As a teenager, Diamond worked on a farm in Montana. There, he worked alongside many white people, but also a Blackfoot Indian named Levi. Once, Levi cried out to a white farmer, “Damn the ship that brought you from Switzerland!” How, Diamond wonders, did Europeans conquer the New World and steal it from Native Americans like Levi’s ancestors?
Diamond describes European colonization from Levi’s point of view (an understandably angry, critical point of view), reinforcing the idea that European colonization wiped out entirely Native American societies and devastated others. Diamond is fond of beginning chapters with personal asides like this.
This chapter will focus on the role of food production in civilization. Agriculture, one of the most efficient forms of food production, was first discovered about 11,000 years ago, and it’s a prerequisite for the development of guns, germs, and steel, as we will see later on.
Agriculture is a highly efficient form of food production, much more so than hunter-gatherer foraging (in the sense that it can feed more people per square mile). By domesticating animals and keeping them in a small area, humans don’t have to expend energy chasing after their food. And by similarly concentrating the density of plant matter in an enclosed area (i.e., a plot of farmland) humans can grow crops quickly instead of looking for berries and fruits across a wide area.
One of the major advantages of agriculture is its efficiency: agriculture can feed more people per square mile than hunter-gatherer techniques can. Agriculture also doesn’t require humans to expend large amounts of energy running after game or climbing to pick fruits and berries (even if agriculture does still require plenty of work).
Agriculture is also important in human history because it leads to social specialization. In a hunter-gatherer culture, humans might be hunters or gatherers, but beyond that, there’s little to no work specialization. In an agricultural society, on the other hand, food is stockpiled and stored for long periods of time. This leads to social specialization in two main ways. First, a political elite gains control over the food, and has to decide how much food different people get. Second, the increase in leisure time caused by storing food for long periods gives people more time to experiment with resources and develop specializations in jobs other than food production.
Another impact of agricultural technique on society is the specialization of the population. In an agricultural society, a leader decides who gets the extra food. In a hunter-gatherer society, there is almost never a surplus, or if there is, the surplus only lasts a few days, since meat and fruit couldn’t really be stored thousands of years ago. And while agricultural societies still require their people to work hard, the efficiency of agriculture results in more leisure time during which people can learn other skills.
Agricultural societies are better at sustaining wars than are hunter-gatherer societies: in an agricultural society where people pay a tax to the state, the state can support an army. And agricultural societies learn how to domesticate animals instead of simply killing them. Agricultural societies domesticated horses, donkeys, etc.—all animals that allowed humans to travel long distances (and win battles, as we saw with Pizarro). Also, domesticated animals slowly train humans to survive germ epidemics, as Diamond will demonstrate. In short, the development of agriculture was crucial to the rise of a powerful military state.
Diamond will go into more detail about the issues he brings up in this section, but here he offers a general outline of his argument for the importance of agriculture in human history. Agriculture allows for organization and specialization in society. It also encourages people to domesticate wild animals and survive more germ epidemics. Considering how Pizarro defeated the Incas, it would seem that an early history of agriculture plays a major role in creating the kind of society that’s powerful enough to defeat other societies.