Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Pizarro vs Atahuallpa - part 2

Here we go again - to explain the outcome of the battle between the Inca Emperor and the Spanish conqueror. The reasons behind the outcome apply also to almost every battle of the Europeans conquering the New World, and almost to every other civilization contact in history.

We saw that Guns, Germs & Steel were the proximate factors of the outcome. These factors can be traced back and they have been caused from the inequality in food production between Eurasia and the Americas. So, why was there a difference?

There are about 5 places in the world at which food production rose independently. 2 of them are the Fertile crescent (Mesopotamia) and the Eastern US. The Spanish and Inca civilizations are a result of food production arising in these areas. The next step is to see that food production (a shift from hunter-gatherer societies) is a direct result of plant and animal domestication. The conscious treatment of plants in order to produce more food is the first step in ensuring enough food supplies. So, let's go now one step deeper and ask: why was plant domestication more strong in the Fertile crescent than the Eastern US?

First reason: the Fertile crescent (named after the shape of the highly productive area) had Mediterranean climate. The plants that grew (and grow) up there are annual in order to adapt to the short rain season and to the long dry periods. The short term of the plants does not allow them to grow big. Hence they are forced to produce big seeds in order to ensure their survival. These seeds are the ones that humans can eat very easily. Only in the Fertile crescent, 1 Kcal of work produces 50 times more energy in food! Therefore the people there it is very easy to settle down and store food fast (which will eventually allow the rise of a civilization).

Second reason: there is a high diversity in plant species in the Fertile crescent. From the top 56 wild grass species with the biggest seeds, 32 of them can be found in the Fertile crescent! Only 2 of them can be found in the eastern US.

Third reason: The 5 major domesticated mammals that provide meat, milk products, wool, land transport, etc are sheep, goat, cow, pig, horse. Although now spread worldwide, none of these mammals existed initially in the eastern US.

These 3 are the main reasons that I think gave the Eurasian civilizations a head start (Diamond mentions dozens more - the guy is incredible), which allowed them to develop more quickly and then inevitably led to the conquest of Americas from Europe. However Diamond goes even deeper than that! He asks again, why did it come to be this way? Why did the Fertile crescent managed to hold so many species of plants and animals so easy to domesticate as opposed to other places in the world? We'll return on that soon.