To begin, Diamond will give a “whirlwind tour” of human evolution. Humans’ closest evolutionary relatives are apes and primates. The earliest humanoid species, such as Homo habilis and then Homo erectus, emerged about seven million years ago in Africa. One million years ago, Homo erectus began to migrate, out of Africa and around the world—to Europe, Australia, Asia, etc. It is usually argued that humans—that is, Homo sapiens—first emerged from the evolutionary tree half a million years ago, having evolved independently from Homo erectus around the world. There is no perfect definition of Homo sapiens, and therefore no perfect “cutoff point” for when Homo sapiens first appeared. Nevertheless, scientists and anthropologists generally agree that Homo sapiens are distinguished from some of their ancestors by their larger skulls and their ability to make fire.
First, notice that there is no precise way to measure when Homo sapiens first emerged from the evolutionary tree—as is often the case in the book, scientists have to approximate and make educated guesses. Second, notice that Homo sapiens, the species to which modern human beings belong, are distinguished by their ability to make fire—in a sense, their ability to interact with their environments and make use of available resources. Making use of resources, as we’ll see, is one of the key human traits driving history.
Human history arguably began approximately 50,000 years ago with the “Great Leap”: the development of complex tools, such as needles, awls, etc., as well as the construction of large houses and buildings and the creation of art (cave paintings). Scientists aren’t sure where on the planet such cultural behaviors first appeared. They could have arisen simultaneously in many different parts of the world, or spread from one part to other parts. But in either case, the Great Leap was crucial to human history.
Echoing the themes of the previous passage, human history is presented as a record of how human beings have shaped their environments and used certain resources to make useful tools. Evidently, Diamond doesn’t have enough data to argue that humans began shaping tools in response to certain geographical stimuli—scientists don’t even know where the earliest tools and cave paintings emerged.
After the “Great Leap,” humans developed watercraft and began traveling to new, remote places, such as New Guinea. In New Guinea, there is archaeological evidence that humans exterminated many animals soon after arriving. Other scientists argue that many species in New Guinea went extinct because of unrelated changes in the environment, such as drought.
As with much of this first chapter, the data available to scientists is so sparse that it’s difficult to draw any definitive conclusions. Nevertheless, the possibility that early human beings wiped out entire animal populations arguably anticipates the way that later societies wiped out populations in the regions they colonized, suggesting that aggression is a fundamental part of human nature.
By 40,000 B.C.E., human beings lived in Eurasia and Australia, but the Americas had not yet been colonized—this probably began to happen between 35,000 and 14,000 years ago. Hunter-gatherer cultures entered the Americas through Asia, probably across the Bering land bridge, and quickly migrated south to Patagonia. There is a lot of disagreement over which peoples were the first to come through America. Some scientists think that a people called the Clovis came through America about 15,000 years ago and exterminated many of the large animals in the region (much like what may have happened in New Guinea). Evidence of Clovis settlements have been found in the western United States, and farther south, but there is also evidence of earlier settlements from other peoples.
Again, scientists know very little about the progress of human beings around the world beyond a few thousand years ago—invalidating any pseudo-scientific explanations of how certain races or groups have “always” been superior to others. Also, notice that the Clovis may have wiped out most of the large mammals in the Americas—echoing the possible exterminations of large animals in New Guinea. The possibility that the earliest humans around the world massacred animals and other humans suggests that humans have always drastically altered their environments, often in destructive ways.
Humans settled many different parts of the world after the Great Leap. Many parts of the world weren’t settled with human beings until surprisingly recently; for example, there were no human beings in Iceland until the 9th century A.D. This all leads to the question: why didn’t Africa become the most powerful region in the world? Africa had a “head start” in producing human beings, since thousands of years ago, there were more Homo erectus and later Homo sapiens in Africa than anywhere else. Effectively, Africa has “5 million more years of proto-human existence than any other continent.”
Intuitively, one would think that Africa should have been the most powerful continent in the world, given that the earliest human beings emerged there. One could argue that Africa had a big comparative advantage over other parts of the world because the groups who lived there had a “head start” (since humans only migrated to other parts of the world later on in history).
To answer his own questions, Diamond tries to be precise about the idea of a “head start.” Africa had more “protohumans” (evolutionary ancestors to Homo sapiens) than any other country. And even today, there is more genetic diversity in Africa than anywhere else on the planet, reflecting the large numbers of protohumans in Africa millions of years ago. And yet, 11,000 years ago, one could have made different, fairly convincing arguments that each colonized continent was going to become the dominant one. Africa had the most people and the most genetic diversity. But people in Australia had already developed sophisticated boats and other technologies, beyond what people in Africa had built. In Eurasia, there was more geographic diversity than anywhere else on the planet, suggesting that people who lived in Eurasia would adapt to many different environments and therefore colonize many different parts of the world.
There are too many different explanations of why certain regions of the world flourish and why others do not. No single one of these explanations, at least as offered in this section, is entirely convincing. Furthermore, one could argue that the lack of a clear, cogent explanation for why a certain region becomes more advanced than other regions leads to the persistence of bias—in the absence of one good explanation, different people will simply choose the explanation that supports the region they’re from. (For example, European pseudo-scientists might argue—and have argued—that their people are superior because they had to respond to the cold climate.)
In short, Diamond says, you could have made an argument that any region of the globe where there were humans 11,000 years ago was going to become the most powerful and dominant one. Diamond will go on to discuss why the Eurasian region went on to become the most powerful.