Animals and Plants, or Geography, Trade, and Politics?

Guns, Germs, and Steel proposes that the people inhabiting the diverse regions of the world were limited in their development by the kinds of animal and plant species available for them to domesticate.  The primary example given is that the people of New Guinea were unable to advance beyond a tribal society because they lacked large animals to provide the labor needed for more intensive agriculture.  Moreover these people lacked plant foods that could be stored for long periods of time, hindering the development of more sophisticated division of labor.

While it is true that people are limited by the resources at their disposal, and these resources include the animal and plant species available for molding, this explanation is unsatisfying and doesn’t take into account the depth of human ingenuity.  Diamond’s theory also fails to explain some of the sophisticated civilizations that developed in South America without laboring animals equivalent to the horse or ox.  The Mesoamericans and Inca managed empires with advanced agriculture, albeit with a more ideal crop than the New Guinean’s sago, corn.  While the Inca had the Llama and Alpaca as beasts of burden, neither is fit for pulling a plow or powering a mill, and the Mesoamerican civilizations lacked even this domesticate.  These empires instead relied on human power.

These South American empires were still less developed than the Europeans, Chinese, and some African Empires though.  Was it because they lacked the sources of animal power to develop the higher technology of the East?  While it may have contributed, there are a number of other possible factors.  .  The politics of the Old World vs the New World are in stark contrast. In the Old World there were many competing nation-states trading, warring, and exchanging ideas.  This communication, be it by the coin or the sword, doesn’t seem to have produced the same effect in the Americas.  While trade routes across America have been discovered, it was more an exchange of goods, and less of ideas.  Possibly, the speed of trade was slower in the Americas, and this made the exchange of ideas sluggish.  Europe has an abundance of waterways for not only easy trade, but water power as well.  These waterways, combined with the Mediterranean create the geographical basis for a cultural and ideological powerhouse.

The lagging behind in development compared to Europe cannot be solely caused by a lack of laboring animals and easily stored foodstuffs, but it was likely a contributing factor.  Larger culprits for this inequality may have been a lesser degree of competition and trade of ideas between civilizations and geographic obstacles to fast trade and alternative energy sources.