In Menindee, Australia, it’s so hot and dry that it seems impossible for humans to survive. Australia as a whole is the hottest, driest, and most “biologically impoverished” continent. And yet aborigines managed to survive there. Indeed, they survived in Australia, finding food and water, developing stone tools, and even creating some of the world’s oldest cave paintings, 40,000 years ago (well before almost any other group of humans around the world developed stone tools or painting). When the Europeans explored Australia in the 19th century, they found that the aborigines were still using stone tools and making cave paintings. Why did the aborigines remain “frozen” in the Stone Age, instead of taking advantage of their “head start” over the rest of the world? Furthermore, why did the New Guineans near Australia develop agriculture and elaborate technologies while the aborigines did not?
In the final quarter of the book, Diamond will look at some specific case studies for the process of his theory of geographic determinism. The first example concerns the Australians and New Guineans leading up to the modern era.
To begin with, consider the origins of the aborigines. It’s believed that humans came to Australia and New Guinea at least 40,000 years ago by island hopping from Asia. At the time, Australia and New Guinea were probably one large landmass, “Greater Australia.” With changes in sea level, Australia and New Guinea separated into two distinct landmasses, with distinct geographies. Australians and New Guineans diverged genetically and physically, reflecting the process of natural selection in response to different environments.
The comparison between the aborigines and the New Guineans is instructive because, much like the Polynesians discussed in Part One of the book, the New Guineans and the aborigines are descended from the same group of nomadic peoples. Therefore, studying these two societies will be an especially clear illustration of how geography (rather than genetics) influences society.
The earliest food production regions of Greater Australia arose in New Guinea about 9,000 years ago. The peoples of New Guinea used farming to domesticate grass stems and sugarcane. New Guineans also acquired foreign exports, including animals like pigs and chickens, from Asia, probably about 4,000 years ago. The agricultural boom in New Guinea fostered a growth in population and population density. A larger, denser population fostered social specialization—for example, ancient New Guinean artisans crafted stunning wooden statues and masks.
The New Guineans have some limited agriculture, domesticated crops and animals, and the societal changes that accompany those innovations (as discussed in Parts Two and Three), including social specialization.
So the contrast between the New Guineans and the aborigines is plain. Nevertheless, the New Guineans had one thing in common with the aborigines: they continued using stone tools even after they developed sophisticated agriculture, had no written language, and never organized into chiefdoms or states. There are several reasons why: 1) New Guineans had domesticated animals, but not big animals like oxen and horses, which could pull plows. Therefore, they had less leisure time and less time for specialization; 2) New Guinea had limited space for population growth; 3) New Guinean agriculture could only flourish within a specific high altitude. Therefore, all agriculturalists produced more or less the same crops; there was no agricultural specialization, no exchange between different communities specializing in different crops, and therefore less need for a chiefdom or state (see previous chapter).
While the New Guineans developed some forms of agriculture, their agriculture was never as extensive as that seen in Mesopotamia. We can measure this in many different senses: there was less space and worse conditions for farmland in New Guinea (i.e., geographic barriers), and there were fewer domesticable animals available. Perhaps this helps explain why New Guinean society developed some of the features associated with agriculture, but not others (writing, a chiefdom, etc.).
New Guinea had limited agriculture—but Australia had none. To begin with, Australia had no domesticable large mammals. It also had no agricultural potential—its soil was dry and infertile. Furthermore, Australia has one of the most irregular climates on the planet—droughts are frequent yet unpredictable. Finally, Australia has a surprisingly small number of domesticable wild plants. So hunter-gatherer culture in Australia—i.e., the culture of the aborigines—was the rational adaptation to life in a region without agricultural potential.
Aborigines in Australia lacked most of the preconditions for agriculture, meaning that they never developed agriculture, or experienced the societal changes associated with agriculture. The point here is that the aborigines’ lack of agriculture doesn’t prove their lack of talent or intelligence, as racist English colonists later claimed—it just proves that Australia itself wasn’t fit for agriculture.
Many of the aborigines lived in the southeast, where the climate was relatively moist. In the rivers in southeast Australia, the aborigines fished for eels and fish. They even harvested millet seeds—a seed that, in China, was an agricultural staple. Without suitable soil in which to plant it, though, the aborigines harvested wild millet and ground it up into meal.
