Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond (1997)

We can rephrase the question about the world’s inequalities as follows: why did human development proceed at such different rates on different continents? (p.16)

The 1990s saw an explosion in popular science books and this one won prizes (the Pulitzer Prize, over a million copies sold) for its skilful interweaving of a wide range of specialisms – biogeography, archaeology, anthropology, molecular genetics, linguistics and more – to answer an apparently ‘simple’ question. In his introduction Diamond calls it ‘Yali’s Question’, after a New Guinea native he knows (Diamond has spent a lifetime studying the birds of New Guinea) and who once asked him: ‘Why did you white people develop so much “cargo” and bring it to New Guinea and we black people have so little “cargo” of our own?’ where ‘cargo’ stands for the full range of marvellous inventions the white man brought with him.

The jokey sub-title of the book is ‘A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years’ and that summarises Diamond’s approach – which is to find the answer to Yali’s question way back before the beginning of cities, writing or agriculture. Not in the rise of Europe or mercantilism or sailing ships or science or gunpowder, not in writing or the birth of agriculture does Diamond seek the answer, but goes right back before all this to the end of the last Ice Age (13,000 years ago).

For this is when the human populations, scattered around the continents of the earth, all started in roughly the same state of development – as hunter-gatherer societies. Starting from this point Diamond brings together everything we know from the full range of historical and archaeological disciplines to try and clarify why some of these groups did invent all those things – agriculture, cities, writing, metal tools – while others only got as far as non-literate farming, and others remained stone-age hunter-gatherers. With the result that everyone knows, which is that from around 1500 AD the former spread across the world and conquered or even exterminated the latter – resulting in the ongoing global inequalities we are all familiar with. Why?


It’s a long, fact-packed and detailed book but the answers are easy to summarise, in fact he gives the game away in the introduction:

History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among people’s environments, not because of differences among peoples themselves. (p.25)

And on page 87 there is a diagram showing the full implications of this simple proposition.

Schematic overview of the chains of causation leading up to proximate factors (guns, horses, disease) enabling some peoples to conquer other peoples.

Schematic overview of the chains of causation leading up to proximate factors (guns, horses, disease) enabling some peoples to conquer other peoples.

1. The East-West axis of Eurasia. This vast stretch of continuous territory enjoys broadly the same climate and the same length of days. This meant that when farming – the domestication of plants and animals – was developed in one place – Mesopotamia – it was able to spread over vast distances east and west with no significant barriers to its diffusion. Unlike in the Americas or Africa, which have a broadly north-south axis, and are littered with barriers (the Mexico desert, the Congo rainforest) which made it harder for these innovations to spread. And Australia completely cut off from all these developments. Thus pottery and iron smelting reached Sub-Saharan Africa’s Sahel region about 4,000 years ago but pottery only reached Africa’s southern tip about AD 1, and metallurgy hadn’t reached it at all by the time the European invaders came in 1500.

2. Eurasia also happened to have a wider range of both plants and animals than the other continents. Diamond has a long chapter about the benefits of the Old World crops – wheat, oats, barley and so on – their bigger yields, their higher protein content, compared to New World corn or African yams as staple crops. Eurasia also has a larger number of domesticable animals. He lists the 14 ‘big’ (over 100 lbs in weight) mammals which were domesticated before the 20th century, divided into the Big Five (sheep, goats, cow, pig, horse) and the Minor Nine (Arabian camel, Bactrian camel, llama, donkey, reindeer, water buffalo, yak, Bali cattle, mithan). Of the total 14, no fewer than 13 had ancestors in Eurasia i.e. were domesticated here, while only one was available in south America (ancestor of the llama and alpaca) and none existed in North America, Australia or sub-Saharan Africa.

3. Stratified society Once you’ve grasped these two fundamental advantages of Eurasia, the rest begins to cascade like an avalanche. Domesticating plants and animals leads, for the first time in human history, to food surpluses, and of types which can be stored over the winter or during hard times (grain, salted meat). For the first time human beings can be supported by this surplus who don’t themselves directly hunt or gather food. Hence the creation of a class of rulers who control the surplus of the community, along with other non-food-producers; hence a soldier class which fights wars, a priestly class which blesses those wars, and a bureaucracy which enacts the ruler’s wishes and manages everyone else.

