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
    Apr 1999, 480 pages

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Early humans certainly didn't fly by helicopter from Alaska to Meadowcroft and Monte Verde, skipping all the landscape in between. Advocates of pre-Clovis settlement suggest that, for thousands or even tens of thousands of years, pre-Clovis humans remained at low population densities or poorly visible archaeologically, for unknown reasons unprecedented elsewhere in the world. I find that suggestion infinitely more implausible than the suggestion that Monte Verde and Meadowcroft will eventually be reinterpreted, as have other claimed pre-Clovis sites. My feeling is that, if there really had been pre-Clovis settlement in the Americas, it would have become obvious at many locations by now, and we would not still be arguing. However, archaeologists remain divided on these questions.

The consequences for our understanding of later American prehistory remain the same, whichever interpretation proves correct. Either: the Americas were first settled around 11,000 B.C. and quickly filled up with people. Or else: the first settlement occurred somewhat earlier (most advocates of pre-Clovis settlement would suggest by 15,000 or 20,000 years ago, possibly 30,000 years ago, and few would seriously claim earlier); but those pre-Clovis settlers remained few in numbers, or inconspicuous, or had little impact, until around 11,000 B.C. In either case, of the five habitable continents, North America and South America are the ones with the shortest human prehistories.

With the occupation of the Americas, most habitable areas of the continents and continental islands, plus oceanic islands from Indonesia to east of New Guinea, supported humans. The settlement of the world's remaining islands was not completed until modern times: Mediterranean islands such as Crete, Cyprus, Corsica, and Sardinia between about 8500 and 4000 B.C.; Caribbean islands beginning around 4000 B.C.; Polynesian and Micronesian islands between 1200 B.C. and A.D. 1000; Madagascar sometime between A.D. 300 and 800; and Iceland in the ninth century A.D. Native Americans, possibly ancestral to the modern Inuit, spread throughout the High Arctic around 2000 B.C. That left, as the sole uninhabited areas awaiting European explorers over the last 700 years, only the most remote islands of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans (such as the Azores and Seychelles), plus Antarctica.

What significance, if any, do the continents' differing dates of settlement have for subsequent history? Suppose that a time machine could have transported an archaeologist back in time, for a world tour at around 11,000 B.C. Given the state of the world then, could the archaeologist have predicted the sequence in which human societies on the various continents would develop guns, germs, and steel, and thus predicted the state of the world today?

Our archaeologist might have considered the possible advantages of a head start. If that counted for anything, then Africa enjoyed an enormous advantage: at least 5 million more years of separate protohuman existence than on any other continent. In addition, if it is true that modern humans arose in Africa around 100,000 years ago and spread to other continents, that would have wiped out any advantages accumulated elsewhere in the meantime and given Africans a new head start. Furthermore, human genetic diversity is highest in Africa; perhaps more-diverse humans would collectively produce more-diverse inventions.

But our archaeologist might then reflect: what, really, does a "head start" mean for the purposes of this book? We cannot take the metaphor of a footrace literally. If by head start you mean the time required to populate a continent after the arrival of the first few pioneering colonists, that time is relatively brief: for example, less than 1,000 years to fill up even the whole New World. If by head start you instead mean the time required to adapt to local conditions, I grant that some extreme environments did take time: for instance, 9,000 years to occupy the High Arctic after the occupation of the rest of North America. But people would have explored and adapted to most other areas quickly, once modern human inventiveness had developed. For example, after the ancestors of the Maori reached New Zealand, it apparently took them barely a century to discover all worthwhile stone sources; only a few more centuries to kill every last moa in some of the world's most rugged terrain; and only a few centuries to differentiate into a range of diverse societies, from that of coastal hunter-gatherers to that of farmers practicing new types of food storage.

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

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