Guns, Germs, and Steel

Guns, Germs, and Steel Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In New Guinea, ethnic tensions remain high. Javans, highlanders (people from the center of New Guinea), lowlanders (coastal people), and Chinese make up sizeable chunks of the population, and each group has strong stereotypes about the other three (the highlanders are supposedly arrogant and violent, the lowlanders are effete and weak, etc.).
In contrast to the high degree of ethnic and cultural unity in China, New Guinea exhibits a large amount of diversity, with different ethnicities and cultures shown to be hostile to one another, as evidenced by the popularity of insulting stereotypes about different ethnic groups.
Themes
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About 6,000 years ago, there was a demographic shift called the Austronesia expansion. (“Austronesia” refers to an area encompassing Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and many of the Pacific Islands). Ancient peoples in China and Southeast Asia migrated farther south to explore the islands of present-day Java, New Guinea, and Indonesia. Why, we should ask, did Asians colonize indigenous Javans and New Guineans instead of the other way around?
The chapter will attempt to answer the question laid out here: what enabled Southeast Asians to expand into Austronesia?
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It’s important to note that the populations of Indonesia and the Philippines look a lot like the South Chinese, far more than they resemble the indigenous peoples of Australia or New Guinea. Also, archaeologists have uncovered evidence in various Austronesian areas that suggests that, until 4000 B.C., the indigenous Austronesian peoples were hunter-gatherers. Archeological evidence indicates that the earliest agriculture in Austronesia came from Taiwan. There is further evidence that agriculturalists in Taiwan spread throughout Austronesia, bringing relics of Taiwanese agriculture with them: agricultural techniques, but also domesticated animals, pottery, etc. The Austronesian explorers of 6,000 years ago, it’s hypothesized, traveled through Austronesian islands using small boats and canoes. So the present-day Austronesians (people in Java or New Guinea, for example) are probably descendants of agriculturalists who spread through Austronesia 6,000 years ago.
This section proposes an answer to the question the Diamond has just posed: the peoples of Southeast Asia expanded into Austronesia because of their knowledge of agriculture. Agriculture, for reasons we’ve already studied, encouraged the Southeast Asians to organize and discover new technologies, such as maritime transportation, which they used to colonize Austronesia. There is plentiful evidence for such a hypothesis, since the same crops, pottery, and domesticated animals can be found in Austronesia and Southeast Asia.
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By studying languages, linguists have been able to hypothesize which “cultural baggage” the Austronesians spread. By analyzing similarities between the same words in many languages, one can guess that the people that speak such languages were connected through cultural diffusion. For example, the fact that the word for “sheep” in Spanish, Russian, Greek, and Lithuanian is remarkably similar would suggest that the ancient peoples of these cultures traded sheep with one another. By studying the similarities between ancient Polynesian languages and ancient Taiwanese languages, linguists have hypothesized that agriculturalists spread their crops and technologies through Austronesia from Taiwan, established agriculture throughout Polynesia and other Pacific islands, and added tropical crops to their “agricultural repertoire” along the way.
As in the previous chapter, one can study the demographic history of Austronesia by studying linguistic patterns. Thus, when linguists study the grammars and vocabularies of ancient Southeast Asian languages and compare them with those of ancient Austronesian languages, they find many similarities. This would suggest that Southeast Asian agriculturalists spread through Austronesia and spread their “cultural baggage” with them—not just agriculture and technology, but also the language they used to describe their agriculture and technology.
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Get the entire Guns, Germs, and Steel LitChart as a printable PDF.
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Southeast Asian agriculturalists expanded from Taiwan into the Philippines and Indonesia. By about 1500 B.C., these agriculturalists reached New Guinea. Yet they did not “overrun” New Guinea, as they’d done in Borneo, Java, and Sumatra—to this day, the New Guineans are noticeably physically different from the Javans, reflecting the differences in the two islands’ relationships with ancient agricultural colonists. The modern-day New Guinean population speaks languages not found in Java and Sumatra—languages that aren’t closely tied to ancient Austronesian languages. Why?
The cultural and linguistic differences between New Guinea and Java help to clarify the chapter’s argument and give it some nuance: the geographic and therefore agricultural differences between New Guinea and Java (as discussed in Chapter 15) will underscore the importance of agriculture in the process of cultural diffusion throughout Austronesia.
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Diamond hypothesizes that the fact that the New Guineans already had established some agriculture meant that the Austronesians couldn’t colonize the New Guineans as completely as they did the people of Java or Borneo. The New Guineans already used polished stone tools, and were resistant to tropical diseases like malaria. So the Austronesian expansion destroyed much of the native population of Java but reached a standstill in New Guinea.
Much as New Guineans’ advances in agriculture protected them from European colonization in the modern era, earlier advances in agriculture insulated the New Guineans from the ancient Austronesian expansion.
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Over the course of history, certain civilizations based out of temperate climates that favor agriculture develop the technology and organization that allows them to expand and colonize other parts of the world. Notably, the parts of the world that ancient Southeast Asian societies (and modern European societies) were slow, or unsuccessful, in colonizing, such as Hawaii, Caledonia, and New Guinea, had tropical diseases, some forms of agriculture, or both. To this day, “East Asia and the Pacific Islands remain occupied by East Asian and Pacific peoples,” rather than European colonists.
The differences in the colonization of different Austronesian islands clarify the importance of agriculture in a society’s ability to colonize other regions. Agriculture is a huge advantage for colonists because it gives them a vast “arsenal” of technology, organization, and germs. Therefore, it makes sense that the Austronesian islands where colonization largely failed had their own forms of agriculture.
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