Volume 11 Number 3
The Seeds of Civilization
01 June 1998
Thousands of years ago, some of the earth's peoples developed societies which poured forth, displacing other peoples. Bryan Hamlin discovers that their success had more to do with beans than with brains.
I recently had my mind stretched by a book with the daunting title of Guns, Germs and Steel*, which has just won a Pulitzer Prize for its author, Jared Diamond. It tells the story of the rise of early civilizations and asks why some peoples got a headstart over others, enabling them to colonize other territories. The reason for this, says Diamond, was not any innate superiority but the happenstance of geography and ecology.
The development of society or early civilization is predicated on the development of agriculture. Farming boosts population growth, because it provides a better, more reliable diet. It also requires a more sedentary life--leading to villages and then cities--and liberates time which would otherwise be spent searching for food. Time to think about spiritual matters, (religion); time to build sturdier homes and temples, (architecture); time to figure out how to record how many goats you have, or that story grandpa told you, (writing and literature); time to ponder that shiny substance which trickled out of the fireplace last night and is solid this morning, (metallurgy).
The subtitle of the British edition of the book--rejected by his American publisher, says Diamond, as too flip--is A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years. He takes his starting point from the point when humans had fanned out to all the continents. Life at that time revolved around the quest for food--hunting animals and gathering edible plant parts. About 10-11,000 years ago, some people began to domesticate some of these plants and animals. It must have been very hit-and-miss, but neverthless our ancestors started to be farmers.
But why some and not others? Were they more intelligent, more inquisitive? Dr Diamond gives a resounding 'No!' There were, in fact, very few places on the globe where agriculture could have begun self-sufficiently.
Three ingedients had to come together in one place for greatest success--some form of cereal for carbohydrate, a source of vegetable protein in the form of pulses (beans and peas) and a source of meat and/or milk products. For a long time, until farming could be relied upon to sustain a balanced diet, it would have existed side by side with hunting and gathering.
Of some 200,000 species of plants known to us, only a few thousand are eaten by humans, and of these just a few hundred have been domesticated in any way. A mere dozen now account for over 80 per cent of the world's annual tonnage of crops. Five of these, all cereals, are responsible for over half of all calories consumed. Together with pulses--which are high in protein--they form the basis of a balanced diet.
The world's founding civilizations all arose in those rare areas where cereals and pulses existed in the wild together. Wheat, barley, peas, lentils and chickpeas grew together in the Fertile Crescent of West Asia; millet, rice, soybeans and other beans grew in China; corn and three types of beans in Mesoamerica (roughly speaking today's Mexico) for the Mayan civilization; quinoa (a non-cereal grain), lima beans and peanuts in the Andes for the Incas; and sorghum, African rice, cowpeas and groundnuts in West Africa for the Bantu. Other civilizations in India, Egypt, Ethiopia, SE Asia and later in SE Europe had to wait for some missing commodity to be imported before agriculture could be established.
If domestic mammals (for meat, milk, clothing and sometimes traction) could be added to this fortunate combination then a powerful agriculture was born. This only occurred in the Fertile Crescent (8500 BC) with sheep, goats and later cattle; China (8000 BC) with pigs; and the Andes (3500 BC) with llamas and guinea pigs.
Amazingly, out of all sub-Saharan Africa's rich wildlife, not one species of large mammal has proven domesticable. Repeated attempts at taming zebras have failed, not because of the would-be farmers' mistakes but because of the inbuilt nature of the animal. In the Americas, only the llama proved domesticable. In fact, only 14 large animal species have been successfully domesticated--all but one of them thousands of years ago in Eurasia.
Five animals stand out as the most universally used: the horse, which was first domesticated on the northern shores of the Black Sea, and sheep, goats, pigs and cattle, all domesticated in SW Asia. While wild cattle and pigs were also domesticated elsewhere, all the domestic sheep and goats in the world today derive from wild ancestors in SW Asia. So do all the wheat and peas.
Once the peoples of the Fertile Crescent had domesticated local wild cattle (about 6,000 BC) and had imported horses from the north; and once China imported wheat and horses from the West, these peoples were able to give rise to unstoppable empires. When you can put a lot of healthy men carrying spears on the backs of horses, look out neighbours!
The Fertile Crescent, lying at the eastern end of the Mediterranean and at the junction point of three continents, soon handed on its domesticated plants and animals and its inventions to neighbouring regions. Its climate changed and became drier, while wetter Europe was warm enough to support the same animals and plants. And so came the Greek and Roman empires and all that has followed in, and from, Europe since. (The book does not get into the role of religion as a motivator, for good or ill, in the development of civilizations. To be fair, this is a book on biology, concerned with what gave certain peoples a headstart before the rise of today's major religions.)
China also provided fertile ground for the development of agriculture. But it was relatively more isolated than the Fertile Crescent. So the Chinese did not so much export their civilization as themselves--south into South-East Asia and then from Taiwan (about 5,000 BC) down through the Philippines, Borneo, Indonesia and eastwards to occupy most of the Pacific islands. In the process they displaced and virtually eliminated the indigenous black people of the region with the notable exceptions of New Guinea and Australia.
Similarly, the Bantu people of West Africa began, as early as 5,000 years ago, to fan out south and east, largely displacing the Pigmy and Khoisan peoples in subequatorial Africa.
When the Asians and Europeans began to domesticate and live at close quarters with large mammals, they caught their diseases--smallpox, tuberculosis and measles from cattle, for example. When Europeans started to colonize other parts of the world the germs they carried were more deadly than their swords. In the first hundred years of Spanish presence, the Aztec population in Mexico plummeted from approximately 20 million to about 1.6 million. The main killer was smallpox.
Diamond reports that the latest estimates are that the population of the Americas may have declined by as much as 95 per cent between 1500-1700 AD. There are similar horror stories for other parts of the world. There is hardly a place on the planet where the first human occupants still live in isolation; and in many cases those original people are in the minority.
We cannot pass moral judgement on the peoples from China and West Africa who migrated at the expense of other peoples 2-5,000 years ago--though it is sad to realize that these and other ancient movements often wiped out whole tribes and societies. What is more disturbing for me as a European is the destruction visited on other peoples by European colonization, particularly of the Americas and Australia. That this happened in much more recent times--and after acquiring what should have been a pacifying religion--is, to put it mildly, sobering.