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In the chapter “Hemispheres Colliding,” Jared Diamond argues that Europeans reached and conquered Native American lands due to several factors, such as the domestication of large animals, well-established agricultural practices, advanced civilization, technological developments, and resistance to diseases. Europeans used these advantages over Native Americans to access and conquer parts of the New World and ultimately colonize the natives.
The author argues that differences in food production between Eurasia and Native Americans contributed significantly to the ultimate colonization of the latter by Europeans. Diamond notes that the capacity to produce enough food determined the size of populations and the complexity of societies as the major causal factors of conquest and colonization. Eurasians had domesticated large mammal species, which, apart from being a good source of meat and milk, were indispensable tools of warfare and a reliable mode of land transport.
Additionally, they were a chief source of industrial power for operating water lifts and turning grindstones, which could not be accomplished using human muscle power. On the contrary, Native Americans had the Llamas/alpaca as the only domesticated large mammal species, and they were confined to the Andes and the Peruvian coast. While these animals provided a good source of meat, they did not produce milk, “never bore a rider, never pulled a cart or a plow, and never served as a power source or vehicle of warfare” (Diamond 2). This lack of large domesticated animals meant that Native American societies could not develop genetic defenses against diseases, which proved lethal when European settlement commenced.
Another advantage that Eurasians had over Native Americans was that agriculture was not common in the New World, specifically due to geographic prerequisites and the lack of large domesticated animals and crops themselves. In places where Native Americans practiced agriculture, they had five main disadvantages. First, they depended on protein-poor corn as opposed to Eurasians’ protein-rich cereals.
Additionally, they relied on hand planting instead of broadcasting seeds, which meant that one person could only cultivate a limited size of land. Tilling using hands was also a disadvantage compared to Eurasians’ plowing by animals. The lack of large domesticated animals meant that Native Americans did not have manure to enrich their soils, and thus they got poor produce. According to Diamond, these “differences suggest that Eurasian Agriculture was of 1492 may have yielded on the average more calories and protein per person-hour of labor than Native American agriculture did” (4).
The widespread availability of established agricultural practices and the presence of large domesticated animals gave Europeans advantages over Native Americans. Agriculture allowed Europeans to develop specialized societies, establish a central government, discover writing, and new technological advancements, such as the invention of the wheel, metallurgy, sails, and guns, among others. In other words, Eurasians achieved numerous milestones toward civilization. This aspect led to technological advancement in five areas. First, metals (copper, bronze, and iron) in Eurasia were used to make complex tools, while in the Andes, only copper was available but with limited local use. Second, military technology was advanced and more potent in Eurasia as compared to the Americas.
Third, Eurasians had well-developed sources of power, including large domesticated animals, the invention of the wheel, and engines to harness wind and water power. However, such developments were missing in the Andes, which was a disadvantage to Native Americans.
Fourth, sea transport was more elaborate and sophisticated in Eurasia than in the Americas. Lastly, Eurasians used writing, which advanced their literacy and political organization, but in the Americas, it was a preserve of a small group of elites. As such, Diamond argues that Eurasian societies “in the time of Columbus enjoyed big advantages over Native American societies in food production, germs, technology (including weapons), political organization, and writing” (7).
According to the author, geographical factors played a significant role in enabling Europeans to colonize Native Americans. In the New World, the diffusion of technology was limited due to geographical factors such as oceans, deserts, and mountains. For example, Llamas, which were the only domesticated large animals in the Americas, specifically in Peru, could not reach Mexico. Such a journey would have taken hundreds of miles northwards through dangerous deserts. However, these challenges were not experienced in Eurasia. In other words, if a certain technology was discovered in Eurasia, it would spread quickly to other areas, but in the Americas, this achievement would remain isolated.
Do I Buy It?
Diamond makes convincing arguments, but it is hard to believe what he is saying due to the lack of primary references to support the claims. Some of the arguments, like the lack of large domesticated animals in the Americas and adverse geographical conditions, make sense from a logical point of view. However, from an academic perspective, it is important to back one’s claims with verifiable references for credibility purposes. Therefore, as a student of history, I do not buy what Diamond is saying despite having made some convincing claims. I need proof of claims to ensure credibility and avoid hearsays.
Diamond, Jared. “Hemispheres Colliding.” United States History to 1865: Reader.