If you think the reason Eurasians conquered most of the world was because of some genetic, mental, or spiritual superiority, you are in for a nasty shock. With any luck, this book will change your way of thinking. Eurasians didn't conquer the world because they were a light variation of brown or because of their belief system, but because they won the lottery in geography and resources. Jared Diamond will take you on a tour of the world, articulately explaining why recorded history began in the lands around the Mediterranean and spread out from there.
Morphologically modern humans, hunter/gatherers all, migrated out of Africa approximately 100,000 years ago, dispersing into the gentle climate and lands around the Mediterranean before moving farther north and east. By trial and observation these early hunter/gatherers developed plant domestication approximately 10,000 years ago. One of the first plants domesticated was grass. There are thousands of species of grass, but only 56 have seed heads large enough to grind for food. Of those 56 species, 32 are located around the Mediterranean. The ancestors of barley and emmet wheat—both grasses high in protein—are the two crops most important to early plant domestication in the Fertile Crescent. They are still important; our diet is full of wheat products. (The amber waves of wheat so ubiquitous in North America are an import from Eurasia, not a native plant.) Other parts of the world have a similar Mediterranean climate, but they were virtually bereft of plant possibilities. Only two species of grasses with large seed heads were found in Chile. California and southern Africa had only one each. Australia didn't have any.If it took humans around the Mediterranean nearly 90,000 years to figure out how to domesticate crops, that was plenty of time for groups still living as hunter/gatherers to migrate beyond the knowledge of plant domestication. Even though humans reached the Americas approximately 15,000 years ago, actually before the start of farming in the Fertile Crescent, they had no knowledge of what they had left behind and a mere 15,000 years in which to find and domesticate suitable plants native to the Americas. Of which there were a pitiful few—corn and a few beans (Mesoamerica) and barley (Eastern US).
If you think anyone overlooked a suitable plant, consider that no new species of plant has been domesticated in modern times. Ancient strains have been improved, some plants, such as the oak, provide us with food, but no new ones have been domesticated. Ancient people did a pretty good job of exploiting every plant they could.
Once people had domesticated plants, all that hunting and gathering gradually gave way to farming. However, civilization didn't really take off until animals had been domesticated approximately 4,500 years ago. Then it was possible for a small percentage of the growing population to supply enough food to store the surplus for the remaining population. When that happened, humans being human, populations exploded and people began to specialize. Bureaucracies were born. If you are ever inclined to curse your local politicians, you can thank farm animals for their creation.
Some animals were domesticated that weren't used for farming or (usually) eating—most noticeably dogs and cats—but the majority had to provide food or assistance beyond warning of intruders or catching rodents. There are 148 large, herbivorous mammals worldwide, but of those only 14 were candidates for domestication. Those 14 met certain requirements: diet, growth patterns, ease of breeding, an amenable disposition, and social structure. The others, while they may have seemed imminently suitable for domestication because of their size and strength, were unacceptable. Bears, American bison, zebras, African buffalo, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, and moose are incredibly dangerous. More people die in America from moose attacks than bear attacks. Even with all our modern techniques, we haven't been able to domesticate any of those animals. Some can be tamed—sort of—but that's not the same thing.
Of the 14 animals that met all those requirements, five became the foundation of animal domestication: cow, sheep, goat, pig, and horse. All of these animals originated in Eurasia. The Americas did originally have horses, but they were exterminated soon after humans arrived. Possible candidates on other continents met the same fate. Talk about a lack of foresight.Because of geography and resources, temporary hunting camps became towns and then cities. With the surplus of food, people could develop writing, metallurgy, building, and commerce. Of course civilizations developed first around the Mediterranean. The people there had everything necessary to establish them and the time to do it in. People in Africa, Austronesia, and the Americas, equally as intelligent and creative as any human in Eurasia, did not.
You live in a world of luxury unknown to people as recent as 100 years ago, much less 10,000 years ago, because some people in Eurasia saw the potential in the plants and animals around them and were blessed with a geography so uniform that the same crops could grow equally as well in Spain as they did in Iraq. Once you've read this book, you may never look at the world in the same way. Think the titans of industry are the basis of our modern civilization? Ha! They wouldn't exist without farmers. All modern civilizations can be traced directly back to them. Farmers, along with plant and animal domestication, are the reasons why you have what you do. Yes, even your iPhone.
Review by Sheryl Tongue
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