Episode One : Out of
Episide One | Transcript
Diamond’s journey of discovery began on the island of Papua New
Guinea. There, in 1974, a local named Yali asked Diamond a
deceptively simple question:
rainforest in Papua New Guinea
“Why is it
that you white people developed so much cargo, but we black people
had little cargo of our own?”
Diamond realized that
Yali’s question penetrated the heart of a great mystery of human
history -- the roots of global inequality.
Europeans the ones with all the cargo? Why had they taken over so
much of the world, instead of the native people of New Guinea? How
did Europeans end up with what Diamond terms the agents of conquest:
guns, germs and steel? It was these agents of conquest that allowed
168 Spanish conquistadors to defeat an Imperial Inca army of 80,000
in 1532, and set a pattern of European conquest which would continue
right up to the present day.
Diamond knew that the answer had
little to do with ingenuity or individual skill. From his own
experience in the jungles of New Guinea, he had observed that native
hunter-gatherers were just as intelligent as people of European
descent -- and far more resourceful. Their lives were tough, and it
seemed a terrible paradox of history that these extraordinary people
should be the conquered, and not the conquerors.
the reasons for European success, Jared realized he had to peel back
the layers of history and begin his search at a time of equality – a
time when all the peoples of the world lived in exactly the same
Time of Equality
the end of the last Ice Age, around thirteen thousand years ago,
people on all continents followed a so-called Stone Age way of life
– they survived by hunting and gathering the available wild animals
and plants. When resources were plentiful, this was a productive way
But in times of scarcity, hunting and gathering was
a precarious mode of survival. Populations remained relatively
small, and the simple task of finding food occupied every waking
Around eleven and a half thousand years ago, the
world's climate suddenly changed. In an aftershock of the Ice Age,
temperatures plummeted and global rainfall reduced. The impact of
this catastrophe was felt most keenly in an area known as the
Fertile Crescent, in the modern Middle East. Here, hunter-gathers
had thrived on some of the most useful and plentiful flora and fauna
in the world. They had even developed semi-permanent settlements to
exploit the resources around them.
Now, with their food
options disappearing from the menu on a daily basis, these people
did something remarkable. They began to cultivate the hardiest
species of surviving plants and animals, even bringing seeds back to
their villages and planting new stock.
They were becoming
Diamond learns that
the act of transplanting a wild plant and placing it under human
control totally transforms that plant's DNA. Characteristics which
aid survival in the wild, disappear in favor of qualities which suit
human consumption. The plant becomes domesticated – and wholly
dependent on human control for survival.
early farming in the Fertile Crescent
Only a handful of
places in the world played host to this agricultural revolution. In
most cases, plant domestication was a precursor to the development
of advanced civilizations. Along with the Fertile Crescent in the
Middle East, independent domestication of wild plants is believed to
have occurred in Ancient China, in Central and Southern America, in
sub-Tropical Africa, and in the highlands of Papua New Guinea.
So, Diamond asks, why did each of these parts of the world
go on to develop advanced civilizations, while the farmers of New
Guinea were apparently left behind?
luck of the draw
Diamond discovers that the answer
lies in a geographical luck of the draw – what mattered were the raw
Of all the plant species in the world,
only a limited number are possible, or useful, to domesticate. To
Diamond's astonishment, most of these species are native to Europe
and Asia – species like wheat, barley and rice, which grew wild in
abundance in only these parts of the world.
Two more species
are native to Tropical Africa (sorghum and yams) while only one is
native to the Americas (corn), and to Papua New Guinea (taro). Not a
single domesticable plant grows wild in Australia.
And that's not all.
Diamond discovers a similar dramatic inequality in the distribution
of domesticable animals.
||12 of the 14
domesticable animals in the world reside in Eurasia
Animals dramatically increase the
productivity of farming, through their meat, milk, leather, dung,
and as beasts of burden. Without them, farmers are trapped in a
cycle of subsistence and manual labor.
Of all the animal
species in the world, only 14 have ever been domesticated. 12 of
these are native to Eurasia. One, the llama, is native to South
America – and the farmers of New Guinea managed to domesticate the
pig. But pigs can't pull plows, and until the arrival of Europeans
in the 20th century, all New Guinean farming was still done by hand.
From tools to
Diamond realized that the development of
successful and productive farming, starting nearly 12,000 years ago
in the Fertile Crescent, was the critical turning point in the
origins of global inequality. From this point on, one group of
people – the natives of Eurasia – would have a head start on the
path to civilization.
Successful farming provides a food
surplus, and allows some people to leave the farm behind and develop
specialized skills – such as metal-working, writing, trade,
politics, and war-making. Plus, the simple geography of the
continent of Eurasia – one coherent landmass spread on an east-west
axis, with universal latitudes and climates – allowed these
technologies and ideas to spread beyond the Middle East with ease.
Without the environment, or the time, to develop similar
skills, the farmers of New Guinea became trapped in their highland
Diamond concludes that from the end of the Ice
Age, geography ensured that different societies around the world
would develop at different speeds. If Yali's people had had all the
geographic advantages of Europeans, perhaps they could have
conquered the world.
Diamond believes the blueprint
for global inequality lies within the land itself, its crops and
animals. But can this way of seeing the world really shed light on
the great turning points of human history?
Diamond explain how a few hundred Europeans were able to conquer the
New World, and begin an age of domination: the age of guns, germs
Where to next?
Read the full
transcript of Episode One.
more about Episode Two.