4. Technology Once you have people specialising in particular activities – groups and guilds and unions of people all doing the same kind of thing – you will get increasing competition between them, leading to innovations, all sorts of technical inventions and improvements, and to the eventual creation of ‘science’ – the technique of speculating, testing, experimenting and speculating again, all creating a virtuous circle of technological progress. Diamond explains the notion of autocatalysis, a process which speeds up at a rate which increases with time because the process catalyses or facilitates itself. Thus Western invaders were not one or two or three developments ahead of the native peoples they encountered, but ahead in thousands and thousands of ways which the invaded couldn’t even comprehend. Beneficiaries of an exponential curve of discovery, invention and technology.

Diamond uses the incident of Pizarro’s massacre of the Incas and capture of their emperor, Atahuallpa, at Cajamarca on 16 November 1532 to enumerate the advantages the Spanish conquistadors had over the native Amerindians:

  • Horses – non-existent in Central and South America, horses were the central military technology of Eurasia from about 4,000 BC to the First World War, and had the same impact on the Mesoamericans as tanks against infantry.
  • Ocean-going ships – unheard of among the Mesoamericans. Themselves developed over thousands of years and navigable because of…
  • Writing Diamond highlights the way the Incas didn’t know what to expect. Their scouts had said the tiny force of Spaniards (about 160 men) were disorganised and badly armed. Atahualpa expected to overawe them with his army of 80,000. He had no knowledge of travellers from across the sea, no knowledge of horses or armour or guns or steel swords, no knowledge that the Spaniards had come to conquer and plunder. Whereas the Spanish were the heirs of 3,000 years of writing, of records of history, of the rise and fall of empires, countless treatises on the art of war, the maps of the sea and knowledge of winds written by previous sailors which helped them get to Inca territory, and written records of Cortes’s conquest of the Aztecs to model themselves on. The contest was not only one-sided in terms of technology and weapons, but in terms of knowledge.
  • Guns, steel, swords – The Spanish had them to fight against the Aztec and Inca stone-headed clubs and woven armour – with devastating results.
  • Epidemic diseases And lurking behind all these factors, was the Big One, the thing which killed more native peoples than all white men’s guns and swords and cannon put together – the Old World diseases they brought with them and which devastated native peoples completely unprepared for them, what Alfred Crosby named ‘virgin soil epidemics’. Eurasians had lived for millennia among the livestock who are vectors for diseases – chickens, pigs and rats – and been decimated by wave after wave of smallpox, plague and the rest until the survivors had built up sturdy resistance. Non-Eurasians had no defences and no medicines, and so died in hundreds of thousands. In the centuries to come far more native peoples died of the scourge of smallpox than any other cause. And – an important point – the diseases spread faster than the conquerors. All it took was one contact on a beach and a native to return to his tribe which included foraging parties or raiders or traders and Old World diseases could travel like wildfire inland – with the result that the conquerors often encountered cultures and societies which were already fatally weakened by disease before they even arrived. Thus apart from the horses and steel swords, the Spanish had the simple advantage that smallpox had already ravaged the Inca empire, killing the emperor Huayna Capac and his son, and sparking a civil war between the successor Huáscar’s and his half-brother Atahualpa.
  • Domesticated animals and disease One is the spawning ground for the other: ‘The major killers of humanity throughout our recent history – smallpox, flu, tuberculosis, malaria, plague, measles, and cholera – are infectious diseases that evolved from diseases of animals.’ (p.197) I didn’t realise that measles, tuberculosis and smallpox are all derived from illnesses of cattle.

There is a sub-explanation related to Eurasian success in domesticating animals and (unintentionally) creating epidemic diseases from them, namely:

The overkill theory Cro-Magnon man arrived in Australia about 40,000 years ago. At more or less the same time Australia’s megafauna of giant animals (a giant flightless bird, giant lizard, giant kangaroos, a marsupial leopard, etc) went extinct. Coincidence? The overkill theory is that the early human settlers hunted these large animals to extinction; and it can be extended to other regions where the first arrival of humans seems to have coincided with the mass extinction of the largest (tastiest) animals e.g. Siberia, settled roughly 20,000 years ago at about which time the native woolly mammoth and woolly rhino went extinct; or the arrival of humans in North America around 12,000 years ago which coincided with the mass extinction of the large native fauna, elephants, horses, camels, giant ground sloths. The overkill theory is important because it helps explain why the native peoples of these places were at such a disadvantage compared to the Eurasians.

