The Human Journey
Guns, Germs, and Steel

Turning Points in the Development of Contemporary Society

Guns, Germs, and Steel:

The Fates of Human Societies

W. W. Norton & Co, 1997

Pages 1234

Complex centralized organization solved a number of internal problems for very large societies.

It provided a recognized authority to solve disputes or conflict between unrelated strangers. This function could no longer be served informally by family members or clan leaders since they wouldn’t have links to the parties involved. Centralized institutions handle communication and decision-making which formerly operated communally. Transfer of goods could no longer be accomplished reciprocally. Increased density of population meant more of necessities were acquired from outside the individual’s physical area. A complex economy was required to redistribute goods between widely separated people and places.

How geography and ecology directed the development of the people in the following geographical regions:

Australia and New Guinea

Both Australia and New Guinea were settled during the Pleistocene ice ages. People came south from Asia across land bridges created when the ocean levels were low. When the ice melted and oceans rose, they were trapped. Although society and technology in New Guinea was more complex than in Australia, it did not progress beyond tribes.

Why didn’t either of them go further? Although the two environments couldn’t have been more different, each had a geography that placed limits on the people living there.

map of Australia

Australia is the sole continent where, in modern times, all native peoples lived without any of the hallmarks of “civilization”. Australian Aborigines were nomadic or semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, organized into bands, living in temporary shelters or huts and still using stone tools. Yet as of 40,000 years ago, Australia was ahead of Europe and other continents. People there developed some of the earliest stone tools with ground edges, the earliest stone tools mounted on handles, and the earliest watercraft. Some of the world’s oldest known rock paintings are in Australia. Australia was low and flat and one of the driest places on Earth. It had a highly seasonal climate with the highest variations year to year. It was mostly desert and dry woodland with few mammal and bird species. The soil was the oldest, most infertile of any continent. There were almost no wild plants capable of being domesticated and soon after human colonization no large land animals remained. The climate and terrain could only support small bands of people utilizing wide areas for hunting and gathering. Aborigine Australians did create a society in Australia, adapted to the harsh environment, they exploited this environment to the fullest and were prevented by it from further development.

New Guinea

New Guinea was mountainous and rugged. The climate was equatorial and one of the wettest on Earth. It had many large permanent rivers and was mostly dense rain forest populated by many species of mammals and birds. The soil was young and fertile from volcanic and glacial activity. Indigenous plants were low in protein and there were no large animals. Only a few broad valleys in the highlands above 4,000 feet were capable of supporting dense populations and they were separated from each other by rugged ridges, limiting exchange. The population never grew large enough to develop complex technology. The ocean and rugged terrain limited the import of technology from elsewhere. In fact, it wasn’t until airplanes flew over the high valleys of New Guinea in the 1930’s that westerners even knew that people lived there. Nevertheless, the highland New Guineans developed extensive agriculture that exploited all the possibilities of their location.

European Colonization

Because of malaria and the rugged mountains, the number of European settlers remained small in New Guinea, despite European superiority in ships, compasses, writing, printing, guns, and administration. Australia was colonized by Europeans for all the same reasons New Guinea wasn’t. Its environment and people provided few barriers. English colonists did not create a literate, food-producing, industrialized democracy in Australia. They brought it with them. Without their inherited technology, European settlers could not have survived.


Five of the six most populous nations in the world achieved political unification only recently (USA, Russia, India, Indonesia, Brazil). The exception is China which was unified by 221 BC.

There is evidence of food production appearing in China by 7500 BC, possibly independently in the North and the South. While the North-South axis retarded the diffusion of some crops, it was a short distance and without the barriers found in Africa or the Americas. Differences of altitude were gentle and East to West. There were large long rivers, easily connected by canals. Western Europe was much more rugged and without unifying rivers.

Map of China

While some crops moved to the North from the South, the predominant development was the other way. Writing, bronze technology, language and political unification and power all came from the North. All but three small pockets of the original people of Southeast Asia were replaced by those of Chinese origin. And the influence of Chinese culture was very strong throughout the region. The unity of China is astonishing. Genetically, the Chinese varied more than between the Swedes and Italians, which implied a long history of moderate isolation. North and South China differed appreciably in climate and environment as well. So how did they end up with the same language and culture? Because China became politically unified much earlier than other regions, it homogenized a huge region, repopulated tropical Southeast Asia and influenced Japan, Korea, and perhaps India. A linguistic map shows a huge area of Mandarin and its close relatives covering from Manchuria to Myanmar (Burma).