Aborigines adapted to their surroundings, using all available natural resources. In this sense, they’re no different than the Mesopotamians—the difference is that the Mesopotamians had different natural resources.
The main reason the aborigines did not develop metal tools, writing, or politically complex societies is that they had no agriculture. There is some evidence of 5,000 year-old arrowheads in Australia—suggesting that the aborigines at one time did have complex technologies, but abandoned and forgot about these technologies, a process aided by their isolation from other regions (similar to the way the Japanese “forgot” about guns). Archaeological digs in Tasmania have turned up awls, needles, and other bone tools, which, like the arrowheads, may have been common at one time and later discarded and forgotten.
Aborigines never developed real agriculture, meaning that they never developed states or social specialization. As far as technology is concerned, the aborigines did develop some sophisticated tools like awls and needles. But because their society was loosely organized, had no writing system, and didn’t trade with other societies, the knowledge of this technology was eventually lost. The case of the aborigines, then, seems to prove Diamond’s point about how social structure (determined by geography) is a stronger determinant of technological sophistication than the intelligence of individual human beings—clearly, the aborigines were intelligent enough to create new technology; their society just didn’t preserve and diffuse their accomplishments.
Why didn’t Australia acquire advanced technologies from Indonesia or New Guinea? Diamond asks. New Guinea was linked to Australia via the Torres Strait, and there is evidence that the New Guineans interacted with the aborigines in some ways: they traded objects like pipes, masks, and painted shells. However, only a small portion of Australia was connected to New Guinea via the Torres Strait, and that portion was isolated from the rest of the continent by desert and mountains. As a result, geography prevented major cultural diffusions from New Guinea from trickling into Australia as a whole.
The geographic barriers between Australia and New Guinea prevented most technology from diffusing in to Australia—and as Diamond has previously argued, diffusion is potentially more useful than individual invention.
In the 1500s, Portuguese explorers “discovered” New Guinea, and over the course of the next 300 years, European colonists explored it. Strangely, the Europeans did not wipe out the indigenous New Guinean population—whereas they largely did so in Australia, and did to some extent in North America and South Africa. Why the difference?
The final difference between the New Guineans and the aborigines that the chapter will explore is their relatively strong resistance to diseases.
One of the biggest factors that kept Europeans from settling in New Guinea until 1880 was disease: the New Guineans spread malaria to the colonists, decimating their populations. On the other hand, European-borne diseases like smallpox did not kill large amounts of New Guineans, largely because the New Guineans had already been exposed to smallpox epidemics due to their contact with Indonesians and Southeast Asians. Also, the terrain of New Guinea was rugged and hard to navigate, and familiar European crops didn’t grow well in the New Guinean climate. Therefore, Europeans didn’t succeed in settling New Guinea for a very long time.
The New Guineans developed some immunities to deadly diseases due to their experiences around domesticated animals. The aborigines, without access to any large mammals or domesticable animals, never developed these immunities, meaning that when European colonists came to their land, European-borne diseases caused large numbers of aborigines to die, not the other way around.
The Europeans settled Australia much more easily than they did New Guinea. The land was much flatter and easier to navigate than New Guinea land, and Australians were not carriers for as many deadly diseases like malaria and yellow fever, which could have slowed the colonists’ progress. And even if Australia’s soil was infertile for the aborigines, Australia did have soil suitable for European crops like wheat and barley. So the Europeans had the incentive to colonize Australia and few biological or geographic barriers to doing so.
The Europeans colonized Australia easily, assuming that the aborigines were somehow sub-human. As Diamond has shown, however, the aborigines had the same intelligence and capabilities as Europeans—they just didn’t have access to livestock or crops that could grow in Australia soil. In simplest terms, they were geographically unlucky.
To conclude: all-too often, people have looked at the history of Australia and New Guinea and come to the racist conclusion that white settlers were simply “better” than the native peoples they murdered. But in fact, the Europeans who settled the rest of the world weren’t inherently better at all—they just had some crucial geographic advantages that multiplied over time, to the point where the Europeans had advanced technology and the Australians did not.
A thorough examination of the data in New Guinea and Australia proves without a doubt that the racist hypothesis of European superiority is wrong. The New Guineans had access to some agriculture, but not much, the aborigines had none, and the Europeans had a long agricultural history. As a result, the Europeans colonized the aborigines successfully and the New Guineans with limited success.