Thus the native peoples of these lands themselves wiped out the native larger animals which a) they might have been able to domesticate b) had they done so, close proximity to them would have given rise to infectious diseases which, over time, would have toughened their immune systems, maybe better preparing them for the arrival of Eurasian diseases, and which might in turn have devastated the Eurasian invaders. But no domesticable large animals – no diseases = defeat.

All this has been laid out in principle in the first 100 pages or so: Diamond then turns to examine each of these factors in greater detail, devoting the lion’s share to the development of agriculture (100 pages) which emerges overwhelmingly as The Main Reason – before moving on to germs (20), writing (24), technology (26) and stratified society (28).

The final section of the book (‘Around the World in Five Chapters’) looks in closer detail at how the West’s advantages impacted – when we invaded them – on Australia and New Guinea, China, Polynesia, the Americas, and Africa.


Guns, Germs and Steel is an incredibly comprehensive, all-encompassing vision of global history which, from both its sheer scope and its novel biological perspective, not only sheds striking new light on all Western history, but achieves Diamond’s aim of placing the histories of all the other peoples of the world on the same footing, as equal inhabitants of the earth.

Countering prejudices

For Diamond is impeccably politically correct, not from ideology but from wide experience. He has worked in the Tropics and made many friends there, especially in his specialist area, New Guinea. He knows for a fact that many of the ‘natives’ are smarter than the white colonials. His entire approach sets out to undermine the possibility of racism by proving that the eventual ‘triumph’ of European societies was nothing to do with innate or genetic superiority: it was entirely driven by these external accidents of geography and biology.

Fascinating facts

The appeal of these kind of popular science blockbusters is the countless peripheral facts and stories and insights they contain. This book is packed with them. Ones which caught my eye include:

  • If we say the line of human evolution parted from the apes about 5 million years ago, then the last 3,000 years since the invention of writing i.e when we have written records of (a very small number) of our activities, represents just 0.01% of human history. We are fond of poring over this record and writing countless analyses of fragments of it – Diamond’s point is that all the really important stuff, all the events which determined the broad pattern of human history, happened well before then.
  • Writing arose in only three centres – the Fertile Crescent, Mexico and China. All other writing derives from one of these sources. (p.236)
  • The notion of the alphabet – individual signs (letters) standing for distinct sounds (phonemes) arose only once in human history, among speakers of Semitic languages in the area from Syria to the Sinai (p.226).
  • Most biomass (living biological matter) on land is in the form of wood and leaves, most of which we cannot digest. (p.88)
  • New Guinea has by far the biggest concentration of languages in the world, with 1,000 of the total 6,000, divided into dozens of language families. Nearly half of them are spoken by groups of 500 or less. (p.306)
  • ‘Australia is by far the driest, smallest, flattest, most infertile, climatically most unpredictable, and biologically most impoverished continent.’ (p.296)

Terrible epidemics

  • The Indian population of Hispaniola when Columbus arrived in 1492 was around 8 million; by 1535, mostly due to European disease, it was 0.
  • Measles reached Fiji via a Fijian chief returning from Australia in 1875 and killed a quarter of the population. Syphilis, gonorrhea, tuberculosis and influenza arrived at Hawaii with Captain Cook in 1779, followed by a typhoid epidemic in 1804 and numerous minor outbreaks, reducing Hawaii’s original population from around half a million to 84,000 in 1853, the year smallpox arrived and killed 10,000 of the survivors. (p.214)
  • Smallpox arrived in Mexico via one infected slave from Cuba in 1520; the resulting epidemic killed almost half of the Aztecs, including the Emperor Cuitláhuac. By 1618 Mexico’s initial population of about 20 million had fallen to 1.6 million.
  • North American Indians are now thought to have numbered about 20 million when Columbus landed. Two centuries later (c.1692) they numbered about 1 million.


Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond was published by Jonathan Cape in 1997. All quotes and references are to the 1998 Vintage paperback edition.

TV series

The book was made into a TV series by Public Service Broadcasting in the USA.

Related links

Other blog posts about Empire

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: