The Broadest Pattern of Human History
By Jared Diamond
As world travel developed in recent centuries from 1492 onward, it quickly became obvious that peoples with very different economies, technologies, and political organizations coexisted in the modern world. At one extreme were the large Iron Age states occupying much of Europe, Asia (except Siberia), and North Africa, plus the smaller Iron Age states of West Africa. Comparable in political organization, but lacking in iron technology, were the Inca Empire of the Andes and the Aztec state of Mexico.
The range of societies continued through the Neolithic settled chiefdoms of other parts of the Americas and Polynesia, with some of those societies (such as Polynesian Hawaii and the Mississippian civilization of Indian North America) verging on the level of states. The list went on to the Neolithic tribal farming societies of New Guinea and the remainder of the New World and concluded with the hunter-gatherers of the Arctic, Australia, and scattered areas of the Americas, Africa, and Asia.
This snapshot of the diverse world as of 1492 was subsequently illuminated by archaeologists, who obtained in effect a series of snapshots at earlier times. It then became clear that the geographic differences among human societies as of 1492 resulted from differences, extending back over at least 10,000 years, in the dates of first appearance of developments such as stone tool grinding, metallurgy, pottery, and plant and animal domestication. For example, mass production of copper tools, which was beginning to be widespread in the Andes in the centuries before 1492, was already spreading in parts of Eurasia 5,000 years before that. The stone technology of the Tasmanians, when first encountered by literate observers in 1642, was simpler than that of Upper Paleolithic Europe tens of thousands of years earlier.
The collisions among these disparate peoples shaped the modern world through conquest, epidemics, and genocide. These collisions set up reverberations that have still not died down after many centuries and that are being played out in some of the most troubled areas of the world today (such as South Africa and the former Soviet Union).
In the present essay, I shall explore the hypothesis that these differences between human societies resulted not from differences between the peoples themselves, but from effects of environment and geography - that is, from contrasts between the real estate that different peoples inherited. Two caveats are necessary at the outset, since many people may initially consider this topic an unfit one for polite discussion. First, this whole subject stinks of racism, because nineteenth-century Europeans explained the observed geographic differences in complexity of human societies in terms of supposed parallel differences among peoples in their mental abilities.
Despite much effort to document these supposed differences, no sound supporting evidence has been forthcoming. Available evidence even supports the reverse conclusion.
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JARED DIAMOND is Professor of Geography at UCLA. He is the author of the recently published Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies. Dr. Diamond is also the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship - "Genius Award".