How did we all get to be where we are today? The story of guns, germs and steel – Part 2


In my previous post, I explained that the reason that Europeans conquered the
rest of the world, and not vice versa, is because they were able to generate
food surpluses. With this food surplus, they could support classes of people
not dedicated to the production of food. They could do this because they lived
in a part of the world where the land was very good at producing food, and these
agricultural techniques were imported to the region by people emigrating from
the Fertile Crescent in Mesopotamia where food production arose
independently.

But better land is not the whole story. Europeans were also able to harness
the power of animals.

With animal power, Europeans were able to hitch them to plows to till their
soil. They could also use them as a source of meat, which is high in protein.
The combination of both of these meant that they could generate even more food
surpluses.

The thing about animals is that in order to harness them, they have to be
domesticated. Domestication is the process of taming animals and genetically
changing them to be more useful to humans. Dogs are domesticated wolves.
Elephants have been tamed, but they have not been domesticated. The ones that
work with humans have been caught in the wild and then tamed.

There are conditions to domesticating animals. Carnivores are not suitable
because it is so inefficient to farm them. In order to feed a 1000 pound
carnivore, you need to feed them about 10x as much meat. So, a 1000 pound
carnivore would require 10,000 lbs of meat. That is clearly inefficient, so
carnivores are out.

Some animals take too long to grow, like elephants. They have a two year
gestation period and take 15 years to mature. It takes too long. Similarly,
other animals do not reproduce in captivity, others are too skittish (like
gazelles), and others yet have too nasty a disposition (like zebras and
hippos). The reality is that in order for an animal to be domesticated, a lot
of different variables have to go right but only one thing has to go wrong to
disqualify it. It is not easy to domesticate animals.

Of the 148 mammals over 100 lbs that might be suitable, only 14 have ever
been domesticated: horses, donkeys, cows, pigs, sheep, one humped camels, two
humped camels, reindeer, llamas, yaks, and four more I can’t remember. Of these
14, 13 of them were domesticated in Europe (Eurasia, technically), and one (the
llama) was domesticated in South America. No animals were ever domesticated in
North America, Africa, or Australia.

That sounds surprising about Africa. We think of that continent as
the place where you see animals. But none have ever been domesticated
there.

Eurasians were able to harness the power of animals. Africans, native
Americans, New Guineans and Australians did not. This factor gave Eurasians a
huge advantage in food production. But for the Eurasians, it also gave
them another advantage – horses were used in warfare. Up until World War I,
horses were the primary mode of transportation in warfare. They were fast and
efficient and could move armies quickly. Because they had horses, when
Europeans embarked on their conquests of other continents they were able to
strike faster and harder than the people they invaded.

This sounds a bit odd to us because in the US and Canada, we tend to think of
the native Americans (Indians) as expert horsemen. But the reality is that
there were no horses native to the Americas until the Europeans introduced them
(there were species of horses in the Americas but they went extinct 13,000 years
ago). After horses were introduced, the native population within a generation
became expert horsemen and used them to form pockets of resistance against the
European settlers.

Unfortunately, these pockets of resistance were futile. As we all know, when
Europeans came to the Americas, the native population was wiped out with
diseases that claimed somewhere between 90-95% of the population. Europeans had
gradually, over time, built up immunities to these diseases. The native
populations had not, and the diseases ravaged through them and wiping them out.
But why did the Europeans ravage the natives with diseases? Why weren’t there
any diseases waiting for the Europeans when they arrived which would have sent
them reeling back to Europe?

That’s for my next post.

Comments (0)

Skip to main content