Why Were the Americas So Underdeveloped when Europeans Reached Them?

Based on Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel (Norton, 1997).

The development of the Americas seems to have lagged that of Eurasia by two or three millennia. The Mayans were arguably the most advanced society in the Americas, but their achievements during their Classical period (250 AD – 900 AD) were matched or exceeded by those of Old Babylonia (2000 BC – 1600 BC). Both cultures had formal legal systems and tribunals in which to try lawbreakers. Both cultures developed monumental architecture, made extensive use of irrigation and hydraulics, and accurately observed the apparent motions of Venus, Mercury, the sun and the moon. Both societies had written languages and positional number systems. Addition and subtraction were known to the Mayans, but there is no evidence of multiplication or division. The Babylonians could do all of these things, and in addition, were familiar with quadratic equations and compound growth. They appear to have been aware of the Pythagorean Theorem hundreds of years before the birth of Pythagorus. Both cultures worked in bronze. The Mayans largely reserved this metal for ceremonial purposes, and used weapons of wood and sharpened stone, while the Babylonians used it for both weaponry and armour. Smelting iron is more difficult than smelting bronze, and neither the Mayans nor the Babylonians achieved it. Unfortunately for the Babylonians, their neighbours the Hittites began making iron around 1500 BC. The iron weapons of the Hittites allowed them to militarily dominate the region, ending Babylon’s independence. No culture in the Americas had developed iron at the time of the European conquest.

So, Mesopotamia at 1500 BC looks much like Mesoamerica at 1000 AD. The Eurasians had three thousand years to build upon their Mesopotamian foundations before the coming together of the New and Old Worlds. The Americans, by contrast, had only five hundred years to build upon their Mesoamerican foundations. Mayan society actually declined during these years, possibly for environmental reasons. The ascendant Aztecs preserved and incorporated much of the Mayan knowledge but did not substantively add to it. This pause in American development stretched the Eurasian intellectual and technological head-start from twenty-five hundred years to three thousand years. The Eurasians used this time to develop paper and the printing press, clockwork and eyeglasses, the arch and the dome, the windmill and the waterwheel — but also gunpowder weapons, steel weaponry and armour, and oceangoing ships. The meeting between the Eurasian and American societies, when it came, was a very unequal one.

What caused the Eurasian head-start? A large part of the answer is that societies that could produce significant food surpluses appeared much earlier in Eurasia than they did in the Americas. Among hunter-gatherers and even the early farmers, everyone’s job was to produce the food that kept the community alive. Eurasian farming slowly became more productive, and it eventually became so productive that some communities were capable of producing more food than they needed. Since not everyone needed to be a food producer in these societies, new roles began to appear: warrior, bureaucrat, trader, potter, priest. These people did not have the same connection to the land as the farmers had, so communities became bigger and denser, and eventually the first cities arose. Cities were quite literally the source of civilization: the etymology of the word goes back to civitas, the Latin word for city.

The world’s first cities arose in Sumer and were well established by 3500 BC. In these cities role specialization became the catalyst for change. Bureaucrats developed cuneiform, the world’s first writing system, to keep track of inventories of food. Writing’s obvious utility led to its elaboration and wider employment: the epic of Gilgamesh and the law code of Hammurabi, for example, were first recorded in cuneiform. Sumerian religion identified the major deities with the stars and the planets, so priests began to systematically observe the heavens, laying the foundations of astronomy. The earliest known wheels are the potter’s wheels used by Sumerian potters from about 3500 BC. The axle appeared several hundred years later, leading to the first wheeled vehicle, the chariot, which became Sumer’s dominant instrument of war. These innovations and many others were the result of the concentrated attention that role specialization permits.

The Eurasians were the first to produce food surpluses, and therefore the first to specialize, and the first to gain the intellectual and technical rewards of specialization. But why were the Eurasians the first to produce food surpluses? The answer, says Jared Diamond, is that there were dramatic regional differences in the opportunity to domesticate plants and animals.

Crops

All of our crops are the descendants of wild plants. Diamond argues that the wild ancestors of ancient and modern crops were very unequally distributed around the world. Some parts of the world simply had very little to work with, so they came to farming late or not at all. Eurasians, on the other hand, were wonderfully favoured.

There are about 200,000 species of wild plant, so a wildly unequal distribution of crop ancestors might initially seem unlikely. However, only a few hundred of these species have been domesticated, and just twelve species account for 80% of modern crops by weight. These species include five cereals (wheat, corn, rice, barley and sorghum), three tubers (potato, manioc, sweet potato), soybeans, sugar cane and sugar beet, and bananas. Sprinkling such a small number of plants across the surface of the earth might well produce — and did produce — a very unequal distribution.

Eurasia

Agriculture first appears at about 8500 BC in the Fertile Crescent, an area stretching from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean toward the head of the Persian Gulf. Sumer and (later) Babylonia would both be situated there.

