesses, peaceful zealots and violent zealots. How different variables interact to mold groups of people is not only fascinating but can possibly tilt the scales for the “haves and have nots” of the future.

Native Americans Conquer the English! Why History Wasn’t Reversed-Part 1

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Why didn’t 16th century Native Americans sail to England, claim land for their queen, and nearly decimate the English race? Why did Francisco Pizarro conquer the entire Incan Empire instead of Atahuallpa sailing over to Spain and exerting his dominance? We all know the immediate answers to these questions: Europeans had guns, germs, and steel that made it easy to overcome their “savage” opponents. But the real question is why did Europeans develop guns, germs, and steel while so many other civilizations did not? What forces caused different groups of people to develop technology and innovations at different rates? Did civilizations advance differently because of superior genetics or environmental variables? Honestly, I never thought about these questions until I borrowed my friend’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. This is a must read and it actually won the Pulitzer Prize-the exorbitant detail in this book makes it an eye-opener that will change your perspective of the modern world. A common thought is that Europeans were more advanced then Africans/Indians/Insert Non-White Person because they worked harder and were generally smarter. This was the primary logic for most of history and is partly responsible for the mental foundation of slavery, racism, segregation, and general exploitation of non-white races.Today, scientists are trying to objectively answer the question of why societies advanced differently early on in history? The short answer to this big question is that genetics played no role in the differences, what mattered most was environmental luck.

So what is environmental luck? Environmental luck, in respects to civilization formation, entails three key components: available wild plants for domestication, available large mammals for domestication, and continent-axis orientations. 10,500 years ago agriculture began in the fertile crescent (modern day Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt); China would soon follow 1,000 years afterwards. Agriculture in Mesoamerica, the Andes, and Amazonia independently began in 3500 B.C-the Eastern United States coming in last at 2500 B.C. Why was there such a big time disparity between these groups and plant domestication? One of the key reasons was that the Fertile Crescent and China were home to 33 large grass species: wheat, rice, barley, millet, etc. These wild grass species were abundant due to the vast land areas of Eurasia, numerous Mediterranean climates and large elevation changes. Early domestication was advantageous over hunter gathering in these two areas because these grass species provided easy nutrition (today the world gets 50% of its calories from grass plants). This cornucopia of seed plants in Eurasia is contrasted by the meek number available in the Americas-only 4 species in North America, 5 in Mesoamerica, and 2 in South America. Agriculture in Eurasia was further assisted by large mammals which were domesticated. Of all large mammals, Eurasia had 13 species (think cows, pigs, goats, sheep, camels, and horses) which were good candidates for domestication; a good domestication candidate needs to have a certain diet, growth rate, breeding behavior, disposition, and social structure. The Americas, Australia, and Africa only had 1 mammal that was suitable for domestication-dogs. These domesticated animals increased agricultural yield, provided food, and transferred germs to humans. Domesticated animals are the source of some of mankind’s most deadly diseases: Measles (cattle), Tuberculosis (cattle), Smallpox (cattle), Flu (pigs and ducks), Pertussis (pigs, dogs), Falciparum malaria (chickens and ducks), etc. This exposure to germs would eventually wipe out the majority of New World inhabitants and make it possible for Europeans to conquer native people throughout the world. The last key factor of environmental luck was the axis orientation of the continents. Eurasia’s axis stretches east to west with large spans of land on similar latitudes (Think England and China). The Americas and Africa axis’ stretch North to South with huge changes in latitudes (think Canada vs Chili). Similar latitudes meant similar day lengths and weather patterns which allowed for the rapid spread of agriculture across Eurasia. The wide range of latitudes in the Americas/Africa made the spread of agriculture difficult because of drastically different weather and seasons going north to south.

The environmental factors of Eurasia provided it with a lucky head start in respects to efficient agriculture. This head start wasn’t because of the people’s innovation but rather a host of key factors which included climate, plant availability, animal availability, and overall geography. Eurasia’s efficient agriculture (large seed plants and domesticated animals) would eventually lead to the first civilizations (Mesopotamia, Egypt, Indus Valley, China). Agriculture and domestication allowed individuals to specialize in jobs unrelated to food production: government officials, laborers, craftsmen, scribes, religious figures. The ability to have specialized positions provided groups of people to innovate and advance in technology. This progression of civilization in Eurasia was already full force before the America’s first signs of agriculture. The civilizations of the Fertile Crescent and Asia would soon spread through the continent and bring about metallurgy, alphabets, and organized warfare. The prerequisites of guns, germs, and steel were all based on the ability to efficiently grow food. And the prerequisites for growing food were a host of environmental factors that led to some lucky people being in the right place at the right time. To be continued.