Guns, Germs, and Steel

Guns, Germs, and Steel Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Diamond describes the biggest population shift in modern times: the movement of Europeans to the New World. Europeans probably ventured to the Americas, though only to cold northern regions, as early as 900 A.D. More elaborate expeditions commenced in the early 1500s. Perhaps the quintessential “image” of the Europeans’ conquest of the New World arose when Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish explorer, met Atahuallpa, the king of the Incas, who lived in present-day Peru. Pizarro was leading less than 200 soldiers through Peru on an expedition, while Atahuallpa was surrounded by tens of thousands of soldiers and on his “home turf.” And yet Pizarro managed to kidnap Atahuallpa almost immediately and then ransom him for huge sums of gold. How?
In this chapter, Diamond will analyze another important case study for the clashes between cultures—and like its predecessors, the case is militaristic in nature. Pizarro’s victory over the Inca was a clear demonstration of European society’s “dominance” over the New World—Pizarro was badly outnumbered, and yet prevailed anyway. Understanding how this happened will be an important step toward understanding Diamond’s thesis.
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Pizarro traveled across Peru, using torture to extract information from Inca people his soldiers captured. This information led the expedition to the center of the Inca kingdom, where Atahuallpa lived. Atahuallpa received Pizarro as a visitor and willingly walked into Pizarro’s camp without armed soldiers to protect him. But when Atahuallpa refused to open a copy of the Bible, Pizarro gave the order for his soldiers to capture Atahaullpa and, outside the camp, fire their guns and attack the Incas with their swords. Having captured the king and slaughtered many Incas, Pizarro soon rose to control the entire kingdom.
This passage is notable for two reasons. First, and most obviously, it shows how Pizarro defeated the Incas—he used his horses, his deception, and his weapons to do so. Second, and more subtly, the passage is a good example of Diamond’s scientific point of view; one could argue that Pizarro’s actions are cruel, evil, or genocidal—but Diamond doesn’t stop to pass moral judgment on Pizarro. His job is just to explain how these events happened.
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Diamond goes back to discuss the history of weapons. While some historians have tried to argue that the Spanish conquistadors prevailed in the New World because they were seen as intimidating, or even gods, the frank reality is that they won because they had better weapons than the Native Americans. Horses were also a huge advantage for the conquistadors: they could outrun their opponents, who had no horses of their own.
Step by step, Diamond breaks down the arsenal that Pizarro brought with him to the Inca Empire, beginning with his literal arsenal. Pizarro prevailed because he had horses, swords, and, to a much smaller extent, guns—the explanation for his victory is more material (his literal weaponry) than psychological (the awe he inspired in the Incas).
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Guns didn’t play a huge role in Pizarro’s victory: he only had about a dozen of them, and they were difficult to load. His biggest advantage was steel: the steel swords and lances that his soldiers used to slaughter the Incas, and the steel armor that protected his expedition from the Incas’ clubs. The combination of horses, steel, and, to a much smaller extent, guns, helps us understand how Pizarro defeated the Incas.
Pizarro’s victory boiled down to a small number of literal, material advantages: his weapons, his horses, etc. Notice that the passage offers no commentary on Pizarro’s brilliance as a general or his commitment to his cause: here, as with most of the book, the emphasis is placed on material, environmental conditions, not on individual human beings’ abilities.
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Get the entire Guns, Germs, and Steel LitChart as a printable PDF.
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Atahuallpa and his kingdom were based out of an area that Pizarro would later call Cajamarca. Atahuallpa had moved to Cajamarca because of an epidemic of smallpox to the north. Historians now know that earlier European explorers caused this epidemic. In all, European-borne diseases might have killed as many of 95 percent of pre-Columbian Native Americans. On the reverse side, diseases from the Americas, such as yellow fever, malaria, etc., were huge killers among the Europeans.
Arguably the single largest component of Pizarro’s eventual victory over the Inca Empire was his expedition’s “arsenal” of diseases—something Pizarro didn’t even know about. The importance of disease (it wiped out a huge chunk of the Native American population) emphasizes that history often has little to do with individual human beings’ abilities or decisions.
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Why had Pizarro come to the Americas? Diamond asks. Why didn’t Atahuallpa sail to Europe? Pizarro’s voyage, Diamond explains, was the result of European maritime technology, as well as the complex political organizations that financed his travels. Pizarro’s voyage was also possible because of the existence of writing, which was used to spread information about travel and navigation. The Incas lacked all three essential precursors for maritime exploration (writing, centralization, and naval technology), or only had them in simplified versions.
On a literal level, the “causes” of Pizarro’s victory over Atahuallpa were his access to maritime technology, his access to weaponry, and Atahuallpa’s corresponding lack of access to technology and, more subtly, an extensive written language.
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Why did Atahuallpa fall for Pizarro’s trap? Why didn’t he come accompanied by soldiers? To begin with, Atahuallpa didn’t have any information about the Spanish. No writing about the Spanish had been passed to him. (There were some forms of writing in the New World, but they were simplified and not commonplace.) More importantly, Atahuallpa’s lack of a written language meant that he didn’t have a great breadth of knowledge of human behavior or history, and hadn’t heard or read about any other devious invaders.
The role of written language in Pizarro’s victory of Atahuallpa cannot be ignored. Atahuallpa fell for Pizarro’s trap because he didn’t know what to expect—his education in human nature was limited to the people he interacted with directly, that is, people who treated him with great respect and honesty. Notice that Atahuallpa’s willingness to fall for Pizarro’s trick doesn’t prove that Atahaullpa was foolish—it just shows how important literacy can be.
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Pizarro conquered the Inca Empire because of his superior technology, his horses, Europe’s diseases, and, less overtly, his knowledge of writing. But we still haven’t tackled the more fundamental question of why Europeans had such advantages while the Native Americans did not. Diamond will answer this question in the next two parts of the book.
Even if it’s clear that some societies prevail militarily because of their superior technology, language, and transportation, it’s not yet clear what factors lead to the emergence of such advantages (beyond a vague correlation with agriculture, as seen in Polynesia).
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