China Ethnolinguistic Groups

Language replacement occured in stages. Native speakers were initially killed or pushed out. Later they were pressured into adopting the dominant language because of its advantages in technology, economics, and politics. Mandarin was a North China language. Speakers of the other three Asian languages were pushed south into Southeast Asia. A fourth language was pushed off the mainland altogether to the Philippines and Polynesia.


Map of human language families

The Austronesian Expansion, which began about 4000 BC was one of the biggest population movements in the past 6000 years. It led to the colonization of over half the globe, from Madagascar off the coast of Africa to Easter Island in the Western Pacific. It populated Java and parts of Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and all of Polynesia. Languages give us clues to the route of the expansion. There were 4 sub-families of Austronesian languages. Three of these were found only among the aborigines of Taiwan. One sub-family covered all the rest of the area. The longer a language was in a place and separated from its relatives, the greater the differences. This suggests that these people originated in Taiwan. The Austronesians were in Taiwan by 4000 BC, in the Philippines by 3000 BC, New Guinea by 1600 BC, and throughout the Pacific and to Madagascar by 500 AD.

Austronesians replaced hunter-gatherers in the Philippines and Indonesia for the similar reasons as Europeans replaced native Australians. They were farmers with denser populations, superior tools and weapons, more developed watercraft and maritime skills, and epidemic diseases. In New Guinea they were only able to colonize about 15% of the island because the existing New Guineans were already farmers and toolmakers and had some resistance to the diseases of the Austronesians.Europeans were only able to colonize in significant numbers the largest and most remote islands nearest the temperate zones (New Zealand, New Caledonia, and Hawaii). The rest remained occupied by East Asian and Pacific peoples.

The Americas

The Americas
The Americas

The largest population replacement of the last 13,000 years was the result of the collision between the Old World and the New World. The parts of the Americas with food production had a number of disadvantages vis-à-vis the Europeans: Dependence on corn which is much lower in protein than Europe’s diverse cereals. The amount of crops was limited by use of hand planting rather than by broadcasting as in Europe. Productiveness was limited by the lack of animals to pull plows and provide fertilizer and for tasks such as threshing, grinding, and irrigation. Settled villages arose thousands of years later in the Americas than in Eurasia. Early American people remained hunter-gathers because of the lack of wild animals to domesticate and the nature of the available plants. The main plant (corn) required a long time to evolve from its wild ancestor to a productive domesticated version. Consequently, when farming did develop in the Americas, it remained supplemented by hunting and gathering for a long time. The three regions (Southeastern United States, Mesoamerica, and the Andes) of settled cultures were never connected in the trade or conflict which transmits disease, technology and complex weaponry. The lack of competitive pressure and cross fertilization of ideas slowed or stopped inventions. For example, Mesoamericans discovered the wheel, but the only large mammal capable of pulling a wheeled vehicle (the Llama) lived in the Andes. The two never got together. Diffusion was difficult because the Americas were fragmented by deserts, mountains, and rain forests.

Map of the Spanish Empire in the Americas
The Spanish Empire in the Americas

The first American contacts with Europeans were with Norse from Greenland in 874 AD. These people were, however, too few, too poor, too early, and too far north to make successful settlements.

The second invasion, this time from Spain, was successful because the source, target, latitude and time allowed the European advantages to be used effectively. Spain was rich and populous enough to support exploration and colonies. Landfalls were in subtropical areas suitable for food production. In many locations existing populations were quickly decimated by disease, dispossession, enslavement, warfare and murder. Where large native populations did survive (Andes, Central America) culture and language were extensively replaced with European ones. The conquest of the Inca by the Spanish is an example of what happened when Eurasian societies invaded other lands.

Map of the Inca expansion
The Inca expansion

The Inca were a large complex society. So why did Pizarro come to America and conquer the Incas and not the reverse? The Spanish had guns, armor, steel swords, horses; the Inca had only stone, bronze or wooden weapons and no mounted troops. A smallpox epidemic, brought by the Spanish, had spread south from Panama well ahead of Pizarro. It drastically reduced the numbers of Inca troops and killed the emperor and many of his court. The ensuing civil war meant there was no unity of command in the conflict with the Spanish. The Europeans had ships and sailing know-how, the Inca did not. The Spanish could finance, build, staff and equip the ships. Hence, the Spanish came to America, and not the reverse. Writing gave Pizarro information about previous voyages and conquests, the environment, and the native peoples. The Inca had little or no information about the Spaniards; they were ignorant of their previous successful conquest of Central America.

The population of the Americas is now ten times what it was in 1492 because of immigration (voluntary and not) from Europe, Asia, and Africa.

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