Excerpt from Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Guns, Germs & Steel

by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs & Steel
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  • First Published:
    Mar 1997, 480 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 1999, 480 pages

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Thus, the colonization of Australia/New Guinea was not achieved until around the time of the Great Leap Forward. Another extension of human range that soon followed was the one into the coldest parts of Eurasia. While Neanderthals lived in glacial times and were adapted to the cold, they penetrated no farther north than northern Germany and Kiev. That's not surprising, since Neanderthals apparently lacked needles, sewn clothing, warm houses, and other technology essential to survival in the coldest climates. Anatomically modern peoples who did possess such technology had expanded into Siberia by around 20,000 years ago (there are the usual much older disputed claims). That expansion may have been responsible for the extinction of Eurasia's woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros.

With the settlement of Australia/New Guinea, humans now occupied three of the five habitable continents. (Throughout this book, I count Eurasia as a single continent, and I omit Antarctica because it was not reached by humans until the 19th century and has never had any self-supporting human population.) That left only two continents, North America and South America. They were surely the last ones settled, for the obvious reason that reaching the Americas from the Old World required either boats (for which there is no evidence even in Indonesia until 40,000 years ago and none in Europe until much later) in order to cross by sea, or else it required the occupation of Siberia (unoccupied until about 20,000 years ago) in order to cross the Bering land bridge. However, it is uncertain when, between about 14,000 and 35,000 years ago, the Americas were first colonized. The oldest unquestioned human remains in the Americas are at sites in Alaska dated around 12,000 B.C., followed by a profusion of sites in the United States south of the Canadian border and in Mexico in the centuries just before 11,000 B.C. The latter sites are called Clovis sites, named after the type site near the town of Clovis, New Mexico, where their characteristic large stone spearpoints were first recognized. Hundreds of Clovis sites are now known, blanketing all 48 of the lower U.S. states south into Mexico. Unquestioned evidence of human presence appears soon thereafter in Amazonia and in Patagonia. These facts suggest the interpretation that Clovis sites document the Americas' first colonization by people, who quickly multiplied, expanded, and filled the two continents.

One might at first be surprised that Clovis descendants could reach Patagonia, lying 8,000 miles south of the U.S.-Canada border, in less than a thousand years. However, that translates into an average expansion of only 8 miles per year, a trivial feat for a hunter-gatherer likely to cover that distance even within a single day's normal foraging.

One might also at first be surprised that the Americas evidently filled up with humans so quickly that people were motivated to keep spreading south toward Patagonia. That population growth also proves unsurprising when one stops to consider the actual numbers. If the Americas eventually came to hold hunter-gatherers at an average population density of somewhat under one person per square mile (a high value for modern hunter-gatherers), then the whole area of the Americas would eventually have held about 10 million hunter-gatherers. But even if the initial colonists had consisted of only 100 people and their numbers had increased at a rate of only 1.1 percent per year, the colonists' descendants would have reached that population ceiling of 10 million people within a thousand years. A population growth rate of 1.1 percent per year is again trivial: rates as high as 3.4 percent per year have been observed in modern times when people colonized virgin lands, such as when the HMS Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian wives colonized Pitcairn Island.

The profusion of Clovis hunters' sites within the first few centuries after their arrival resembles the site profusion documented archaeologically for the more recent discovery of New Zealand by ancestral Maori. A profusion of early sites is also documented for the much older colonization of Europe by anatomically modern humans, and for the occupation of Australia/New Guinea. That is, everything about the Clovis phenomenon and its spread through the Americas corresponds to findings for other, unquestioned virgin-land colonizations in history.

From Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond. © 1997 Jared Diamond.

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