Turning Points in the Development of Contemporary Society
Guns, Germs, and Steel:
The Fates of Human Societies
W. W. Norton & Co, 1997
As a result of geography and a long prehistory Africa was the most diverse continent, and very different people may have occupied much of modern black Africa until a few thousand years ago. Up to the time of European colonization, Africa had five of the world’s six major divisions of mankind (three of the six exclusively in Africa). The five groups found in prehistoric Africa were (loosely) blacks, whites, African pygmies, Khoisans, and Asians. Blacks, in the south, and whites, in the north, were mostly farmers or herders or both, separated by the Sahara Desert. African pygmies were hunter-gathers scattered through the central rainforest. The Khoisan were hunter-gathers and herders and were distributed over much of the south. The question here is how did black Africans come to dominate the area south of the Sahara? The languages of Africa fall into 5 linguistic families. Afro-Asiatic (North African, including the Semitic languages), Niger-Congo (including Bantu), Nilo-Saharan, Khoisan and Austronesian. Of the five groups of people, only the Pygmies now lack a distinct language, but there are indications that they had distinct languages in the past. Nilo-Saharan distribution is fragmented. Khoisan is currently confined to South Africa except for two groups, which are in Tanzania, 1000 miles from South Africa. Tracing the Niger-Congo languages shows that the black speakers of the Bantu subgroup began expanding from West Africa as early as 3000 BC. They spread through most of sub-equatorial Africa and replaced, surrounded, and pushed south the other groups.
What advantages did the Bantu have which allowed them to move into the rest of tropical and subtropical Africa and displace the people there? Mediterranean crops, even if they could cross the Sahara, were ill suited to the climate of the area, with its summer rains and little seasonal light variations. A set of African crops domesticated in this region that came from the Sahel, the highlands of Ethiopia and West Africa. In addition, other crops came from Asia, possibly via the Austronesians on Madagascar. All of these crops originated north of the Equator, as did the Bantu people. Again we see other peoples (in this case Khoisans and Pygmies) failed to develop agriculture due to the lack of suitable candidates and later to being confined to unsuitable areas by invaders. The only domesticated animal was the guinea fowl. There were no large native mammals in sub-Saharan Africa suitable for domestication.
The Bantu smelted metals using different techniques than the Eurasians, indicating independent discovery. They were making steel 2,000 years before Europe and the Americas. Iron tools and agriculture created an unstoppable military-industrial package for the Bantu. Their colonization only stopped when they reached the drier South African areas that were unsuitable for their crops. When Europeans arrived in South Africa, they easily displaced the remaining Khoisan in the Mediterranean areas, but it took nine wars and one hundred and seventy-five years for the Boers to subdue the dense populations of farming Bantu, even with superior technology, literacy, and political organization.
Epilogue: Unresolved Questions
Why did Europe take the lead in technology and become politically and economically dominant rather than the Fertile Crescent, China, or India?
This is curious since Europe began as the most backward of these areas. Part of the answer has, however, been documented. The societies of the Fertile Crescent and the Eastern Mediterranean arose in a fragile environment and climate change and over-farming eventually led to desertification of the area, and power shifted gradually westward. Northern and Western Europe had a more robust environment with more rainfall.
Once China was unified in 221 BC, no other independent state ever had a chance of arising or persisting for long. So the connectedness and unity of China gave it an initial advantage, but later that unity became a disadvantage because of the lack of competition. This allowed just one despot to stop innovations and/or destroy an industry, and many did so. Even today when information travels rapidly and an invention in one place can create a thriving industry elsewhere, the old rules still seem to apply. Places that had the early advantage in food production or areas settled by those people still have the advantage of a long history of literacy, metal machinery, and centralized government and are equipped to adapt and adopt new technology.
How do cultural idiosyncrasies affect societies?
Did linguistic or cultural factors prevent the Andean culture from developing writing? Was there anything in India’s environment predisposing for the development of the rigid socioeconomic castes that had serious consequences for the development of technology? Was there anything in the Chinese environment that predisposed the dominance of the culturally conservative Confucian philosophy? Or did anything in Europe and West Asia predispose toward proselytizing religions (Christianity and Islam) and the dynamic of conquest? What is the effect of individual people on social development. Are such individuals just “riding the coattails” of their times or do they really change events?
Eurasian culture was able to conquer and to dominate the rest of the world because its geographical and ecological advantages meant more and better food. This led to the development of dense populations earlier than in other locations. Dense populations were necessary to produce complex levels of technology and political organization. Over millennia, the Eurasians developed lethal communicable diseases as well as partial immunity to these diseases. When Eurasians went to other parts of the world, they brought all these advantages with them. When small pox, measles, typhus, etc., were introduced to people without immunity, populations were decimated and social structures weakened, often many years before these people had any actual face to face interactions with the Eurasians. When those interactions did take place, the superiority of technology and organization used by the Eurasians finished the job of conquest.