Diamond now returns to discussing the clash between Europe and the New World that began after 1492 A.D. In that year, the Western European civilization that sent Christopher Columbus to the New World was markedly different from the Native American societies that Columbus encountered in the New World.
Diamond has spent a lot of time talking about the cultural clash between Europe and the New World after 1492 A.D.—in this chapter, we’ll see why the New World didn’t develop more sophisticated technology or societal centralization in the pre-Columbian era.
To begin with, Native American societies lacked domesticated large mammals, with the notable exception of the llama in present-day Peru. As a result, Columbus and Pizarro’s expeditions weren’t wiped out by Native American diseases; on the contrary, European-borne diseases like smallpox decimated the Native Americans.
The absence of large domesticable mammals prevented Native American societies from building up genetic defenses against germs, meaning that European settlement (and with it, the spread of disease) proved lethal for them.
Secondly, agriculture wasn’t as common in the New World as it was in Western Europe, due in large part to the geography of the New World. The majority of Native Americans were hunter-gatherers because of the absence of reliable sources of grain, fertile soil, and various geological barriers (like mountains and deserts) that kept agricultural advances from diffusing. As a result, Europe had a big advantage over the New World in specialization of society, centralization of government, development of writing, and the discovery of new technology (metallurgy, the wheel, armor, guns, sails, etc.)—all major factors that led European explorers to journey to the New World.
As we’ve seen in earlier chapters, agriculture leads a society to develop specialized professions, complex technologies, and centralized states. But agriculture can never take hold in a society without the proper geographic prerequisites—prerequisites that were almost nowhere to be found in the New World. To the extent that there was agriculture in the New World (and there was in Mesoamerica, for example), it remained local instead of diffusing—again, due to geographic barriers, rather than any conscious choice on the part of the Native American people.
Archaeological evidence indicates that Eurasia enjoyed an advantage over the New World in achieving many of the milestones of civilization. In Eurasia, civilizations mastered plant and animal domestication, metallurgy, the foundation of a centralized state, and writing before civilizations in the New World. In Eurasia, the civilizations that mastered such processes earliest were based out of the Fertile Crescent; in Native America, they were based out of the Andes. Diamond acknowledges that there is a lot of conflicted archaeological evidence, and he’s simplifying it greatly; nevertheless, the bulk of the archaeological evidence would support his conclusions.
Without going into many specifics, it seems clear from the archaeological evidence that the societies of Europe had tremendous advantages over those of the New World: access to horses, metallurgical knowledge, centralized state systems, etc.
In the New World, the diffusion of agriculture, technology, and writing was delayed by a number of geographic factors, including mountains, deserts, and oceans. For example, the llamas that were domesticated in Peru couldn’t have reached Mexico—that would have involved llamas traveling north hundreds of miles through dangerous deserts. In Eurasia, there were relatively few barriers to diffusion. Eurasia is longest from east to west, whereas the New World is longest from north to south—therefore, by definition, there were a greater number of people living in Eurasia who shared a similar climate.
The east-west orientation of Eurasia helped to ensure that once a technology was discovered somewhere in the continent, it diffused to other parts of the continent relatively quickly. The north-south orientation of the New World, however, helped ensure that when the same technology arose, it usually remained isolated. For example, domesticated mammals were transported from Mesopotamia to Europe, but not from Peru to Mexico—the former involved latitudinal diffusion, while the latter involved longitudinal diffusion, which is often far more difficult.
Eurasia’s first large-scale attempt to colonize the New World occurred between the 10th and 15th centuries, and was spearheaded by the Vikings. Norse peoples journeyed to Newfoundland and Greenland, though they failed to travel farther west or south. The colonies the Norse established in these territories remain mysterious—they died off at some point before the 15th century, probably because Newfoundland and Greenland were too cold and desolate to support agriculture.
The chapter hypothesizes that the Europeans didn’t colonize the New World even sooner (i.e., during the 10th century) because the areas of the New World they did colonize were too geographically desolate to support full-scale agriculture—again reinforcing the influence of agriculture and environment on colonization.
Eurasia’s second large-scale attempt to colonize the New World occurred after 1492 A.D.—a time that allowed Europe’s “potential advantages to be exerted effectively.” The expeditions to the New World spread germs that killed off huge numbers of Native Americans. Since 1492, there has been a massive demographic shift in the population of the Americas—there remains only about a tenth of the Native American population that existed before 1492 (although the total population of the New World has grown considerably). For the environmental reasons Diamond has laid out, the massive demographic shift post-1492 “has its ultimate roots in developments between 11,000 B.C. and A.D. 1.”
When European societies explored the New World after 1492 A.D., they were able to use their advantages (both consciously, in the case of guns and swords, and unconsciously, in the case of germs) to defeat the Native Americans. Their victory, following the argument outlined in Guns, Germs, and Steel, is the result of geographic factors that led European societies to pursue agriculture sooner than New World societies.