Evolution gave the Fertile Crescent a number of plants that were well suited to domestication. The summers were long, hot and dry; the winters were mild and wet. Natural selection favoured annuals that grew rapidly in the winters, producing seeds that lay dormant through the summer and then germinated in the fall. These plants expended relatively little energy on the production of leaves and stems, and instead allocated their energy to the production of numerous large seeds. Just gathering these seeds provided the people of the Fertile Crescent with a good source of nutrition. Permanent dwellings predate agriculture, suggesting that the gatherers initially cultivated these plants in their wild state, by clearing land and culling competing plants. Only later did they begin to plant seeds, so becoming the first farmers.

Soybeans and all five of the major cereals were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent. These plants were an important source of nutrition even in their wild state, but once farming began, both intentional and inadvertent selection dramatically improved their yields.

Eurasia was also favoured in that it has an east-west orientation, so that its climate does not greatly vary across its land mass. The crops that were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent gradually spread both east and west, and became the major crops of all of Europe.

Mesoamerica

Some crops were domesticated quite early in Mesoamerican history. These crops included gourds (grown for containers), peppers, squash, cotton and tobacco. However, Mesoamerica had no calorie-rich wild plant around which a diet could be built, and this deficiency delayed the beginning of settled agriculture by thousands of years. A staple crop was eventually developed from the plant teosinte, which produced a cob of small seeds encased in hard coverings. Teosinte’s yield was so meager that it was probably domesticated not for its seeds but for its sugary stalk, which could be used to make alcohol. Centuries of domestication and selection transformed teosinte into maize, which became America’s dominant staple crop. The earliest evidence of maize production is dated to 4000 BC. Settled agriculture appeared in the Mesoamerican lowlands by 2000 BC, and in Peru and the Southwestern USA very shortly thereafter. The Mesoamericans were quick to make the transition to urban life, which was well established by 300 BC.1 If urbanization is a proxy for role specialization, specialization occurred about three thousand years later in Mesoamerica than in Eurasia.

North America

The absence of a staple crop impeded the development of settled agriculture everywhere in North America. Consider, for example, the Eastern Woodlands. Squash, sunflower, sumpweed and goosefoot were domesticated there around 2000 BC. However, their nutritional value was so low that settled agriculture did not begin until the arrival of two Mesoamerican crops, maize (in 200 AD) and beans (in 1100 AD). These crops were well suited to the area’s mild climate and rich soil, and their adoption greatly increased the local food supply. Large and dense populations developed, particularly along the Missouri River. These blossoming societies had only a few hundred years to run before encountering Europeans and, worse still, European diseases.

Other parts of North America began to practice settled agriculture even later or not at all. The outward diffusion of maize production was a slow process. A crop adapted to a southerly location would grow less well in the cooler and shorter summers of a more northerly location. The crop had to be adapted to these conditions, and that adaptation required many years of cultivation and selection. A change from woodlands to plains likewise required adaptation. Many aboriginal peoples were still primarily hunter-gatherers when Europeans arrived. There is little evidence of role specialization among these peoples.

Animals

The domestication of large mammals can be very rewarding to an agricultural society. These animals provide meat and milk, leather and wool, fertilizer for the fields, power for transporting people and goods, and power to work the fields or raise water from deep wells. These gains were realized almost exclusively by Eurasians.

Diamond identifies five large domesticated mammals that have been globally important, and observes that all five are the descendants of mammals from Eurasia or the part of Africa with which Eurasia easily communicated.

Likewise, almost all of the locally important mammals are of Eurasian origin. The only exceptions are the Americas’ llama and alpaca.

Diamond explains Eurasian’s relative success in domesticating mammals in the same way as he explains its relative success in domesticating plants: a better inheritance of raw material. Eurasia was endowed with more species of large mammals than the Americas or other parts of the world. Many of the candidates in the Americas became extinct sometime after the arrival of humans (possibly as a result of human action), precluding their domestication.

Moreover, the Eurasian candidates proved more amenable to domestication than candidates elsewhere. Eurasia’s horse was domesticated, but Africa’s “horse in striped pyjamas” was not. All five species of Eurasian cattle were domesticated, but not the American buffalo or bison. Diamond identifies a number of characteristics that an animal must have if it is to be successfully domesticated, and these characteristics were more commonly found in Eurasia. For example, the animal must be a herbivore (ruling out lions and tigers), it must have a mild disposition (ruling out zebras and grizzly bears), and it must not panic easily (ruling out the American deer and the African gazelle).

Conclusion

The subtitle of Diamond’s book is “The Fates of Human Societies”. His argument is that their fates are in many ways determined by the environments in which they found themselves. The huge disparity between the development of the European and American societies in 1500 can, he argues, be traced back to the differences in biological endowments that existed ten thousand years earlier.


  1. Peter Bellwood, First Farmers (Blackwell, 2005), pp. 149, 154 and 151.